Relocating Meteorology: themed issue of History of Meteorology

Front cover-page-001 (1)I’m delighted to announce the publication of a themed issue of the journal History of Meteorology edited by myself and Angelo Matteo Caglioti (EUI), on the topic of ‘Relocating Meteorology’.

The collection developed out of a conference session at the AAG annual meeting in 2015, and brings together a range of established and emerging voices in the field to ask the conjoined questions of how meteorological ideas and practices have travelled in the past, and of how we can re-consider the spatial, social and cultural coordinates of our histories of atmospheric science.

The thinking behind the issue was inspired broadly by recent ideas about the historical and cultural geographies of science (PDF), and by an observation that this ‘spatial turn’ had, with some notable exceptions, yet to fully establish itself within history of meteorology. For understandable reasons, current histories often focus on the achievements of the great theoretical pioneers, and are frequently bounded by the nationalised archives of the countries where support for meteorology has historically been the most generous. Building on these important foundations, we wanted to develop what we detected as a nascent move into other spaces – exploring meteorology at the historical ‘margins’ of the world system, taking renewed account of the many ‘dead ends’ in the development of meteorological knowledge, and broadening the cast of actors, technologies and practices which populate our histories. Our initial call for papers was met with a really enthusiastic response, and we ended up with a bumper crop of papers covering a range of time periods, spaces, and forms of knowledge.

Angelo and I have written a short introductory essay which outlines how we see the papers fitting together, and how they each contribute to the project of ‘relocating meteorology’. From meteorological bodies in 19th century Yellowstone, colonial ideas about the climatic redemption of subtropical drylands and German scientific nationalism, through to the interwar construction of ‘airspace’ and the post-war roll-out of computerised weather prediction, the papers show how the atmospheric sciences have been bound-up with various different projects of world-making.

Although a number of papers deal very directly with meteorology far away from its various metropoles, others situate the challenge of ‘relocating meteorology’ closer to its historical sites of power and progress. The American West, Brussels and the UK Met Office all figure in the collective analysis, albeit in ways which stress that as a historical process, ‘relocating’ meteorology was not always a straightforwardly spatial one. It also involved the negotiation of different forms of expertise and authority, the building of new public relationships and identities, and the careful positioning of putatively international projects within the frameworks of national science and politics which have so dominated the historical geographies of scientific knowledge-making.

Other papers deal with meteorological practices in places conventionally seen as ‘marginal’ or ‘peripheral’ in the history of science, and contribute to a broader project of seeing such places as centres of knowledge production in their own right, with impacts on how knowledge was made back in metropoles such as London, Berlin or Washington.

It was an incredibly rewarding project to a be a part of, and it’s great to see so many of the initial proposals come through as finished papers. Thanks again to all our wonderful contributors, to our reviewers who gave their time and expertise to help it all along, and of course to Jim Fleming who initially offered the space in the journal, and who has supported the project throughout.

The papers can be accessed here, and a PDF of the complete collection is available here.



Malaysia – notes from the archives

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.

reading from from website
The reading room –

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.

Map from Watts 1949
Meteorology as infrastructure. From Watts, The equatorial convergence lines of the Malayan-East Indies area. Malayan Meteorological Service, 1949.

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.

Pilot balloon - annual report 1949
From the Annual Report of the Malayan Meteorological Service, 1949.

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.

MMS Annual Report, 1949

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!

Hong Kong workshop: Weather Science, Extreme Weather and Disaster Histories

DSC08590Last week I was delighted to join a workshop at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum on the history of weather science and weather extremes in the region. The workshop brought together historians of science with atmospheric scientists interested in using historical observations to reconstruct past weather and climate. It was a great day of cross-disciplinary exchange and learning, and I was able to make some really useful connections with people working on similar times and places as me.

Discussions ranged from the way 19th century sailors dealt with typhoons, through the imperial networks of weather observation that sprung up around the China coast, to the use of historical weather data from the region in challenging climate models to ‘hindcast’ known weather events. Interestingly, the skill of models to spontaneously generate known weather events – like typhoons for example – is such that they can now venture to be used to predict events which might not be known in the historical record, allowing historians to then go and search for what might be forgotten extreme events.

