John Tyndall.

Fragments of science; a series of detached essays, addresses, and reviews (Volume 3) online

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wards becoming a civil engineer. Draughtsmen were
the best paid, and I became a draughtsman. But I
habitually made incursions into the domains of the cal-
culator and computer, and thus learned all their art.
In due time the desire to make myself master of field
operations caused me to apply for permission to go to
the field. The permission was granted by my excellent
friend General George Wynne, 1 who then, as Lieutenant
Wynne, observed and did all he could to promote my
desire for improvement. Before returning to the office
I had mastered all the mysteries of ordinary field work.
But there remained a special kind of field work which
had not been mastered the taking of trigonometrical
observations. By good fortune some work of this kind
was required at a time when all the duly-recognised
observers were absent. Under the tutelage of a clever
master, named Conwill, I had acquired, before quitting

1 Died at Cologne on June 27, 1890 ; and was buried there with
military honours on June 30.


school, a sound knowledge of elementary geometry and
trigonometry. Kelying on this to carry me through, I
volunteered to make the required observations. After
some hesitation, and a little chaff, a theodolite was con-
fided to me.

The instrument, you know, embraces an accurately-
graduated horizontal circle for the measurement of
horizontal angles, and a similarly graduated vertical
circle for the taking of vertical angles. It is moreover
furnished with a formidable array of clamp-screws,
tangent-screws and verniers, sufficient to tax a novice
to unravel them. My first care before applying the
instrument was to understand its construction. This
accomplished, I took the field with two assistants,
who had to measure uphill and downhill along the
sides of large triangles into which the whole country
had been previously divided. At the same time
angles of elevation had to be taken uphill and angles
of depression downhill, and from these the true hori-
zontal distance had to be calculated. The heights
above the sea-level of the corners of the large triangles
had been previously fixed with the utmost accuracy by
a very powerful theodolite, and the measurements with
my smaller instrument had to come pretty close to the
accurate determination to save my work from rejection.
Happily I succeeded, though there had been bets against
me. The pay upon the Ordnance Survey was very
small, but having ulterior objects in view, I considered
the instruction received as some set-off to the smallness
of the pay. It may prevent some of you young Birk-
beckians from considering your fate specially hard, or
from being daunted because from a very low level you
have to climb a very steep hill, when I tell you that
on quitting the Ordnance Survey in 1843, my salary
was a little under twenty shillings a week. I have


often wondered since at the amount of genuine happi-
ness which a young fellow of regular habits, not caring
for either pipe or mug, may extract even from pay like

Then came a pause, and after it the mad time of
the railway mania, when I was able to turn to some
account the knowledge gained upon the Ordnance
Survey. In Staffordshire, Cheshire, Lancashire, Dur-
ham, and Yorkshire, more especially the last, I was in
the thick <ff the fray. It was a time of terrible toil.
The day's work in the field usually began and ended
with the day's light, while frequently in the office, and
more especially as the awful 30th of November drew
near, there was little difference between day and night,
every hour of the twenty-four -being absorbed in the
work of preparation. The 30th of November was the
latest date at which plans and sections of projected
lines could be deposited at the Board of Trade, failure
in this particular often involving the loss of thousands
of pounds. One of my last pieces of field work in
those days was the taking of a line of levels from the
town of Keighley to the village of Haworth in York-
shire. On a certain day, under grave penalties, these
levels had to be finished, and this particular day was
one of agony to me. The atmosphere seemed filled
with mocking demons, laughing at the vanity of my
efforts to get the work done. My levelling-staves were
snapped and my theodolite was overthrown by the
storm. When things are at their worst a kind of
anger often takes the place of fear. It was so in the
present instance; I pushed doggedly on, and just at
nightfall, when barely able to read the figures on my
levelling-staff, I planted my last 'bench-mark* on a
nnbstone in Haworth Churchyard. Close at hand
the vicarage of Mr. Bronte, where the genius was


nursed which soon afterwards burst forth and astonished
the world.

