Book of the Month: September – Investigating the weather

The Weather Experiment: The pioneers who sought to see the future
Peter Moore

Still just about Age of Sail, but more Victorian than Georgian, this book turned out to be far more than I excepted the story of What The Navy Did Next.

Roughly choronological, the book starts in 1804 with Francis Beaufort – of the wind scale – involved in an abortive project to build a telegraph across Ireland, defeated partly by the Irish weather. Back at sea a few years later, he has turned his attention to the problem of accurate rather than descriptive weather records, particularly classifying winds by the effects the have. Around the same time, a man called Luke Howard is setting out to classify types of cloud, and John Constable is putting accurately clouded skies into his paintings.

These are the first efforts of the new science of meteorology, with another famous name entering the scene a few years later again – Robert Fitzroy, surveying and taking meteorological readings in South America with the Beagle – and barometer readings starting to suggest the possibility of not only recording current weather conditions, but of predicting future weather. By this time Beaufort has settled down as head of the navy’s Hydrographic Department, in charge of exploring and charting the world.

Through the 1830s the focus seems to have been on understanding and tracking storms, leading to the creation of the first weather maps to show how storms moved – and with Samuel Morse’s electric telegraph as well as the new railway lines playing essential roles in making it possible for messages to move faster than the weather.

The late 1840s brought the first newspaper weather reports, and the 1850s saw Fitzroy involved with the weather again, heading a project to maps the prevailing winds across the oceans, while a long cold winter allowed investigations into snowflakes, and the early 1860s saw balloon ascensions to study the atmosphere.

Things had changed a great deal in the previous 60 years, but steam engines didn’t prevent ships from being wrecked in storms, and Fitzroy’s department had become heavily involved in providing storm warnings for ports and weather forecasts for the newspapers, activities which became more and more controversial after his death in 1865 – partly because his department was seen as neglecting their work on prevailing winds, which was intended to allow quicker and cheaper journeys, and partly because weather forecasting – rather than plain reporting of facts – was still seen as something too much like fortune telling, and too little like science.

The 1860s also saw the first experiments on heat-absorbing gases in the atmosphere, and the book ends with commentary on modern weather forecasting, and the controversy over climate change and the extent to which this can truly be predicted.

In general, this was exactly the kind of science book I like – showing how one idea grows from another, but also showing the people involved and the way life was at the time. My only complaint, apart from the sudden leap to the present at the end, is that it was sometimes a bit too sudden in its jumps from one idea to another – especially towards the beginning – or in rushing forwards in time – especially towards the end! But well worth reading. And now I want to know more about what the navy got up to after the end of the wars…

Throwback: Eidsvoll

Although this could perfectly well be an ‘Age of Sail in everything’ post!

I was thinking when I was saw the monuments to the Spanish constitution of 1812 this summer that it had obviously been the time for it, and in Oslo this weekend I was thinking about it again – I¬†knew that the Norwegian constitution was written in 1814, and I’d been a few years ago to Eidsvoll, a bit to the north of Oslo, where it was written and signed.

The dates are no coincidence, of course – the Napoleonic wars were stirring things up all over Europe, and it was Denmark being on the losing side which led to Norway – which had been essentially part of Denmark since 1524 – becoming briefly an independent country, with a king chosen by the people rather than ruling through right, and then part of a personal union under the king of Sweden (formerly Marshal Bernadotte!)

For some reason I don’t have a good picture of the house – or the flag, which was being shy – but here is part of each at least.

1814 flag with Norwegian lion on Danish colours

There was a very smart guard outside, but I preferred the lion on the steps!

Lounging lion

The Age of Sail in everything: Schiehallion


I was up Schiehallion on Saturday, and was reminded when I reached the car park of the part the mountain played in 18th century science. (I read quite a bit about this earlier in the year in a book which wasn’t supposed to be about the age of sail at all – it was about mountains. But it turned out to be, a bit, because everything is!)

Gravity experiment plaque

Basically, they were setting out to measure the mass of the earth, and needed something which they could compare it to – something big enough that its own mass would have a measurable effect – so a mountain – and something that stood away from other hills, and preferably was fairly symmetrical, allowing its own mass to be measured with reasonable accuracy. The comparison between the gravitational pulls of the earth and of the mountain could then be used to work out the relative mass of the earth.

It doesn’t look particularly symmetrical from this side, to be fair – although it is a big imposing lump that stands alone.

Schiehallion from the east

But as soon as you drop off the summit to the west it begins to look symmetrical again – it mostly is one long triangular ridge.

Triangular summit

A useful side effect of the experiment was the first use of contour lines to mark equal heights of land, as part of the attempt to work out the size of the hill.

This is the really classic view, from Loch Rannoch – if anyone involved with the experiment had looked at it from here, you can see why they chose it.

Triangular mountain

Book of the Month: February – a Geordie and a baker’s boy

(I’m determined to catch up on these books eventually!)

Drawing the Line: How Mason and Dixon Suveyed the Most Famous Border in America
Edwin Danson

I have to admit that I bought this book not really because of the Age of Sail, but because I was obsessed with the Mark Knopfler song Sailing to Philadelphia – I couldn’t see how there could have been a song about ships and stars and the Tyne and the sea for so long with me knowing it. But the story is very much of that time – both in exploration of the world and in exploration of new ideas and ways of doing things.

The first part of the book describes the background to the surveying of the boundary line – which is basically the disputes between the Penn family and the family of Lord Baltimore. Having already read about the history of the East India company, I found this fascinating – the American colonies aren’t quite as accidental, but there’s still this sense of being ruled not as part of or even by Britain but by someone or something that just happens to be British.

The next parts deal with the history and theory of surveying – and the instruments to be used and the scientific men most involved in their use and creation. This is possibly the first book I’ve ever read about a practical undertaking that told me as much as I wanted to know* about how it was actually done – both the idea of what needed to happen, and the business of carrying it out.

Mason and Dixon are first introduced as part of the observing teams for the 1761 transit of Venus, which they spent at Cape Town. Their backgrounds are very different, Mason the son of a baker and miller from the south west who ended up working as an astronomer for the Royal Observatory, and Dixon the son of a colliery owner in the north east who had apparently learnt surveying in the coal fields – the Geordie and the baker’s boy of the song.

The rest of the book is concerned with their slow journey(s) across America – mainly the famous line of latitude which would mark the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland (and later between the northern and southern states), but also producing a line to bisect the Delaware peninsula. In all this the early American life shows through clearly – the lives of the settlers, both in the homesteads scattered across the country and in the eastern cities, the negotiations with the Indian tribes, and the tensions between the two. So much so that I was convinced that the book was written by an American – he treats Georgian London as much more foreign – but apparently I was wrong.

I’m glad I read this – I found out a lot that I hadn’t realised I wanted to know, and tied together odd threads in my mind, which is always satisfying.

*Possibly even more than I wanted to know, because I haven’t read the technical appendices yet – but I’m glad they’re there!