John Tyndall to Faraday   27 and 28 August 1856

Aug, 27th, 1856.

My dear Mr Faraday

I have bidden Huxley goodbye and watched him descending the slopes of the Furca till his gray coat was lost amongst the gray rocks. I am now all alone in a snug little pen, which may perhaps be justly degnified by the name of bedroom; and my thoughts find refuge in writing to you. I left London on the 12th, and had pleasant intelligent companions to Dieppe. I was not sick in the passage, but came in sight at least of sickness. I reached Paris a little after midnight, had my luggage examined, the act being facilitated by promptness and civility on my part towards the officials. Took a voiture, and while I rumbled through the forsaken streets amused myself by watching the meteors vaulting through the sky. Had three hours bed, but no sleep at the hotel de Strasbourg, and next morning at 6 o clock was on the road again. Part of the way an intelligent Parisian was my companion, and from him I learned that Regnault was better, but that great anxiety was still felt regarding him. Since then I have heard nothing regarding Regnault. Put up at the Maison Rouge in Strasbourg. I dreamt that I was in a besieged fortress, with the cannon rattling about my ears. As my consciousness became clarified I found I had transformed the knocking of the “boots” into the explosion of cannon. The man had already become irascible on account of my want of attention. this was at half past 3 o clock in the morning and a little after 4 I started for Basle, hoping almost against hope to catch Huxley and Hooker there. I arrived just in time to see Huxley in a corner of the diligence, to apprize him, by a thump on the shoulder of my arrival, to take my seat in an extra omnibus and set off to the railway station. At Berne we were joined by Dr Hooker and a party, and then we went on to Thun. From Thun by steamer to Interlaken, the weather being magnificent. On the day of our arrival, we took donkeys, one for the luggage, and the other to carry Mrs Huxley1, and reached the Jungfrau hotel upon the Wengern Alp. Here we spent the night and next day we examined a glacier formed by the avelanches which thunder down the sides of the Jungfrau. We derived much instruction regarding both glaciers and avelanches. Though many prophets of evil told us we should have bad weather we ventured forward to Grindelwald, and as far as the weather is conserned nothing could be more glorious[.] Drifting cloud masses smote the sides of the Jungfrau. Along the slopes of the Alp the black pine crowded sometimes into forests, and again dispersed in clusters, was interleaved with patches of the most lively green; the sun poured his glory over all. Right before us a rainbow planted one end of its curve in the valley and leaning over the mountain summits to the right, seemed to clasp the savage crags of the Wetterhorn in its embrace. We reached Grindelwald just in time to secure bedrooms at the Bear Hotel.

Next day we engaged a guide and ascended the slope which bounds the glacier. It was most beautiful, and most instructive; the snowy minarets shining in the sun and relieved against the black slope of the opposite mountain, were undescribably beautiful. But there was a scientific pleasure superadded. We examined the conformation of the glacier, the nature and direction of the fissions, the varying inclinations of the surface, and after a little time a mechanical problem of great beauty revealed itself. The structure and modifications of the entire mass were such as might be predicted a priori from mechanical laws. A certain relationship was thus established between our own minds and the mass before us, which rendered our subsequent journey upon it pleasanter. I will not bother you with this further now, as I hope to be able to make a Friday evening out of the subject2. We ascended to what is called the Eis mer “mer de glace” in some places the breaking up of the mass into chasms, rendered our progress difficult and not quite without danger. In one place we had to cross an edge 10 inches wide, with a chasm 60 feet deep yawning at each side of us: but our progress since has caused us to think little of this. In some places deep shafts are formed into which the surface water of the glacier tumble with the noise of thunder. One of these shafts we found by letting a stone fall to be at least 400 feet deep. High above us on the mountain slope was a flat mass of brown crag, surmounted by a crown of ice cliff. Summer or winter on this rock no snow rests; and it is thence called the Heisseplatte. (the hot slab). Down this while we were on the glacier at least a dozen avalanches darted downwards: no wonder that the noise of these equal the sound of thunder. They are composed in part of solid blocks of ice: one of these blocks which we measured, and which was cast to a distance of 1000 yards weighed at least 5 tons. We derived great instruction from this day’s journey, and I trust we shall be able to put certain glacial phenomena in an entirely new point of view.

