Book of the Month: October – James Hutton

James Hutton : The father of modern geology
Donald B. McIntyre and Alan McKirdy

I seem to be having a geology fit at the moment – I came across this book in the library catalogue while looking for a different bit of geological history, and then found when I went to get it that it wasn’t really a proper book, just the flat kind full of pictures – but that was a good thing, both because I was behind with my reading, and because the pictures are very informative.

The book was published by the National Museum and Dynamic Earth, and is more about Hutton’s ideas than his life, but I’m certainly not complaining about that.

Hutton started off in a world still believed to be about 6000 years old – which was probably not as silly a belief as it sounds now, because if you don’t know of anything happening earlier, you don’t need to leave time for it. However, Hutton’s great achievement was to show that things which seemed inexplicable became perfectly reasonable if you just allow enough time for them to occur.

Hutton began by developing an interest in chemistry while studying at the University of Edinburgh in his teens, discovering a new process for producing sal ammoniac, used in various industries, and went on to study medicine in Paris and Leiden. Returning to Scotland, he settled on a family farm, giving up medicine and taking to agriculture as a science. It was from an agricultural point of view that he first seems to have taken an interest in the ground, touring England, and later parts of the continent, to study farming methods, and becoming interested in geological features along the way.

Later tours of Scotland were more deliberately geological, and brought him a strong practical knowledge of the rocks to be found in various places which was very important to him later on when developing and proving his theories.

Hutton’s real strength seems to have been his ability to use rocks as experiments which had already taken place – in the same way a chemist might predict that a particular reaction would occur, and test it to see, Hutton would come to believe that a certain event had occurred, and that the result would show in a certain kind of place or kind of rock – at which point his knowledge of where to find the different types would come into play.

It had long been recognised that rocks wore away, and even that soil was formed from the remnants of rocks, but without a method of renewal this was only the decay of the earth towards its eventual end. Hutton came to believe that most of the rocks he had seen were formed from layers of sand and gravel produced by the wearing away of older rocks, and made solid by heat from within the earth, which also distorted and transformed them. (This great heat within the earth, somehow burning without oxygen, was needed to produce effects seen on the surface, but something which he was very aware could not be directly observed – its effects could only be predicted and checked for confirmation.)

One of the pieces of confirmation for this theory was the presence of igneous intrusions, rocks which had cut through earlier regular strata while in a molten state and solidified there, and could be easily traced because they often wore away much more slowly than the surrounding rocks. A related interest was in granite, often believed at the time to be the oldest rock in existence. Hutton believed it to be relatively young, and formed from a molten state, and knew that this could be tested – if veins of granite could be found intruding into other rocks, then the other rocks had been there first. To demonstrate this, he would have to use his wide knowledge of rock types to find a place where granite and another rock came in close contact, which he found in Glen Tilt.

After this, he came across a junction of greywacke and sandstone in the Borders, originally at Jedburgh, where the underlying stone had been deformed and worn away before the upper layers were deposited – something which would simply take a great deal of time. It was the search for a clearer example of this which took him to Siccar Point.

Book of the Month: July – William MacGillivray

A Hebridean naturalist’s journal, 1817 – 1818
William MacGillivray

I took the journal of the Scottish naturalist William MacGillivray’s time in the south of Harris to North Uist with me, since I was going to be visiting the same area, and found it all very interesting – it’s an account of a trip originally from Aberdeen via Poolewe and Stornoway to Harris, to see different parts of Scotland, and then of a year spent with his family there, instead of returning to his studies in Aberdeen.

It’s a diary which happens to be written by a naturalist, rather than a naturalist’s account of an area – birds and plants which he happened to see that day are mixed up at random with what he had for his dinner and who came to visit and the news they brought, but it all adds up to a vivid picture of the area, which was just on the verge of a great change, with the small tenants evicted to make way for larger farms, and also describes visits to the island of Pabbay and to Uig in Lewis.

And the MacGillivray of the journal is quite an endearing character – very young, very serious, and full of plans for self-improvement. An excerpt from one plan is fairly typical:

Each day I must walk at least five miles – Give at least half a dozen puts to a heavy stone, make six leaps! Drink milk twice a day, wash my face, ears, teeth and feet, and rise with or before the sun.

