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Darwin Correspondence Project

To John Tyndall   4 December [1878]1

Down, | Beckenham, Kent. | Railway Station | Orpington. S.E.R.

Dec. 4th

My dear Tyndall

I am going to beg a favour of you.— The day before yesterday & today I observed (but perhaps the observation will prove erroneous) that certain sensitive plants were excited into movement, by a prolonged note on the bassoon & apparently more by a high than a low note.2 I want much for several reasons to verify or disprove this.— On asking Litchfield whether he had ever seen a Siren, he said that he had at one of your Lectures, & that he thought it was only a small box.3 If this is the case, (but not otherwise) could you without much trouble bring it here on Saturday, that I & my son Francis might see & hear it, so as to judge whether it wd. do for our plants; for in this case I would buy one, if this is possible. I do not suppose we could test its powers during one day, on Sunday.—4

Please observe if Litchfield is mistaken, & the Siren is a large or delicate instrument, I am not so utterly unreasonable as to ask you to bring it.

My dear Tyndall | Yours very sincerely | Ch. Darwin


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from John Tyndall, 5 December 1878.
Francis Darwin played the bassoon (DNB). CD was evidently studying the sensitivity of plants to sound but no notes on his experiments have been found.
CD had stayed at the London home of Richard Buckley and Henrietta Emma Litchfield from 19 to 27 November 1878 (CD’s ‘Journal’ (Appendix II)). Tyndall had used a siren (or syren in Tyndall’s spelling) in one of a series of lectures on sound delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (see Tyndall 1867, pp. 67–78; the apparatus is figured on p. 77).
According to Emma Darwin’s diary (DAR 242),Tyndall visited Down on Saturday 7 December 1878.


DNB: Dictionary of national biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. 63 vols. and 2 supplements (6 vols.). London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1912. Dictionary of national biography 1912–90. Edited by H. W. C. Davis et al. 9 vols. London: Oxford University Press. 1927–96.


Has observed, perhaps erroneously, that certain plants were excited to movement by a prolonged high note on the bassoon. Would now like to try a siren and asks JT to bring one from the Royal Institution.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
John Tyndall
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 261.8: 27 (EH 88205965)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 11771,” accessed on 18 April 2021,