Among the legal giants of those days Austin and
Talbot stood supreme. There was something grand as
well as merciless in the power wielded by those men in
entangling and ruining a hostile witness ; and yet it
often seemed to me that a clear-headed fellow, who had
the coolness, honesty, and courage not to go beyond
his knowledge, might have foiled both of them. Then
we had the giants of the civil engineers Stephenson,
Brunei, Locke, Hawkshaw, and others. Judged by his
power of fence, his promptness in calculation, and his
general readiness of retort, George Bidder as a wit-
ness-was unrivalled. I have seen him take the breath
out of Talbot himself before a committee of the House
of Lords. Strong men were broken down by the strain
and labour of that arduous time. Many pushed through,
and are still amongst us in robust vigour. But some
collapsed, while others retired, with large fortunes it is
true, but with intellects so shattered that, instead of
taking their places in the front rank of English states-
men, as their abilities entitled them to do, they sought
rest for their brains in the quiet lives of country gentle-
men. In my own modest sphere, I well remember the
refreshment occasionally derived from five minutes'
sleep on a deal table, with Babbage and Callet's Loga-
rithms under my head for a pillow.

It was a time of mad unrest of downright mono-
mania. In private residences and public halls, in
London reception-rooms, in hotels and in the stables of
hotels, among gipsies and costermongers, nothing was
spoken of but the state of the share market, the pro-
spects of projected lines, the good fortune of the ostler
or pot-boy who, by a lucky stroke of business, had
cleared ten thousand pounds. High and low, rich and


poor, joined in the reckless game. During my profes-
sional connection with railways I endured three weeks'
misery. It was not defeated ambition ; it was not a
rejected love-suit ; it was not the hardship endured in
either office or field, but it was the possession of certain
shares which I had purchased in one of the lines then
afloat. The share list of the day proved the winding-
sheet of my peace of mind. I was haunted by the
Stock Exchange. Then, as now, I loved the blue span
of heaven ; but when I found myself regarding it
morning after morning, not with the fresh joy which,
in my days of innocence, it had brought me, but solely
with reference to its possible effect, through the harvest,
upon the share market, I became at length so savage
with myself, that nothing remained but to go down to
my brokers and put away the shares as an accursed
thing. Thus began and thus ended, without either
gain or loss, my railway gambling.

During this arduous period of my life my old ten-
dencies, chief among which was the desire to grow
intellectually, did not forsake me ; and, when railway
work slackened, I accepted in 1847 a post as master
in Queenwood College, Hampshire an establishment
which is still conducted with success by a worthy
Principal. There I had the pleasure of meeting Dr.
Frankland, who had charge of the chemical laboratory.
Queenwood College had been the Harmony Hall of the
Socialists, which, under the auspices of the philan-
thropist, Robert Owen, was built to inaugurate the
Millennium. The letters ' C of M,' Commencement of
Millennium, were actually inserted in flint in the
brickwork of the house. Schemes like Harmony Hall
look admirable upon paper ; but inasmuch as they are
formed with reference to an ideal humanity, they go to
pieces when brought into collision with the real one.


At Queenwood I learned, by practical experience, that
two factors go to the formation of a teacher. In
regard to knowledge he must, of course, be master of
his work, But knowledge is not all. There may be
knowledge without power the ability to inform with-
out the ability to stimulate. Both go together in the
true teacher. A power of character must underlie and
enforce the work of the intellect. There are men who
can so rouse and energise their pupils so call forth
their strength and the pleasure of its exercise as to
make the hardest work agreeable. Without this power
it is questionable whether the teacher can ever really
enjoy his vocation with it I do not know a higher,
nobler, more blessed calling, than that of the man who,
scorning the ( cramming ' so prevalent in our day, con-
verts the knowledge he imparts into a lever, to lift,
exercise, and strengthen the growing minds committed
to his care.

