Things have been a bit quiet on here over the last few weeks, and that’s partly because as of 1st August I’ve moved to the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia to take up a position as Lecturer in Human Geography. Fortunately, my official title will be ‘British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in Human Geography’, which denotes that I’ve been able to bring my fellowship award with me, in order to continue the project up to its end point in November 2018.
UEA is where I did my PhD so I know a lot of the folks here really well, and it should be easy to slot back into the rhythm of things. UEA has recently started offering a BA in Geography, so I’ve been hired to help with some of the teaching on that. It’s also a really great place to develop some of my longer-term projects, including returning to some work on the knowledge politics of climate change. But for now it’s largely business as usual with the Imperial Weather project, on which there will be more updates soon…
s I returned from my trip to Malaysia last week, complete with a suitcase full of print-outs from the archives and a head full of ideas about how the development of meteorology in British Malaya fits into the wider story I want to tell with this project.
Most of my time in Malaysia was spent in the Arkib Negara (national archives), which holds a surprising amount of documentation relating to the establishment and operation of meteorological services in the Malaysian Peninsular. My expectations of what I might find in the archives had been lowered by people who’ve worked on other topics there, and who have often had quite a frustrating time. But with the help of Fiona Williamson, who’s also working on the history of meteorology in the region (see this paper for example), I was able to find my way to a few really useful collections.
As Fiona’s argued, there really wasn’t a whole lot of meteorology done in the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1929, when the UK Meteorological Office and the Air Ministry were trying to accelerate the roll-out of a meteorological infrastructure to support imperial aviation, Malaya was described by the head of the Indian service as a “non-meteorological country”. It was considered the one ‘weak link’ in the meteorological chain which was to render the skies above the England-Australia air route safe for navigation. C.D. Stewart was therefore dispatched from the Met Office to coordinate a new service which would greatly expand existing observational efforts, while also hastening the circulation of data so that synoptic charts could be developed daily, and forecasts issued to aviators.
Who was meteorology for?
This moment in the late 1920s, with the rise of transcontinental aviation, saw new debates about what – and crucially who – meteorology was for. If expensive meteorological infrastructure was merely required to make the skies above Britain’s territories safe for planes flying overhead, was it really the business of those territorial governments to foot the bill? In East Africa, the roll-out of a regional British met service to facilitate flight on the Cape-Cairo routes was joined by promises of more local benefits, including new knowledge to apply to agriculture in climatically diverse colonies. In Malaya, there was very little talk of agricultural meteorology as a salve to colonial support for what was essentially and imperial project of inter-dominion aviation. That may have been to do with the combination of what was seen as an essentially ‘monotonous’ climate, and the firm establishment by then of agricultural monocultures. Things like rubber were being grown on large estates quite successfully by then, and there wasn’t much sense that meteorology had anything to offer the growers. Others who saw greater variation in the Malayan climate nonetheless saw the weather as essentially unpredictable, and held out little hope for reliable weather forecasts.
So meteorology developed in British Malaya as essentially a form of ‘infrastructural science‘ – a combination of applied theoretical knowledge and environmental observation, essentially operating invisibly, not for the purpose of producing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but to support the establishment of a much wider socio-technical infrastructure (international aviation). How to pay for such a science was a frequent sore point, with the states disagreeing over whether contributions to the overall budget should be allotted based on how many observation stations each state had, or according to how many flights landed in each territory. Singapore, for example, had few met stations but lots of landings, whereas the large rural states further north had a growing number of met stations, but weren’t exactly key stops on the emerging trunk air routes. This uncertainty about whether the air above Britain’s territories was a colonial or an imperial matter points to wider debates about the constitutional operation of Britain’s patchwork empire, about the relationship between colonial autonomy and joint imperial effort, and to different assumptions about the place of science in making such spaces governable. In the correspondence at this time, one can read lots of interesting efforts to convince others, including the rulers of the Unfederated Malay States, of how the expectation of ‘modern’, ‘civilised’ states was the production of reliable meteorological information, and the free provision of such information to anyone who might like to use it.
Who did the meteorology?
Unlike some of the other meteorological services I’ve been studying, it was possible in Malaysia to get a bit of insight into the staff who made it all happen, beyond the conventional European at the top. Within the Arkib Negara you can find service records of some of the staff who were recruited locally – their progression up salary scales, their performance in technical exams, and the fines and sanctions they were subject too when their observations weren’t deemed up to scratch. Often these were men who would spend some time at HQ in Singapore helping to compile, tabulate and compute the numbers, but for most of the time they were out in the countryside, running isolated meteorological stations in far flung corners of the territories. Tensions frequently arose around their working conditions – their accommodation, the long hours, access to schools for their children, their subjection to a disciplinary regime which was often seen as unsympathetic to the difficult conditions in which meteorological work was done. Being able to unearth some of this stuff has been really enlightening, as it enables me to say something about the everyday lived realities of meteorology in colonial settings – to go beyond the writings of the directors and the managers and the ideals of smoothly running systems of weather observation and computation, to get to the voices of the people putting in the hard, repetitive, often maddeningly dull work of making colonial skies legible and predictable.
Meteorology at war
One of the threads I’m keen to follow through the Malayan story is the relationship between meteorology and the military. Of course the rise of civil aviation coincided with the further development of military flying, and the Malayan meteorological service always had a close relationship with the Royal Air Force. During the occupation of British Malaya by Japan in World War II, it seems that the observational infrastructure was kept ticking, even if most of the records from this period were apparently destroyed. Many of the observation staff worked 7-day weeks throughout the occupation, leading to some serious health problems and a backlog of leave allowances after the war which drastically undermined the ability of the service to meet all its obligations. The ambition to run a 24-hour forecast service had to be abandoned, as worn-out staff took long stretches of leave – often in India – to recuperate.