… as is his admission a few entries later that ‘in regard to my resolutions of last Saturday, I have only to say that none of them has been regarded’!

And for all his solemnity, he does have a sense of humour – he can quite seriously write of having packed femoralia and pectoralia, rather than breeches and shirts, but a line or two later he is describing his hat as ‘just like those of my neighbours, without the vast umbelliform brim, which characterises the physical or Linnoan cut!’ And on another occasion the only new animal he has seen that day is ‘a Brown Bear, one of which Mr Macleod the laird has got chained in his garden’.

Towards the end the journal begins to change, with some longer descriptions which look like practice for a different kind of writing – an ‘economical account’ of the area, and a description of the local agriculture. The seeds of his most important later work, on British birds, can also be seen, in a series of description of local birds, including their habits – it was his knowledge of the habits of birds which he was most noted for in his later career, when he published a History of British Birds, among other works.

 

Book of the Month: March – Scottish Plant Hunters

Seeds of Blood and Beauty: Scottish Plant Hunters
Ann Lindsay

This was essentially the extended version of the talk I went to a couple of weeks ago – 14 gardeners and botanists instead of four, and a much more naval story, surprisingly – if there was a ‘classic’ path into plant collecting for these men, it was to study medicine, with its botany classes, in Edinburgh, sign on as a naval surgeon, and be sent off to foreign parts.

There’s more social background here than there was in the talk, but the basic reason why so many gardeners and plant collectors were Scottish still seems to have been that lots of them were Scottish – not only did they encourage young relatives and boys from their areas, but they became known as successful, so that it became fashionable to have a Scottish gardener in order to be successful too.

The first few, Phillips and Forsyth and Aiton, are the gardeners of Kew and the Chelsea Physic Garden – Masson, who went to South Africa, is the first of the wanderers, and the first on a naval ship, sailing on Cook’s Resolution as far as Cape Town, and remaining there for the next three years before returning home. Another 18th century collector, William Wright, served as surgeon on naval ships in the West Indies for several years before settling as a surgeon in Jamaica.

Probably the most interesting story of the book is that of Archibald Menzies, another naval surgeon who sailed as official botanist, and later as surgeon, on Vancouver’s mission of exploration to the Pacific North West, involved in exploring and charting the bays and islands of the region, and also visiting other parts of the Americas, including the Galapagos Islands. Having already read about these events from Vancouver’s point of view, I knew Menzies only as the character who signed on to a naval mission for naval pay while under orders from Joseph Banks to keep a secret record of anything the captain – however correctly – did which went against his own entirely non-naval agenda. And I still think that was completely wrong, but I’ll accept that it would have been difficult for anyone to stand against Banks, and Menzies seems to have been a likeable and successful character in his own right.

David Douglas (my favourite as well as the author’s!) is one of the first of a new type of collector, sent on commercial rather than scientific missions, and he was followed by Thomas Drummond, who met Douglas in Canada and also died young in America, and John Jeffrey, also sent to the American North West, who simply vanished in mysterious circumstances in California.

David Lyall was one of a new set of Victorian explorers, sailing as a naval surgeon and naturalist to the Antarctic with James Clark Ross, on an expedition which reached further south than anyone else ever did by sail, and later visiting the Arctic and being stationed on Vancouver Island and visiting the Rockies. Thomas Thomson, in contrast, is the one army surgeon of the book, sent with the Army of the Indus into Afghanistan, but fortunately coming out again.

Unfortunately, the book could really have done with a good editor, or just with more care being taken with it in the first place – issues range from typos and plain wrong words (I liked ‘straightened circumstances’), to silly mistakes like mixing up Thomas Gladstone with his Prime Minister brother, or writing about the ‘1707 Union of the Crowns’ (a previous borrower had taken exception to this and scored out ‘of the Crowns’ – unfortunately it was clear from the context that the 1603 union was intended!), to a whole chapter given the dates of George Don junior and a title referring to his life (‘From Angus to Africa’) which turned out to be about the work of his father, who certainly never went near Africa. Enough to make you wonder how many silly mistakes are mixed in where you don’t know enough about the subject to catch them, which is a shame, because there are some interesting stories here.