Following the workshop, I’d been generously invited to give a public keynote on my ‘imperial weather’ project, so I took the opportunity to give another airing to some of my airship material, which connected with a lot of the recurring themes of the workshop: empire, extreme weather, the history of prediction, and, of course, disasters.Mahony HKMM (2)

The following day I ambled over to the Hong Kong Public Record Office, which holds archival records from Hong Kong Observatory and various other institutions, stretching back into the early days of the colonial era. The Hong Kong Observatory is probably the most well-documented of all the British colonial observatories, and it was keep overwhelming to encounter the wealth of material available. That means, of course, that there is a uniquely large secondary literature on the history of meteorology in Hong Kong, which is also motivated of course by the significance of typhoons for life and fortunes in the region. For some examples, see here and here.

I tried to follow a few significant threads into the archives, including the move of T.F. Claxton from Mauritius to Hong Kong, and the spatial politics of the observatory itself – the defence of the site against various encroachments, and its functioning as a mini scientific world set apart from the growing city; a space not just for meteorology and astronomy, but for natural history and botany too. I also took the chance to take a look at some of the observations which were made by meteorologists interred in Japanese prison camps during the WWII occupation. Many of these were made on whatever scraps of paper were available – cigarette packets, match boxes, animal cracker cards, some of them with remarkable levels of precision, even extending to the plotting of monthly averages on tiny graphs. One example of the observations can be seen here.


Conferencing: AAG 2016

I’m heading off to the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers next week, where I’ll be presenting some preliminary work on the history of agricultural
meteorology in a session I’ve put together with Angelo Matteo Caglioti (Berkeley). The session, ‘Historical geographies of environmental knowledge: science, space and power‘, will bring together historical geographers and historians of science to consider the relationships between environmental know-how and political action across a range of contexts, from Italian colonial Africa to the US Midwest.

The title I put forward was ‘Weather, climate and the colonial imagination: Albert Walter’s agricultural meteorologies’, although I’m thinking now that I should change the post-colon part to ‘spatial histories of agricultural meteorology’, as I was to use the paper to try and develop some conceptual arguments about how to deal with the geographies of meteorological practice and its applications in contexts of colonial development schemes and the like. I’m going to play around with the notion of experimentation, which has been a concept and object of growing interest to geographers recently, using the empirical case of the British government’s notorious groundnut scheme to think about how the different ends of experimentation – authoritative knowledge, material transformation, commercial gain – interact and shape each other, and what this has meant historically for the relationships between scientific expertise and decision-making.

The paper will be informed by some recent archival work in Oxford, where I w

From Wood 1950 (1)
Dead sunflowers, following their introduction as a rotation crop. From Wood, 1950, The Groundnut Affair

as able to closely study the work of Albert Walter, a government meteorologist in Mauritius (1897-1926) and then in British East Africa (1926-1948). He pioneered the study of the relationships between crops and weather, developing sophisticated statistical techniques to transform sparse data into seemingly robust arguments about causative relationships between means, extremes and agricultural yields. In the immediate post-war period he was appointed meteorological advisor to the groundnut scheme, and urged the scheme’s managers to reconsider some of their locational choices based on his analysis of climatic conditions. First he was ignored, and then dismissed, before the scheme failed rather unceremoniously following low rainfall, equipment failures  and struggles with the local soils.

In a last ditch attempt to save the scheme, Walter’s successor at the East African Meteorological Department David Davies collaborated with the Overseas Food Corporation on a series of rainmaking experiments, with silver-iodide laden balloon bombs and flare guns launched at any passing cloud. While some apparent success was reported, the challenge of reliably attributing subsequent rain to human or natural causes proved insurmountable, and the efforts to finally make it rain on the groundnuts were quietly abandoned.

For me, this case is a great opportunity to play around with some ideas about the role of scientific advice in colonial decision-making, and about the historical geographies of experimentation in the borderlands of science, government and commerce. There’ll also be opportunities to think about how this relates to more recent debates, not least through a session I’ve co-organised with James Palmer (Oxford) – ‘Boundary spaces in environmental politics: contested geographies of knowledge and power‘.


Maps from Wood 1950
From Wood, 1950, The Groundnut Affair

New paper: meteorology as an imperial science

BJ 5-19 193 croppedI have a new paper out in the Journal of Historical Geography entitled ‘For an empire of ‘all types of climate’: meteorology as an imperial science’. It can be found on the publisher’s website here, and a pre-publication version of the article can be downloaded here.

