Reverend Tindall’s Tellurian

January 21, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

Tindall's tellurian demonstrated an irregularity in the Earth's rotation.

Tindall's tellurian demonstrated an irregularity in the Earth's rotation.

Eleven years into an exhausting workload for a big congregation, in 1874 Presbyterian minister George Tindall was tired. He maintained a grueling schedule of ministerial duties for one of Ypsilanti’s largest churches.

“The Presbyterian is the second church society in regard to age,” said the Ypsilanti Commercial in an 1874 article that summarized business and cultural institutions in town. “The present church building, situated on Washington Street, was dedicated in ’57. It is of brick, and is 55 x 96 feet, with a lecture room in the rear, 23 x 50 feet. The spire is one hundred sixty two feet high. The property belonging to the society is worth $30,000,” (today, over half a million dollars). “Rev. Geo. P. Tindall is pastor, having been called to the position in 1863. The present church membership is four hundred fifty.”

Ypsilanti’s population at the time was around 5,000, so Tindall’s flock represented almost ten percent of Ypsilanti residents. He was responsible for home visits to the afflicted, he officiated at weddings and funerals, and held private meetings to counsel parishioners, aside from three Sunday services for which he wrote sermons every week. He also was expected to attend numerous social functions, such as the annual Christmas celebration.

“The Sabbath school of the Presbyterian Church held a festival in their church on Christmas eve which was the finest affair of the kind ever witnessed in Ypsilanti,” said the January 5, 1867 Commercial. “The exercises were lengthy after the audience were seated but highly interesting to both old and young. . . Rev. Mr. Tindall and [his wife Louisa] were remembered with a magnificent tea set . . . ”

It was all getting to be too much. But for all his work with godly matters, Tindall still found time to analyze God’s creation with a scientific eye. His mind was on the motion of planets. He pondered the Earth’s multiple simultaneous vectors of rotational and orbital movement. One such vector was a phenomenon whereby the Earth, caught between the gravitational pull of the Sun on the Earth’s equator and the force of the Earth’s rotation, wobbles slightly, like a spinning top.

This wobble is called “the precession of the equinoxes,” and in June 6 of 1874 Tindall filed a patent for his tellurian. He had invented a model of the Earth’s rotation that demonstrated the precession of the equinoxes.

The precession of the equinoxes, says EMU physics and astronomy department assistant professor Patrick Koehn, is the slow wobble in the earth’s axis that over 26,000 years, traces an imaginary cone in the sky.

“Usually, when I’m talking to my astronomy students,” said Koehn in a personal email, “I pull out a bicycle wheel that has an extended axle–that is, I can hold onto this axle like a handle and get the wheel rotating fairly quickly. I then place it on the ground in the classroom, and we chat about it. The spinning wheel will eventually start to tip a bit, and the axis of rotation (the axle) will start to sweep out a cone. It looks like the axle is wobbling.”

Explaining that this wobble slowly shifts astronomical navigation points in the sky that are marked by the spring and autumn equinoxes, Koehn said that it “causes the rotational axis of Earth to sweep out a cone in the sky. Since the Pole Star (currently Polaris) is the star that the axis of the Earth points nearest to, if the axis moves, the Pole Star will change with time. It takes 26,000 years for the axis of the Earth to sweep all the way through the cone, so in 26,000 years, the Pole star will again be Polaris. When the Egyptians were building the pyramids, for example, the star called Thuban (in the constellation Draco) was the Pole Star.”

On a more terrestrial note, aside from his weightier duties George likely heard many petty parishioner complaints and dealt with difficult people. However, his imagination was not a small one confined by such quotidiana. His was a mind that ventured to explore subtle celestial motions occurring over vast expanses of space and time.

On October 27, 1874, Tindall’s patent was approved. Just as the patent concerned the Earth’s axis, this approval became a pivot that altered the course of his life. A little over a year later, Tindall submitted his resignation to the church. In it, he said that in October of 1874, he had a physical breakdown due to overwork. He also said that he was leaving the church to take an easier job in Flint. There was more to the story: rumors, origin unknown, said that his small salary had been decreased.

“The report that was circulated that the pastor’s salary was cut down is not correct,” said a December 25, 1875 Ypsilanti Commercial article that included both Tindall’s resignation and the church board’s response. “The facts are that [the church board] fixed the limits that it should not go under nor exceed given amounts.”

In his resignation, Tindall, wielding graceful and calculated language honed through years of sermons, said, “I have been persuaded that I have overworked, and must in some way gain relief. . . the way is open for me to withdraw to the field to which I am invited, where I may, under changed conditions, more nearly meet all the demands of the pastorate.” Tindall made what appears to be one opaque reference to salary when discussing his labors. “[W]ith a church membership of about 500 most of the time, and about 300 families or calling places, [this] has seemed to require all one’s time . . . These more than ordinary, and unremitted labors, year after year . . .”

Tindall left for Flint. It was to be the last pastorate he held before his retirement. He later went to California, and when he died there in 1894, he was remembered in Ypsilanti. Whatever squabbles may have contributed to his leaving Ypsi were not mentioned in the affectionate obituary printed here.

“Many of his parishioners of 30 or 40 years ago are still here,” said the September 21, 1894 Ypsilanti Commercial, “and all hold him in affectionate remembrance for his earnest and beautiful Christian character and the tender sympathy and faithfulness which characterized all of his pastoral and social duties.”

Tindall’s mortal remains were buried in California. His immortal soul—if humans have one–was now free to forever wander the universe, one he had contemplated in quiet moments in his home long ago in Ypsilanti.

Laura Bien is a local history writer. You are invited to visit her Ypsi history blog Dusty Diary and contact her at ypsidixit@gmail.com.

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