Book of the Month: February – Thomas Telford

Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain
Julian Glover

This was a long awaited book – I think I put in a library request for it sometime around last June, and then slowly made my way down what seemed to be an almost endless reservation list.

I was excited to get hold of it, because Telford’s was a name I knew long before I had any idea of when he had lived or who he was – before I’d taken any interest in the history behind his work, or heard of Rennie or General Wade or any of the Stevensons except RLS – he was just always there. For me he was definitely the character who Max Adams described as being to us what the Romans were to the Dark Ages, in the sense that if all the documentation was lost and later works had crumbled, we would believe these were the works of giants.

So I was surprised to find that this was a book about a very different kind of person – one who was neglected and forgotten and had to be championed to the modern world. It might just be geographical – Telford worked in the West Country, in Scotland, in Wales, but not much, I think, in London or even the Home Counties, although he was based there later on – rather than the crusading fervour that requires you to show the world how much the person you’re trying to save needs *you*, but it surprised me just the same.

I found it a bit of an odd book overall – after reading the introductory chapters I described it to a friend as Whig history written by a Tory, and I never quite lost that odd dissonance. Of course, Telford’s life simply *is* Whig history – his drive is always to improve things, to make new things, to leave things better than he found them – and that’s not something which can be avoided, or which you would want to avoid. But it’s very much a book with a message, possibly more unionist than conservative – about the building of Britain and the linking of different parts of it to provide easier access to the centre, and how this is the only true and valuable aim that anyone should have. It never loses sight of the author’s own modern, southern, views – on various topics – and my preference is definitely for history which does its best to detach itself from that, and to show how people of the time might have thought.

However, what it does, it does fairly well.

The book starts in rural Eskdale, where Telford was born, and notes the various families from the area who made a mark on the world in different ways, particularly the Pasleys and Malcolms. Telford seems to have always felt a strong connection to the area, at least until his mother and his closest friend, Andrew Little, died, but he soon moved away, first to nearby Langholm where he was apprenticed to a stonemason, and then to Edinburgh to work on the growing new town.

He soon left Scotland for London, where he took on his first jobs as an architect rather than simply a mason, including works on Portsmouth dockyard, and then in Shrewsbury where he worked on the castle for another Eskdale native, William Pulteney, and became the county surveyor for Shropshire. Shrewsbury at the time seems to have been a thriving Georgian town – not just socially active, but busy discussing every subject under the sun, and Telford was in the thick of it with a circle of close friends – the closest he came to a settled home until many years later.

It was in this area that he first worked with iron, building a bridge at Buildwas to replace one washed away in a great flood in 1795 – the original iron bridge at Ironbridge had been standing for several years, but Telford’s was a much more efficient version, as he began to really grasp what made building in iron different from wood or stone. It was also where he first worked with several colleagues and suppliers who followed him to later projects. His first major work, the aqueduct at Pontcyssyllte with William Jessop, followed, and he was next involved in a plan for replacing the medieval London Bridge with an iron one (possibly too ambitious a plan, but it came to nothing due to the start of the Napoleonic wars, and the bridge was eventually replaced with a more traditional stone one 30 years later).

The next part was what really interested me – the grand plan for improving highland roads, where Telford seems to have simply been sent to the highlands to work out what was needed where, on a grand scale. His first work was for the British Fisheries Commission, producing a new fishing village at Ullapool, and failing to establish one at Lochbay, now Stein, on Skye – a later attempt at Wick, called Pulteneytown after William Pulteney, who was involved with the commission, was far more successful. The work on the roads saw major bridges built at Dunkeld, Craigellachie and Bonar Bridge, together with many miles of standardised road and smaller bridges, and Telford was also working at the same time, but in a different capacity, on the Caledonian Canal.

I felt this stage was rushed over a bit, but I don’t think it was deliberate, just that there was so much to tell – that I possibly actually wanted a book about Telford in the highlands is not this book’s fault.