Next day Mrs Huxley was ill, and Huxley had to return with her to Interlaken. I was joined by Hooker and we again ascended the glacier together. We followed one great tributary of the Grindelwald glacier as far as our guide (a powerful dark looking Swiss) dared to take us. When further progress on the ice was impossible we ascended the steep slope of a mountain side to a height sufficient to give us a view of the entire glacier. The dirt bands of Prof Forbes3 were here strikingly manifest; but it did not appear quite so manifest that he had solved them. I will reserve all further expression of opinion until my thoughts are riper on the subject. While on the mountain the rain came down in torrents, and we returned to Grindelwald well drenched. I went to bed until my trousers (for I had not a second pair) were dried.

Next morning I left Grindelwald, and had a glorious excursion over the Sheideck to Meyringen, on the following day I walked to the Grimsel, and saw the Handeck falls to great perfection. The Aar had a bountiful supply of water; and the Aerlen, a river which darts down a precipice to the left, was also well supplied. The Aar plunges into a chasm 200 feet deep. The smaller river first falls upon a rock ledge and rebounding from this darts at the Aar, and both plunge together like a pair of fighting demons to the bottom of the gorge[.] The spray produced a vivid rainbow; which was beated about hither and thither, as the water smoke shifted its position.

A day has flown by since the last word was written, and I have left 12 hours of hard walking, during seven of which I carried my heavy pack, behind me, I am now in a little town in the Canton of Graubünden, surrounded by Roman catholics. As I write the bells of a large abbey are summoning the Benedictine monks to their duties; but I must quit the present and recur the past. I reached the Grimsel and found Huxley there before me. His wife became better, and he came straight from Interlaken to Meyringen, and thence to the Grimsel. I had read previous to leaving London that a certain M. Dollfus4 of Mielhausen5 had built a hut by the side of the glacier of the Aar, for the purpose of making observations upon the motion of the mass. All furniture had been removed from the hut, but there was still a litter of old hay there, and this Huxley and I proposed to make our bed, and thus enable ourselves to go to the very summit of the glacier, which would be impossible in one day from the Grimsel. We had some blankets packed together; a couple of stout fellows carried up some food and firewood, and on the evening of the 22nd, after a hard day’s work, during which I visited the mass of rock, which in former years sheltered Agassiz, we returned to our hut. After cold mutton, sour bread and a glass of beer we betook ourselves to our hay and spent the night, if not comfortably, at least philosophically. Next morning at day dawn we found the snow falling heavily. We waited until noon, and finding it still persistant, and deriving no comfort from the predictions of our guide, we resolved to return -- Made on our way as many observations as the fresh fallen snow permitted us to make. As we descended the snow flakes became smaller and finally merged into a heavy rain which drenched both of us. Notwithstanding this defeat we found our visit to the glacier extremely instructive, the structure of the ice, the formation of the moraines, the great blocks of white granite which came slowly sailing down the glacier -- all were objects of the highest interest. To form the lower glacier two others combine, and their confluence reminds me strikingly of the union of two rivers. Indeed the idea of viscosity, or plasticity, or semi fluidity, is that which must first suggest itself to any reflective mind. Forbes’ comparison with an overturned pail of mortar is in many cases admirable6; but whether the comparison will stand philosophic analysis is quite another question. I believe myself that your old experiments will help us greatly here7.

