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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of John Tyndall, Experimental Physicist

File source: //commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Tyndall_(scientist).jpgJohn Tyndall, Irish experimental physicist who, during his long residence in England, is an avid promoter of science in the Victorian era, is born on August 2, 1820 in Leighlinbridge, County Carlow.

Tyndall is born into a poor Protestant Irish family. After a thorough basic education he works as a surveyor in Ireland and England from 1839 to 1847. When his ambitions turns from engineering to science, he spends his savings on gaining a Ph.D. from the University of Marburg in Marburg, Hesse, Germany (1848–1850), but then struggles to find employment.

In 1853 Tyndall is appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution, London. There he becomes a friend of the much-admired physicist and chemist Michael Faraday, entertains and instructs fashionable audiences with brilliant lecture demonstrations rivaling the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley in his popular reputation and pursuing his research.

An outstanding experimenter, particularly in atmospheric physics, Tyndall examines the transmission of both radiant heat and light through various gases and vapours. He discovers that water vapor and carbon dioxide absorb much more radiant heat than the gases of the atmosphere and argues the consequent importance of those gases in moderating Earth’s climate, that is, in the natural greenhouse effect. He also studies the diffusion of light by large molecules and dust, known as the Tyndall effect, and he performs experiments demonstrating that the sky’s blue color results from the scattering of the Sun’s rays by molecules in the atmosphere.

Tyndall is passionate and sensitive, quick to feel personal slights and to defend underdogs. Physically tough, he is a daring mountaineer. His greatest fame comes from his activities as an advocate and interpreter of science. In collaboration with his scientific friends in the small, private X Club, he urges greater recognition of both the intellectual authority and practical benefits of science.

Tyndall is accused of materialism and atheism after his presidential address at the 1874 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, when he claims that cosmological theory belongs to science rather than theology and that matter has the power within itself to produce life. In the ensuing notoriety over this “Belfast Address,” his allusions to the limitations of science and to mysteries beyond human understanding are overlooked. He engages in a number of other controversies such as spontaneous generation, the efficacy of prayer and Home Rule for Ireland.

In his last years Tyndall often takes chloral hydrate to treat his insomnia. When bedridden and ailing, he dies from an accidental overdose of this drug on December 4, 1893 at the age of 73 and was buried at Haslemere, Surrey, England.

Tyndall is commemorated by a memorial, the Tyndalldenkmal, erected at an elevation of 7,680 ft. on the mountain slopes above the village of Belalp, where he had his holiday home, and in sight of the Aletsch Glacier, which he had studied.


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Birth of John Kyan, Inventor in Wood Preservation

kyans-patentJohn Howard Kyan, inventor of the ‘kyanising’ process for preserving wood, is born on November 27, 1774 in Dublin. His father, also John Howard Kyan, is the owner of valuable copper mines in County Wicklow. He is educated to take part in the management of the mines, but soon after he enters the company its fortunes decline, and in 1804 his father dies almost penniless.

For a time Kyan is employed at some vinegar works at Newcastle upon Tyne, but subsequently removes to London. The decay of the timber supports in his father’s copper mines had already directed his attention to the question of preserving wood, and as early as 1812 he begins experiments with a view to discovering a method of preventing the decay. Eventually he finds that bichloride of mercury or corrosive sublimate, as it is commonly called, gives the best results and, without revealing the nature of the process, he submits a block of oak impregnated with the substance to the Admiralty in 1828. It is placed in the ‘fungus pit’ at Woolwich, where it remains for three years exposed to all the conditions favourable to decay. When taken out in 1831, it is found to be perfectly sound, and after further trials it still remains unaffected.

Kyan patents his discovery in 1832 (Nos. 8263 and 6309), extending the application of the invention to the preservation of paper, canvas, cloth, cordage, etc. A further patent is granted in 1836 (No. 7001).

The process attracts great attention. Michael Faraday chooses it as the subject of his inaugural lecture at the Royal Institution on February 22, 1833, on his appointment as Fullerian professor of chemistry. Dr. George Birkbeck gives a lecture upon it at the Royal Society of Arts on December 9, 1834, and in 1835 the Admiralty publishes the report of a committee appointed by the board to inquire into the value of the new method.

In 1836, Kyan sells his rights to the Anti-Dry Rot Company, an Act of Parliament being passed which authorises the raising of a capital of £250,000. Tanks are constructed at Grosvenor Basin, Pimlico, at the Grand Surrey Canal Dock, Rotherhide, and at the City Road Basin.

Among the early applications of the process is the kyanising of the palings around the Inner Circle, Regent’s Park, which is carried out in 1835 as an advertisement with small brass plates being attached to the palings at intervals stating that the wood has been submitted to the new process. The plates soon disappear, but the original palings still remain in good condition.

The timber used in building the Oxford and Cambridge Club, British Museum, Royal College of Surgeons, Westminster Bridewell, the new roof of the Temple Church, and the Ramsgate harbour works is also prepared by Kyan’s process. When wooden railway ties become general, a very profitable business for Kyan’s company is anticipated, and for a time these hopes are realised.

It becomes evident that iron fastenings cannot be used in wood treated with corrosive sublimate, on account of the corrosive action, and it is said that the wood becomes brittle. The salt is somewhat expensive and Sir William Burnett‘s method of preserving timber by zinc chloride, and afterwards the application of creosote for that purpose, proves severe competitors. Doubts begin to be expressed as to the real efficiency of kyanising, and the process gradually ceases to be employed.

John Kyan dies on January 5, 1850 in New York City, where he is engaged on a plan for filtering the water supplied to that city by the Croton Aqueduct.