Forecasting activities at Kuala Lumpur aerodrome were particularly hard hit by the staff shortages, but the office there was seemingly still able to prepare a daily stream-line analysis for the RAF to inform its bombing campaigns against the communist insurgents as the Emergency took hold. Confident claims were made about how meteorology would facilitate efficient air strikes against the rebels in forested hills, although it seems I may have to do some more digging in UK-based archives to get at the details.
So there are lots of things to process and ideas to develop over the coming weeks and months, and a few follow-up visits to more local archives to be made in order to finesse a few points.
I should say thanks to all the staff at the Arkib Negara, who dealt incredibly patiently with my requests, and tolerated my dodgy Malay with great generosity!
Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the airship as a speculative technology, particularly its history as an imagined agent of imperial connectivity in interwar Britain. More broadly I’m interested in how meteorology was used in this period to make the atmosphere legible and traversable, and a lot of the motivation for the development of wider meteorological infrastructures was the promised expansion of aviation following the technological advances of World War I.
The airship, however, makes different meteorological demands than the heavier-than-air aeroplane. Airships work through the dynamic relationships between the gases enveloped within the ship and the atmosphere outside the envelope, and its characteristics of temperature, humidity, pressure, wind and so on. While aeroplanes use speed and aerodynamic design to produce lift, airships create lift through a set of more subtle relationships, which must be constantly monitored and tinkered with to ensure smooth flight. Changes in one relationship – relative temperature for example – imply and require compensatory changes in others – such as relative pressure. Although airshipping is predicated on sealing gases within, it also requires the constant venting and valving of gas, to maintain a dynamic equilibrium between enveloped and enveloping atmosphere.
Airships are examples of what Derek McCormack calls ‘aerostatic things’ – things which generate lift through these relational dynamics, the most obvious example being the humble balloon. McCormack’s done a lot of important work on the affective aspects of balloon flight, and on the relationships between affective and meteorological ‘atmospheres’. The reliance of balloons of these relational dynamics, and their capacity to be affected by changing conditions of their atmospheric surroundings, mean they have become a central tool in making atmospheric dynamics visible, as McCormack has pointed out (see his recent piece in Society & Space). But if balloons have made the atmosphere visible for meteorologists, what I’m interested in is how meteorologists likewise made the atmosphere visible for balloons or, more specifically, for airships, and their captains and navigators.
In the early 1920s the British Government resolved to develop an experimental imperial airship scheme, whereby two ships would be built to ply new routes between Britain, India and the Dominions. While the ships were being built, work was also carried out to develop a new meteorological infrastructure which would cross-cross the empire, making possible both the planning of routes, and the short-term prediction of weather conditions for a particular journey. In 1925, the meteorological division at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington in Bedfordshire produced the first synoptic chart showing the simultaneous weather conditions along the entire England-India route; a significant moment in British imperial meteorology:
Alongside these synoptic efforts sat a new set of practices of studying the atmosphere on a new, finer scale. The vertical structure of the atmosphere had been a growing object of meteorological concern since the late 19th century. But the particular characteristics of airships – their capacity to affected by the wind, to be destabilised by the subtlest changes in atmospheric conditions – meant that the atmosphere as a medium demanded new strategies of knowledge-making. The gustiness of wind was measured on new, finer timescales; the effects of relatively minor changes in topography on the structure of the overlying air were newly appraised.
The airship is therefore a propitious figure through which to think about the relationships between the gaseous materiality of the air and human action, and to examine how historical actors have sought to make these relationships visible, legible, predictable, and subject to what we might now call ‘risk management’. The relationship between airship and atmosphere became a site of epistemic controversy during the development of the imperial scheme, with a number of critics claiming the impossibility of stable flight, and challenging the widely propagandised claims of luxurious long-distance travel, and of ‘fox-trotting in the clouds’. When the flagship R101 crashed into a hillside in northern France on its maiden voyage to India, amid strong winds and driving rain, much of the subsequent inquests focused on the ship’s dynamic stability, on weather forecasts which underestimated the storm, and on the responsibility for the decision to fly in spite of forecasts which nonetheless suggested a difficult journey. The moral economy of the decision to dive into this violent atmospheric milieu that night in October 1930 was unpicked and debated in settings from the popular press, an official Court of Inquiry, and a series of extraordinary séances with deceased crew members. In the end, responsibility was not laid upon any individual but was, interestingly, given to what was described as an distinctive atmosphere of urgency, expectation and impatience which existed in-between the different groups of actors involved.
The airship, particularly the imperial airships of the 1920s and ‘30s, therefore provide an ideal figure through which to think through the intersections of material and affective atmospheres. But they also provide an opportunity to write the meteorologist into emerging literatures on the cultural and elemental geographies of air and atmosphere, and perhaps to re-consider the permeability of the boundary between matter and affect in the moral economy of weather knowledges and prediction.
I explored some of these ideas in a recent paper at the RGS-IBG annual conference and a subsequent seminar with the London Group of Historical Geographers. I plan to write it up into a full paper at some point next year, after a few more archival forays, particularly regarding the séances which, I suspect, may hold the key to understanding much of the story of this intersection of technology, atmosphere and risk. I’ll be penning a few more blog posts along the way, as my thinking develops.