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…

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