Article ID: CBB580452378

Eunice Foote, John Tyndall and a question of priority (2020)


In 1856, an American woman, Eunice Foote, discovered the absorption of thermal radiation by carbon dioxide and water vapour. That was three years before John Tyndall, who is generally credited with this important discovery—a cornerstone of our current understanding of the greenhouse effect, climate change, weather and meteorology. Tyndall did not reference Foote's work. From a contemporary perspective, one might expect that Tyndall would have known of her findings. But it appears that he did not, raising deeper historical questions about the connections and relationships between American and European physicists in the mid nineteenth century. The discovery is seen as a significant moment in physics generally and in climate science in particular, and demands a proper analysis. This paper explores the argument about priority, and the issues that the episode highlights in terms of simultaneous discovery, the development of science in America, gender, amateur status, the reputation of American science in Europe and the networks and means of communication between researchers in America and Europe in the 1850s.

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Authors & Contributors
Mainz, Vera V.
Giunta, Carmen J.
Girolami, Gregory S.
Laura Elizabeth Smith
Harriet J. Mercer
Driggers, Edward Allen, Jr.
History of Meteorology
Earth Sciences History: Journal of the History of the Earth Sciences Society
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science
Journal of the History of Biology
Environment and History
Springer International Publishing
University of Pittsburgh Press
University of Chicago Press
Cambridge University Press
Scientific communities; interprofessional relations
Discovery in science
Scientific priority
Professions and professionalization
Correspondence and corresponding
Tyndall, John
Lyell, Charles
Nilson, Lars Fredrik
Boisbaudran, Paul-Émile Lecoq de
Crossland, Charles
Soppitt, Henry Thomas
Time Periods
19th century
20th century, early
20th century, late
20th century
Great Britain
United States
Yorkshire (England)
Tasmania (Australia)
Prussia (Germany)
South America
Sanssouci Park (Potsdam)
Royal Society of London
Royal Institution of Great Britain

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