The Character of Scientific Speech: John Tyndall’s American Lecture Tour

Diarmid A. Finnegan

Geography, School of Natural and Built Environment, Queen’s University, Belfast

Credit: John Tyndall. Photograph by Lock & Whitfield. Wellcome CollectionPublic Domain Mark

In September 1872, lists of visiting speakers appearing in the advertising columns of American newspapers gave every impression that the upcoming lecture season would prove to be the best yet. “What a cataract of foreign manufactures we are to have,” one writer observed. Among them was the journalist Emily Faithfull, about to make her debut in the United States, and bringing with her “a list of no less than fifteen discourses.” This “fine elocutionist” was sure to draw appreciative audiences up and down the Eastern seaboard, keen to hear her views on woman’s work and education. The Scottish novelist and “religious romancer,” George Macdonald, was also on the list, along with the journalist and flaneurEdmund Yates.[1] Perhaps the most anticipated visitor was the historian James Anthony Froude. Froude’s lectures on England’s relations with Ireland, deliberately designed to combat ‘Fenianism’, were sure to stir controversy (and, on that front, certainly did not disappoint). 

John Tyndall found himself among this cast of visiting celebrities when he travelled to the United States to lecture there during the same winter season. He would be judged not only on his own merits, and on his own terms, but also comparatively, set alongside Froude and Faithfull and ranked with Macdonald and Yates. As it turned out, Tyndall was typically lauded while the others (the eloquent Faithfull aside) faced decidedly mixed reviews. According to one critic, Froude had read his politically charged lectures “rapidly, with no oratorical eloquence”; George Macdonald made the mistake of sermonizing in lyceum halls, and with no elocutionary skill; and Yates committed the more fatal error of making his tour into a money-making venture, selling “foreign wares” to American audiences.[2] Froude undoubtedly generated the biggest backlash and was chased home by a battery of criticism launched from the pages of American dailies (there were even rumours of death threats). One American satirist, in her lecture on lecturers, captured the moment when she declared that the popular pronunciation of the English historian’s name was now not “Frood” but “Fraud”.[3]

Tyndall, on the other hand, consciously set out to avoid giving offence. He made no secret of his refusal to profit from his tour and donated the income from healthy ticket sales and lecture fees to a fund set up in trust to aid the “advancement of theoretic science” in America. He also benefited from Froude’s much-derided suggestion that ‘the Irish’ lacked the capacity for self-rule. To some of his American admirers, the famous physicist appeared as the true ‘Irishman,’ a celebrated scientist (the term was already widely used in America) whose intelligence and expertise directly rebutted Froude’s scandalous slur. Never mind that Tyndall complained of being pictured in the United States as “born among an Irish peasantry”.[4] His own preferred way of identifying his origins had already appeared in a character profile drawn up with his old friend Thomas Hirst. In that sketch, Tyndall proudly traced his ancestry back to “an old English family of Tyndales” who had settled on Ireland’s “eastern Saxon fringe”.[5] But Tyndall was careful not to declare his views of the Irish question (he spoke much more freely two decades later in vitriolic opposition to Irish Home Rule) and deliberately avoided other controversial subjects. Instead, he charmed his audiences with his unstudied but charismatic lecture performances, making up for any deficiencies in his presentation by displaying, as one American observer put it, “all the electricity of a natural orator”.[6] He did not rely on a script but gave the appearance of spontaneous invention. The kinesics of his performances also added to his appeal. His body was never still but, as another American admirer noted, bent “into all possible shapes, as if he had the St. Vitus’s dance twisting his legs together”.[7] Here was a performer utterly absorbed in his subject and embodying an energetic and expert pursuit of scientific truth.

By 1872, Tyndall had already developed a transatlantic reputation as a most worthy successor to that beau ideal of a science lecturer, Michael Faraday. It was a reputation that was hard won. Tyndall, even if had not followed Faraday in receiving formal training in elocution, had laboured to create lecture performances, and a lecture persona, able to draw crowds to the Royal Institution year after year. His masterful management of live experiments was vital to his success. But it was not the only, or necessarily even the primary, factor. Over more than two decades, Tyndall had developed not just successful lecturing techniques but also a philosophy of lecturing that placed moral character at its centre. As he later expressed it, without resolve and a “strong and earnest character,” intellectual “expertness” was but “the bright foam of the wave without its rock shaking momentum.”[8] This was a philosophy indebted to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s reflections on the importance of character in the “science of persuasion”.[9] Tyndall followed the American transcendentalist’s insistence that the man speaking must wed reason to the affections for his words to have any suasive moral power. The communication of mere knowledge, even of science, was insufficient. After all, as Tyndall argued in an essay published in America on the eve of his visit, the “affections or sympathies,” offer the “best guide [to] … moral goodness.”[10]  

Tyndall’s reputation as a first-rate lecturer, as much as a leading scientist, was already widely known in the United States in the years leading up to his visit. The New York publishers, D. Appleton and Company, published two collections of lectures and essays authored by Tyndall in the year before his visit. The first, Fragments of Science included articles and talks originating outside the Royal Institution. Some of them dealt directly with more controversial metaphysical concerns and included essays on prayer, miracles and materialism. Notably, it was dedicated to his “friends in the United States” who had encouraged its publication.[11] The second, Hours of Exercise in the Alps recounted his mountaineering exploits, often in a poetic style that underlined his veneration of nature’s wondrous works. Both books confirmed his reputation as a someone worth hearing, but also as an author willing to take risks in the world of metaphysics as much as in the high mountains. 