Telford always seems to have been working on half a dozen things at once, and while the supervisors on site got on with the Caledonian Canal, he was off to Sweden to start work on the Göta Canal – an interlude which introduces my favourite character of the book, the engaging Count von Platen, who never seems to have let his slightly erratic knowledge of English get in the way of his desire to communicate. Here he is writing to Telford about a theodolite which no one in the Swedish team seems to know how to work:

After looking at the levelling instrument I found I had better take advices of you about it than standing talking nonsens last evening up stairs.

Telford’s focus then seems to have shifted south – after the union of 1801 transport links between London and Dublin became more important, and his works in Wales were mainly to improve access to the ferry port at Holyhead, rather than improving links within Wales itself. The Menai bridge was his great achievement of this period – the first suspension bridge built on a large scale for traffic, although there has been smaller pedestrian versions (and the Union bridge on the Tweed was started later but finished first!)

Telford was over 60 by now, and seemed to have finally felt a desire for a settled home, because he bought a house in London, where various assistants and apprentices lodged to study with him. He also became president of the Society of Civil Engineers, originally started to encourage young members of the profession.

By now railways were beginning to come on the scene – something that Telford never seems to have been much in favour of, possibly because of the monopoly business of running your own trains on your own line (unlike canals and roads which can be used by anyone), or possibly just because it wasn’t his area of expertise. He became involved in trials of a steam powered road vehicle, and more successfully in the building of more efficient canals, which were still useful for goods transport at that stage. But there was a definite change under way, with great Victorian names beginning to come on the scene.

After letting me warm to it, the book then veered away again with an oddly patronising final chapter – ‘come and look at the old man failing’, essentially. Asked to judge entries in a competition to design a suspension bridge over the Severn at Clifton Gorge, he seems to have decided that it couldn’t be done in a single span, and suggested a more conventional bridge with stone piers. Brunel’s design was eventually chosen, but since it took another 30 years to finally build the bridge, to a revised plan, I’m not sure it’s obvious that Telford was wrong at the time. He does seem to have made a more definite mess of trying to write his autobiography, getting badly bogged down in it in a way that he never did when writing on technical subjects, and eventually leaving it to his executors to salvage the mess.

But oh well. I learnt a lot, and I have a whole new list of places I want to visit – Craigellachie and Bonar Bridge and Wick, never mind Conwy and Pontcyssyllte and the Menai Straits!

Book of the Month: January – the census

The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker: The story of Britain through its census since 1801
Roger Hutchinson

This was a book which a friend on LJ had read and reviewed, and which sounded interesting, the census having definitely Georgian roots.

Although there had been censuses at many times and in many places (in the bible, in the Roman empire, the Norman census known as the Domesday book), mainly of taxpayers and potential soldiers, the modern British census is essentially a creation of the Napoleonic Wars, when two problems became important – the size of the population compared to the population of France, and the need to know how many people had to be fed, in order to know how much food was needed for them, in an age of wildly fluctuating grain prices.

The book is particularly good on these early censuses, overseen by John Rickman, and still figuring out exactly what is to be done. The first census, in 1801, is a count of households and of people, of births, deaths and marriages and of those employed in various categories of work, but it is not the record of individuals that it later becomes. The 1821 census is the first to record at least rough ages, as well as the first to cover Ireland, and it is 1841 before the census records individual names.

The second half of the book is more thematic, looking at changing occupations, population movement within Britain, the speakers of various languages, immigration and emigration, including those who came and left, or went and came back, and attempts to survey the population of various other parts of the empire.

In a way, a book which was more focused on the early days might have been even better, particularly for me, but it was still a very interesting books covering a wide variety of topics.

Book of the Month: June – The Natural History of Selborne

The Natural History of Selborne
Gilbert White

I took a notion to read this because it was talked about in the Bewick book I read, as the other major work of natural history to appear at the time of his Quadrupeds – and because, although it’s a bit earlier than Stephen Maturin, it seemed to fit so perfectly into his world, and that of other people I’ve been reading about – that time when people are starting to take science serious, and to look about them seriously, but where there’s still so much to be found out about the ordinary world, and before science becomes specialised.