At the time here referred to I had emerged from
some years of hard labour the fortunate possessor of
two or three hundred pounds. By selling my services
in the dearest market during the railway madness the
sum might, without dishonour, have been made a large
one; but I respected ties which existed prior to the
time when offers became lavish and temptation strong.
I did not put my money in a napkin, but cherished the
design of spending it in study at a German university.
I had heard of German science, while Carlyle's references
to German philosophy and literature caused me to re-
gard them as a kind of revelation from the gods.
Accordingly, in the autumn of 1848, Frankland and I
started for the land of universities, as Germany is often
called. They are sown broadcast over the country, and
can justly claim to be the source of an important portion
of Germany's present greatness. A portion, but not alL


The thews and sinews of German men were not given
by German universities. The steady fortitude and
valiant laboriousness which have fought against, and
triumphed over, the gravest natural disadvantages are
not the result of university culture. But the strength
and endurance which belong to the German, as a gift
of race, needed enlightenment to direct it; and this
was given by the universities. Into these establish-
ments was poured that sturdy power which in other
fields had made the wastes of Nature fruitful, and the
strong and earnest character had thus superposed upon
it the informed and disciplined mind. It is the coales-
cence of these two factors that has made Germany
great ; it is the combination of these elements which
must prevent England from becoming small. We may
bless God for our able journalists, our orderly Parlia-
ment, and our free press; but we should bless Him
still more for * the hardy English root ' from which these
good things have sprung. We need muscle as well as
brains, character and resolution as well as expertness of
intellect. Lacking the former, though possessing the
latter, we have the bright foam of the wave without its
rock-shaking momentum.

Our place of study was the town of Marburg in
Hesse Cassel, and a very picturesque town Marburg is.
It clambers pleasantly up the hillsides, and falls as
pleasantly towards the Lahn. On a May day, when
the orchards are in blossom, and the chestnuts clothed
with their heavy foliage, Marburg is truly lovely. It
has, moreover, a history. It was here that Saint Eliza-
beth shed her holy influence and dispensed her mercies.
The noble double-spired church which bears her name,
and contains her dust, stands here to commemorate her.
On a high hilltop which dominates the town rises the
old castle where, in the Kittersaal, Luther and


Zwingli held their famous conference on Consubstantia-
tion and Transubstantiation. Here for a time lived
William Tyndale, translator of the Bible into English,
who was afterwards strangled and burnt in Vilvorden.
Here Wolff expounded his philosophy, and here Denis
Papin invented his digester, and is said to have in-
vented a working steam-engine. The principal figure in
the university at the time of our visit was Bunsen, who
had made his name illustrious by chemical researches
of unparalleled difficulty and importance, and by his
successful application of chemical and physical principles
to explain the volcanic phenomena of Iceland. It was
he who first laid bare the secret of the geysers of
Iceland and gave the true theory of their action. A
very worthy old professor named Gerling kept the
Observatory and lectured on physics. Professor Steg-
mann, an excellent teacher, lectured on mathematics,
Ludwig and Fick were at the Anatomical Institute,
Waitz lectured on philosophy and anthropology, Hessel
expounded crystallography, while my accomplished
friend Knoblauch arrived subsequently from Berlin.
The university at the time numbered about three
hundred students, and it suited my mood and means
far better than one of the larger universities.

In the excellent biography of Dr. Birkbeck recently
published by Dr. Godard, which to the writer of it was
evidently a labour of love, the name of Birkbeck is re-
ferred to the little river of that name which rises in
the 'Birkbeck fells' in Westmoreland. 'Beck' is
stream in the North, and ' Birk ' is birch, so that
' Birkbeck ' means Birchstream. Turned into German
there would be very little change. For here also Birch
is Birfc, while Beck is Bach. In Marburg I lived on
the Ketzerbach, a street through the middle of which
ran an open brook fringed with acacias. Before the


Reformation had gathered sufficient strength to put a
stop to such things, a number of honest people, differ-
ing in belief from a number of equally honest people
who possessed the will and power to murder them, were
here burnt to death, their calcined bones being thrown
into the brook. Hence the name Ketzerbach Here-
tics' Brook which survives to this hour. My lodging
was a very homely one two rooms at the top of the
house, one a study, the other a bedroom. I was imme-
diately visited by a personage who offered his services
as master of the robes. Bearing as he did a good
character, he was at once engaged. This Stiefelwichser,
or boot-cleaner, whose name was Steinmetz, carried
with him besides his brushes a little cane about two
feet long, and his vocation was to enter the rooms of
the student early in the morning, gather up his clothes
and boots, retire to the landing, whence after a few
minutes' vigorous beating and brushing, he returned
with everything clean, neat, and presentable for the