Next morning we paid our bill in good time at the Grimsel and sallied forth towards the glacier of the Rhone. I sought for a cloud in heaven as we started, but could not find one. Clouds and vapours had all swept themselves away during the preceding night, and we had the unspotted firmament above us. Two hours brought us to a point from which we had a capital view of the lower portion of the glacier of the Rhone. Our view upwards was bounded by ice cliffs, and beyond these it was our purpose to penetrate towards the origin of the glacier. Having procured some food at the Auberge and a bottle of wine we set out, conducted by our athletic guide. Having examined the lower portion of the glacier, and observed some remarkable and beautiful phenomena, we crossed, and ascending a mountain at the opposite side, we came right over the upper portion of the glacier: Here on the crags we had our frugal dinner, in a manner which made the pomp of emperors poor. A scene of indescribable magnificence opened before us. Right in front was the mighty mass of the Finister Aar horn, further towards the horison was the grand peak of the Weisshorn, more to the left we had the snowy summits of Monte Rosa by the side of which the cone of the Matterhorn (Mont Cervin) rose like a black savage tattooed with streaks of snow, Still further to the left the chain of the Furca, with shoulders of snow as smooth as chiselled carrara marble, completed the picture; and over all this the glorious sun poured his undimmed radiance. It was a scene calculated to stir the heart of man, and to carve for itself an everlasting resting place in his memory. We went upon the glacier and tramped for hours upwards over the newly fallen snow. We learned much, and our bump of caution was in perpetual action, for the crevasses were terrific. As we ascended, the blue of the sky became deeper: and at the highest point there was something awful in the blueblackness it assumed. Once the sun got above a thin vail of frosen particles, and we had a splendid ring like a circular rainbow round him. The vail gradually melted away to the westward, and we had simply the eastern semicircle: by degrees this also melted away and the circle wholly disappeared. As we returned the shadow of the Finster Aar horn caused the vapours to curdle up, and to flow with great velocity into the valley of the Rhone. Here however the sun still shone, and the vapours were licked up as fast as they came: hence though the supply from behind was incessant, the cloud river made no progress. Huxley accompanied me to the Furca, at the summit of which stands a little inn. The valley was full of vapours when we arrived, and standing on a mountain ridge, with the sun behind us each of us suddenly observed his head surrounded by a coloured halo, and his shadow projected on the vapour mass in front. We raised our hands, the gigantic specture before us did the same, and imitated all our other actions -- we had in fact “the spirit of the Brocken” in all its splendour. We closed this day of wonders over a chop and a bottle of wine in the Furca Hotel, whence I descended to see Huxley on his way to the Rhone Auberge. The marmots were piping on the rocks as we bade each other good bye, and I was soon on my way back to my lonely lodging.

One’s pleasure is sometimes marred by the cupidity of the Swiss guides: but on this I will not dwell at present, I bought a salad spoon and fork at Grindelwald for Mrs Faraday but cannot undertake to deliver it to her safely. To her and to Miss Barnard pray present my kind remembrances. I am now at Feldkirch having just crossed the Austrian frontier. Tomorrow morning at 4 o clock. I start for Landeck. Mean while I will post this. Would you have the kindness to say to Anderson that I received my letters safely at Chur. Would you add to this kindness by handing him the enclosed letters and asking him to have them prepaid and posted to the gentlemen to whom they are addressed? Two of them require envelopes and postage stamps, I had nearly forgotten an important point. Knowing that Mr Addams8 formerly possessed some acoustic apparatus and thinking that he might be willing to dispose of it cheaply, I called upon him previous to leaving London but he was absent. I wrote to him but his people did not forward my letter. Last night at Chur I had a note from him saying that he had not disposed of his ap[p]aratus. Would it not be worth while to see it, and ascertain whether it, or part of it could not on account of being second hand be more cheaply purchased than new instruments at Paris. I should be greatly obliged by your advice upon this point. If you would write to me PosteRestante Vienna, I should know how to act there and in Paris on my return. I shall not reach Vienna until the 16th of September. I would thank you to ask Anderson to direct my letters there up to the 15th of September. The meeting9 will continue 6 days and that will afford sufficient time for all letters posted in London up to the 15th to reach me. And now I must beg of you to excuse all the trouble which I so impudently lay upon your shoulders, to wish you patience through this tedious ill written letter and to believe me

ever most faithfully Yours | John Tyndall

Henrietta Anne Huxley, née Heathorn (1825-1914, ODNB under T.H. Huxley). Married T.H. Huxley in 1855.
Tyndall (1857), Friday Evening Discourse of 23 January 1857.
Forbes (1842), 348-52.
Daniel Dollfus (1797-1870, DHBS). Geologist who worked on glaciers.
That is Mulhouse.
See Forbes (1843), 378-82.
See Athenaeum,15 June 1850, pp.640-1 for an account of Faraday’s Friday Evening Discourse of 7 June 1850, “Certain Conditions of Freezing Water”.
Robert Addams (d.1875, age 85, GRO). Scientific instrument maker and lecturer.
Of the Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher.


FORBES, James David (1842): “Account of his recent Observations on Glaciers”, Edinb. New Phil. J., 33: 338-52.

FORBES, James David (1843): Travels through the Alps of Savoy and other parts of the Pennine Chain with observations on the phenomena of Glaciers, Edinburgh.

Please cite as “Faraday3185,” in Ɛpsilon: The Michael Faraday Collection accessed on 30 July 2021,