The subject of the lectures that Tyndall performed in the United States was the physics of light. His more general message stressed the importance of original scientific investigation, free from commercial or professional constraints. America, he argued, should prioritise funds for investigators motivated by the search for scientific truth above all else. This was not only about the advance of theoretic or ‘pure’ science. It was also a call to invest in the character of those committed to the unalloyed pursuit of truth. Tyndall’s call was for a moral as well as an epistemic revolution in American intellectual life. It was, at base, as much metaphysical as anything else. This gave his lectures a quasi-religious charge that was appreciated by many of his American admirers and, in the end, was the only aspect of his tour that drew sustained criticism from a chorus of American critics. If his lecture tour was almost universally judged a roaring success, this, for some commentators, had made it even more dangerous.

Though Tyndall studiously avoided the subject in his lectures, his role in debate then raging about the physical efficacy of petitionary prayer was widely known, and frequently decried. It was for this reason that accounts of Tyndall’s American tour were constantly interspersed with reports of sermons, letters and opinion pieces attacking his proposal to apply an experimental test to prayers for the sick. Even before his arrival in New York, the Fulton Street Prayer Meeting in New York, a religious movement that had the ear of large swathes of American evangelicalism, called for churches across the United States to “petition for Mr Tyndall’s conversion”.[12] This kind of concern was heightened by a dispute between Tyndall and the Rev. John Hall, a leading Presbyterian minister, who Tyndall had accused at the close of his final lecture in New York of besmirching his character. An exchange of letters in the New York Times and later in the Popular Science Monthly, brought the matter to a head and left a bitter taste in Tyndall’s mouth. Though he later played down the incident, it lingered in Tyndall’s mind and was recalled by him in anger when another group of Presbyterians, this time from Belfast, unsuccessfully tried to prevent him from become President of the British Association. Feeling hounded by hostile Presbyterians, Tyndall determined to reply in kind when he rose, under the auspices of the British Association, to address a Belfast audience in August 1874. Earlier in New York, religious anxiety about the repercussions of wide acceptance of Tyndall’s metaphysics reached its highest pitch in the aftermath of the farewell banquet held in the physicist’s honour at Delmonico’s restaurant, New York. As one reporter reflecting on the speeches put it, the gathering had turned into “a wake over the remains of a dead religion”.[13] The stage for Tyndall’s much more famous assault on religious dogma and his promotion of an alternative basis for morality was set.

Pre-existing religious controversies were, perhaps inevitably, intensified by Tyndall’s presence in America. Whatever his own intentions, Tyndall’s lectures – in both their textual and para-textual aspects – were scrutinised by reporters and pulpiteers on the lookout for hints of heterodoxy or flirtations with materialism. For journalists, it made good copy. For the guardians of religious orthodoxy, it provided a talking point and a warning for the faithful. Given Tyndall’s conviction that science lectures were less about instruction (most, he assumed, simply did not understand or remember the technical details) and more about character and self-culture, it was, perhaps, unavoidable that even ‘safe’ lectures on the physics of light would generate resistance from those that held to a different moral vision of the self. None of this made Tyndall’s tour a failure on nearly every measures. In fact, the metaphysical undertow of his lectures helped him compete with other star attractions and secured his position, at least for some, at the top of the list of the visiting lecturers. Tyndall aimed to appear as a kind of transcendentalist scientist, or a new scientific Emerson. Like many of his contemporaries, he viewed the ‘living voice’ as key instrument for altering affections and motivating moral action. His tour, understood in that way, was as much a metaphysical as a scientific mission, and one that Tyndall pursued with characteristic vigour.

Further Reading

Diarmid A. Finnegan, The Voice of Science: British Scientists on the Lecture Circuit in Gilded Age America (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021)

[1] Daily Critic (13 September 1872), 4.

[2] William C. Brownell, ‘English lecturers in America’, The Galaxy,20 (1875): 62–72.

[3] Mary Hewins Burnham and Her Debut as a Lecturer (St Louis, n.p.: 1872), p. 7.

[4] John Tyndall to Thomas Hirst, July 1, 1872, BL Add MS 63092, ff. 118-21.

[5] ‘Biographical sketch of Professor Tyndall’, Appleton’s Journal 2 (1869): 339.

[6] Brownell, ‘English lecturers’.

[7] John Fiske, Edward Livingston Youmans: Interpreter of Science for the People (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1894), p. 140.

[8] John Tyndall, “My schools and schoolmasters”, Popular Science Monthly 26(1885):333–35.

[9] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Eloquence”, in Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson vol. 7 (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2010), 49.

[10] John Tyndall, Fragments of Science for Unscientific People (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1871), 51.

[11] Tyndall, Fragments of Science, 3.

[12] Indianapolis Sentinel (12 October 1872), 1.

[13] ‘Autocratic impertinence’, Cincinnati Daily Gazette (10 February 1873), 4.

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