My study was warmed by a large stove. At first I
missed the gleam and sparkle from flame and ember,
but soon became accustomed to the obscure heat. At
six in the morning a small milchbrod and a cup of tea
were brought to me. The dinner-hour was one, and for
the first year or so I dined at a hotel. In those days
living was cheap in Marburg. There was no railway to
transport local produce to a distance, and this rendered
it cheap at home. Our dinner consisted of several
courses, roast and boiled, and finished up with sweets
and dessert. The cost was a pound a month, or about
eightpence per dinner. You must not suppose that I
partook of all the courses. I usually limited myself
one of them, using even it in moderation, being
iready convinced that eating too much was quite aa


sinful, and almost as ruinous, as drinking too much.
Watch and ward were therefore kept over the eating.
By attending to such things I was able to work, with-
out weariness, for sixteen hours a day.

Wit my Stiefelwichser I was soon at war. It was
not a 'declared war.' It was not a 'war of reprisals.'
It was not even a struggle for supremacy, but a modest
contest on my part for mere equality. Preferring
working in the early morning to working late at
night, I thought five o'clock a fair hour at which to
begin the day. But my Stiefelwichser chose to come
at four. For a time I allowed him so to come, without
changing my hour ; but shame soon began to take
possession of me. I considered his case, and compared
his aims and inducements with my own. For the services
he rendered me I allowed him the usual pay a few
thalers for the Semester, or term. The thaler was
three shillings. I asked myself what my aims and as-
pirations were worth if they were unable to furnish a
motive power equal to that which this poor fellow ex-
tracted from his scanty wage. I tried to take refuge
in a text of Scripture, and said to myself soothingly,
* The children of this world are always in their gene-
ration wiser than the children of light.' It was very
comforting for the moment to think of poor Steinmetz
as a child of this world, and of his employer as a child
of light. But in those days there existed under the
same skin two John Tyndalls, one of whom called the
other a humbug, accompanying this descriptive noun
by a moral kick which, in the matter of getting up,
effectually converted into a child of this world the
child of light. For a long time I was always in a con-
dition to look Steinmetz in the face, and return his
' Guten Morgen ' when he arrived. We afterwards re-
laxed, and made our hour of meeting five ; and for the


last year or so, having climbed my roughest eminences,
and not feeling a continuance of the strain to be
necessary, I was content if found well submerged in my
tub before the clock of St. Elizabeth had finished ring-
ing out six in the morning.

Early risers are sometimes described as insufferable
people They are, it is said, self-righteous filled with
the pharisaical ' Lord, I thank thee that I am not as
other men are ! ' It may be so, but we have now to
deal not with generalisations but with facts. My
going to Germany had been opposed by some of my
friends as quixotic, and my life there might perhaps
be not unfairly thus described. I did not work
for money ; I was not even spurred by ' the last
infirmity of noble minds.' I had been reading Fichte,
and Emerson, and Carlyle, and had been infected by
the spirit of these great men. Let no one persuade
you that they were not great men. The Alpha and
Omega of their teaching was loyalty to duty. Higher
knowledge and greater strength were within reach of
the man who unflinchingly enacted his best insight.
It was a noble . doctrine, though it may sometimes have
inspired exhausting disciplines and unrealisable hopes.
At all events it held me to my work, and in the long
cold mornings of the German winter, defended by a
Schlafrock lined with catskin, I usually felt a fresh-
ness and strength a joy in mere living and working,
derived from perfect health which was something
different from the malady of self-righteousness.

