A history of weather forecasting, and an animated portrait of the nineteenth-century pioneers who made it possible
By the 1800s, a century of feverish discovery had launched the major branches of science. Physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and astronomy made the natural world explicable through experiment, observation, and categorization. And yet one scientific field remained in its infancy. Despite millennia of observation, mankind still had no understanding of the forces behind the weather. A century after the death of Newton, the laws that governed the heavens were entirely unknown, and weather forecasting was the stuff of folklore and superstition.
Peter Moore's The Weather Experiment is the account of a group of naturalists, engineers, and artists who conquered the elements. It describes their travels and experiments, their breakthroughs and bankruptcies, with picaresque vigor. It takes readers from Irish bogs to a thunderstorm in Guanabara Bay to the basket of a hydrogen balloon 8,500 feet over Paris. And it captures the particular bent of mind—combining the Romantic love of Nature and the Enlightenment love of Reason—that allowed humanity to finally decipher the skies.
Moore (Damn His Blood) examines the lives and works of 19th-century men of science as they developed the burgeoning field of meteorology in this excellent history. He proceeds more or less chronologically, concentrating primarily on the contributions of Britons, such as Francis Beaufort, developer of the scale of winds; noted landscape painter John Constable; Astronomer Royal George Airy; and James Glaisher, who was famed for his balloon ascents into the upper atmosphere. A few Americans also feature here: Benjamin Franklin and his lightning experiments, storm theorist James Espy, and telegraph inventor Samuel F.B. Morse. Moore's true hero is Robert FitzRoy, a tragic figure who is mostly remembered today as the captain of the Beagle on Charles Darwin's famous journey. FitzRoy's contributions to meteorology came later in life when he began the first systematic forecasts of weather, which were based on reports from around the British Isles received via telegraph. Along with the many brief biographies and sketches of scientific squabbles, Moore also weaves in interludes describing a day of weather. This is a worthy investigation of the history of weather forecasting as seen through a British lens.