In theory, the book is all in the form of letters, but some are more letterlike than others – the first section, which is quite distinct, is a set of descriptions of Selborne and its surroundings, and then we’re suddenly into something far more like a real letter, with scraps of observation of various things which are clearly part of an ongoing conversation, a mix of the habits of particular species, and of individual birds and animals. It’s very local, and fascinating for that reason – not just that particular birds (especially) are found in England, but that birds found or not found in Selborne are different from those other parts of the country, even some quite close by, and full of descriptions of their arrivals and departures, and their habits at different times of the year.

Halfway through the sequence starts over again with a new set of letters to a different person, and it took me a while to realise that this resets the choronological sequence – some subjects do come up again and again, but some of them are preoccupations of a particular period split up by the format of the book. This second series has more detailed scientific writing – lists of birds of particular types, and descriptions of swallows and martins which were also published by the Royal Society – but also more of the general conversation, including my favourite observation, that owls hoot in the key of B flat!

Swallows and their relations seem to have been the creatures which most interested White, and they reappear often, including the infamous comments on hibernation – but the interesting thing is that this idea really does come from observation, particularly of times when swallows briefly appeared during mild weather very early or late in the year and vanished again, presumably without having travelled from Africa and back.

Later observations become more varied – gypsies, the use of reeds for light, a shrew-ash which apparently cured the pain of animals which shrew had run over, leprosy, and echoes (said by Virgil to be harmful to bees, but White’s bees didn’t seem to mind being shouted at through a speaking trumpet, so he didn’t see how an echo could hurt them) – and the very last letters are historical, dealing with various severe winters of the past, and the fog caused by the Laki eruption in 1783.

It’s not arranged at all in the way that a modern book would be, but it’s fascinating all the same, and a surprisingly vivid picture of life in the area.

Book of the month: May – The transits of Venus

Chasing Venus
Andrea Wulf

My book choices often seem to lead from one to another, and in this case it was Mason and Dixon who set me off on the trail of the 1761 and 1769 transits of Venus.

The transits were important because they would allow the measurement of the distance between the Sun and the Earth by comparing measurements of the transit time from different parts of the Earth whose locations could also be measured – a fact which had been predicted and advertised by Edmond Halley almost 50 years earlier. Closer to the time, a French astronomer called Joseph-Nicolas Delisle took charge of the operation, with international cooperation – and competition – seeing observers sent to St Helena, the Cape of Good Hope (having failed to make it to Bencoolen), Rodrigues, India, Scandinavia, Siberia, St Petersburg and Newfoundland – only the end of the transit being visible across most of Europe, and none of it across most of North America.

None of the records were as accurate as the organisers and observers had hoped – as well as troubles with clouds, accurate timekeeping, disagreements and onlookers crowding the observatories, the entrance and exit on Venus on the face of the sun were not the clear events which had been hoped – the planet seemed to change shape and ‘stick’ to the edge of the sun, as well as being surrounded by a shimmering halo that was the first definite sign that Venus had an atmosphere similar to Earth’s.

With 8 years between pairs of transits, the observers now had time to try to fix these problems before their second attempt. It was this transit which saw James Cook dispatched to Tahiti – it having been realised that the greatest contrast in timings would be between northern Scandinavia and the South Seas – and it also saw both Russia and North America eager to play a greater part in scientific endeavours. It was these measurements which led to a measurement of the distance of the sun accurate to within 3%, and the various travels required for the measurements also led to discoveries in botany, mapping and other sciences.

The only problem with this book was that there were just so many people to keep track of – at times I found myself longing for a straightforward account of the French, or Russian, or British attempts, rather than jumping between them all. But in general the book was a lovely mix of science and voyages, and I really enjoyed it.

Book of the month: November – George Vancouver

I didn’t have any particular idea about what I wanted to read in November, but at some point I was back to North America – eastern Canada, originally, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to know about – and then I remembered Vancouver and the west coast. So this was a spur of the moment buy for the content, rather than a book or author that particularly appealed to me.

Vancouver first comes into history as an officer’s servant and then midshipman on Cook’s voyages – first to the Antarctic circle, where he was briefly the most southerly person in the world, and then to the Pacific coast of America to search for a Northwest Passage. Returning from this voyage, he passed his lieutenants exam and spent time first in the Channel and then in the West Indies, where he gained experience of surveying.