At Marburg I attended the lectures of many of the
eminent men above mentioned, concentrating my chief
attention, however, on mathematics, physics, and
chemistry. I should like to have an opportunity of
subjecting these lectures, especially those of Bunsen, to
riper judgment than mine was at that time. I


learnt German by listening to Bunsen, and as my
knowledge of the language increased the lectures grew
more and more fascinating. But my interest was alive
from the first, for Bunsen was a master of the language
of experiment, thus reaching the mind through the
eye as well as through the ear. The lectures were
full of matter. Notes of them are still in my possession
which prove to me how full they were, and how com-
pletely they were kept abreast of the most advanced
knowledge of the day. This is a use and a sense of the
word ' advanced ' which may be safely commended to
your sympathetic attention. In many directions it is
easy enough to become advanced, but not in this one.
Bunsen was a man of fine presence, tall, handsome,
courteous, and without a trace of affectation or pedantry.
He merged himself in his subject : his exposition was
lucid, and his language pure ; he spoke with the clear
Hanoverian accent which is so pleasant to English ears ;
he was every inch a gentleman. After some experience
of my own, I still look back on Bunsen as the nearest
approach to my ideal of a university teacher. He
sometimes seemed absent-minded, and, as he gazed
through the window at the massive Elizabethen Kirche,
appeared to be thinking of it rather than of his lecture.
But there was no interruption, no halting or stammer-
ing to indicate that he had been for a single moment
forgetful. He lectured every day in winter, and twice
a day in summer, beginning his course on organic
chemistry at seven in the morning. After the lectures,
laboratory work continued till noon. During this time
no smoking was allowed in the laboratory, but at noon
liberty as regards the pipe began, and was continued
through the day. Bunsen himself was an industrious
smoker. Cigars of a special kind were then sold in
Marburg, called ' Bunsen 'sche Cigarren ' ; they were


very cheap and very bad, but they were liked by my
illustrious friend, and were doubtless to him a source of
comfort. Dr. Debus, the late distinguished professor of
chemistry at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, was
Bunsen's laboratory assistant at this time, and to him I
was indebted for some lessons in blowpipe chemistry.
Bunsen afterwards took me under his own charge, giving
me Icelandic trachytes to analyse, and other work.
Besides being a chemist, he was a profound physicist^
His celebrated ' Publicum ' on electro-chemistry, to
which we all looked forward as a treat of the highest
kind, was physical from beginning to end. He was the
intimate friend of W. Weber of Gottingen, and was well
acquainted with the labours of that great electrician.
Breaking ground in frictional electricity, he passed on
to the phenomena and theory of the Voltaic pile. He
was a great upholder of the famous Contact Theory,
which had many supporters in Germany at the time, one
of the foremost of these being the genial-minded Kohl-
rausch. This theory, as you are well aware, has under-
gone profound modifications. There are, no doubt,
eminent philosophers amongst us who would pronounce
the theory, in its first form, unthinkable, inasmuch aa
it implied the creation of force out of nothing. But
the fact that some of the most celebrated scientific
men in the world, with the illustrious Volta himself as
their leader, accepted and saw nothing incongruous in
the theory, shows how ' unthinkability ' depends upon
the state of our knowledge. The laws of Ohm were ex-
pounded with great completeness by Bunsen. Various
modes of electric measurement were illustrated ; the
electric light from the carbon battery, invented by
himself, was introduced, the electric telegraph was ex-
plained, Steinheil's researches in regard to the ' earth
circuit ' were developed ; and it was in these lectures


that I first heard an honouring and appreciative refer-
ence to der Englische Bierbrauer, Joule.

Stegmann, the professor of mathematics, was also a
man of strong individuality. He lectured in a small
room on the flat which he occupied. This was the
usual arrangement ; each professor had a lecture-room
on his own floor, and the students in passing from lec-
ture to lecture had sometimes to go from one end of
Marburg to the other. The desks were of the most
primitive description, and into them the inkhorns were
securely fixed by means of spikes at the bottom. Be-
sides attending his lectures I had private lessons from
Professor Stegmann. He was what I have already de-
scribed him to be, an excellent teacher. He lectured
on analysis, on analytical geometry of two and three
dimensions, on the differential and integral calculus,
on the calculus of variations, and on theoretical
mechanics. In mathematics he appeared to be entirely
at home. I have sometimes seen him, after he had
almost wholly covered his blackboard with equations,
suddenly discover that he had somewhere made a mis-
take. When this occurred he would look perplexed,
shuffle his chalk vaguely over the board, move his
tongue to and fro between his lips, until he had hit

Online LibraryJohn TyndallFragments of science; a series of detached essays, addresses, and reviews (Volume 3) → online text (page 18 of 38)