Early 1791 saw him setting off for North West America again (via the Cape of Good Hope and New Zealand) as commander of the Discovery (not Cook’s ship but a successor), both to carry out the coastal surveys which Cook’s voyage had not had time for, and to settle Spanish claims to land in the region. Although many of his officers proved themselves and went on to successful future careers, two in particular were to cause him problems – Archibald Menzies, appointed as botanist to the expedition with orders to report back to Sir Joseph Banks any ‘obstructions’ to his researches, who later became Discovery‘s surgeon, and midshipman Thomas Pitt (later Lord Camelford), who had already been refused a certificate of service from his last ship, but seemed to feel that his birth counted for more than his actions.

Most of the book is a straightforward (and very chronological) account of the coastal surveys, and the various events and encounters which took place during them – meetings with local natives, with Spaniards and with whalers, and various accidents with the ships. The surveys went well in spite of this, but other things were not so successful – Vancouver was ill for a large part of the voyage, found himself turned away from Spanish ports on the west coast of America when refitting one winter, and eventually found himself superceded in the negotiations over Nootka Sound – at which point he decided to head for home, war having now broken out with France.

Sadly, things weren’t any better for him at home – not only were Menzies and Banks causing trouble, but Pitt (now Lord Camelford), who had eventually been sent home in disgrace, was causing even more, attempting to call Vancouver out over the discipline he had been subject to as a midshipman, and stirring up the press in his ownfavour. Worn out by illness and his other troubles, Vancouver died aged 40 in 1798, just after finishing his account of his voyage.

As a book, I found it a bit uneven – written by someone to obviously knew a great deal about Vancouver’s life, but without that sense of deep background knowledge that you get from a real expert. But as a story it was fascinating.

Book of the Month: October – A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens

I’m not really sure what to say about this book – I enjoyed it without ever really feeling that I’d got my head round it. I liked the characters, and the places, and there was some very vivid description and set pieces – although sometimes the description got a bit too poetic, and I was lost again. (Plus I kept thinking it was turning supernatural – pale men hanging under carriages and vanishing over cliffs, and strange messengers striding across France – and then it never did.)

But given that I went in expecting a book about the French revolution, I don’t really feel that I got what I wanted. Maybe I’m just wrong, because I really don’t know about it to judge, but the thing that fascinates me about the period is the attempts to set up something new, and the ways they go so wrong. And the revolution of this book is quite purely mob rule – an inevitable, justified result of previous actions, but only a breaking down, with no sign of an attempt to build something new:

‘There could have been no such Revolution, if all laws, forms, and ceremonies, had not first been so monstrously abused, that the suicidal vengeance of the Revolution was to scatter them all to the winds.’

The book may be a plea for a better system of government, but it’s addressed to those with something to lose, to save them from losing everything, not to those who might gain.

I found the structure of the book a bit odd – for most of it you are following various people through loosely overlapping lives, not only without any clear idea of how they tie together, but with no clear idea that they will tie together at all. Once they did, I felt a bit as if I had been reading a murder mystery which let you see all the clues and suspects as usual but didn’t tell you who had been murdered or how or when – it must be deliberate, but these days at least I think it might work better with the incident that sets it all off described at the beginning, at least so we knew where we were heading.

And there are definitely a few too many coincidences for my liking – I can cope with the one which sets up the story, of Charles and the Manettes meeting on the ship, and even the previous connection, but once we get into long lost brothers, and resurrection men provided only to be able to prove that a particular person wasn’t dead, it’s going a bit far – although that at least did tie into the theme of resurrection which runs through the book, from ‘recalled to life’ at the beginning to ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ at the end.

But, oh, the ending. In a way, there’s no tension, because Charles and Lucy are the kind of people who never will end up suffering, and people like Miss Pross and Sydney always will do their suffering for them – but the battle between the two women is superb, and if the very end is a bit overblown again, I can’t read ‘you will let me hold your brave hand, stranger?’ without crying. So maybe it is some of the people with the least power in the beginning who save the day in the end.

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…