The paper is the main output of the RGS-IBG funded project which I conducted at King’s College London, and essentially lays the groundwork for the research I’ll be doing at Nottingham. It focuses on a series of conferences held periodically from 1919 onwards, generally titled the Conferences of Empire Meteorologists. These events, and the document trails they left behind, offer a useful synoptic view of how the sciences of meteorology and climatology were evolving alongside the shifting priorities and practices of British imperialism. They also offer the opportunity to develop a richer understanding of the role of conferences themselves in convening, coordinating, and contesting imperial scientific practices – something which resonates with the work my colleagues Steve Legg, Jake Hodder and Mike Heffernan are doing here at Nottingham on conferences and interwar internationalism.

In the paper I follow the story of these conferences chronologically, beginning in 1919 with efforts on the part of British meteorologists to integrate the science into processes of post-war national and imperial reconstruction. Meteorologists from the Dominions – rather than the wider colonial empire – gathered at the Royal Society to discuss what the increasing militarization of the atmosphere meant for their science, and to figure out ways of better coordinating the activities of what were, in most cases, very young meteorological services.

In 1929 the empire meteorologists gathered again – this time with the colonies represented too – and it’s clear that by this time the ‘imperial significance’ of the science had been recognised not just by the meteorologists themselves, but by their patrons and paymasters in government. Ministerial receptions and official dinners were laid on by the Air Ministry, visits were organised to inspect Britain’s ‘elaborate’ meteorological infrastructure, and regular press releases were fed to the print media as the public and political significance of the atmospheric sciences became ever clearer.

room plan - countries
Seating the Empire. National Archives BJ5/19

The rise of civilian and military aviation was the key factor, and much of the 1929 conference was dedicated to working out what sort of meteorological knowledges and techniques were required to facilitate the safe traversal of Britain’s colonial empire by new fleets of trans-continental aeroplanes and, it was hoped, airships.

airship routes 1929
A cartography of imperial expectation. From Conference of Empire Meteorologists, 1929, HMSO

All was not always rosy in the empire meteorological club, and the conferences provide an opportunity to understand the tensions which existed between metropolitan and colonial weather men. Figures like British East Africa’s Albert Walter stridently insisted that meteorological techniques could not be transplanted wholesale from London to the colonies, but needed adaptation both to local climates and to local scientific capacities. In the 1929 and 1935 conferences, we can see how collectively the imperial meteorologists began to position themselves as spokespeople for a global climatic diversity which they saw as being largely overlooked by the International Meteorological Organisation – a body which at the time was dominated by European and North American weather services. I therefore argue that the evolution of meteorological internationalism in this period cannot be understood without reference to the infrastructures and practices of imperial meteorology, and that empire is an important way in which the science became ‘global’, both in its subject matter and in its practices.

This idea of the British Empire’s unique climatic diversity also fed into desires to find much more instrumental applications of meteorology, with the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) for example sponsoring a section of the 1929 conference dedicated to agricultural meteorology. For the EMB, the Empire’s climatic diversity was not just an epistemic resource but an economic one too, and plans were hatched for meteorological knowledge to be better integrated with agricultural research in order to stimulate a more vibrant imperial agricultural economy.

Highways of Empire - Max Gill

However, the meteorologists were not wholly convinced of the value or practicality of such applied work, and much bickering ensued about, for example, the meaning and significance of concepts like ‘micro-climate’ to the work of professional meteorologists. Understanding agricultural meteorology as a contested ‘trading zone‘ between different disciplines is something I want to pursue further, with Albert Walter’s rather tortured involvement in the ill-fated postwar ‘groundnut scheme’ offering a good case study of the trouble that could ensue when different forms of expertise clashed amid desperate attempts to stimulate flagging colonial economies.

In the postwar and Cold War periods imperial forms of scientific cooperation increasingly gave way to new forms of scientific globalism, most notably in this context in the rise of the World Meteorological Organisation [pdf]. In the interwar period the Empire conferences had always been held before major international meteorology meetings, as if to coordinate the ‘imperial position’. Now though they started to be held after WMO meetings and they took on an increasingly informal tone. However, one interesting strand that I want to follow up on is the role of the Commonwealth in the circulation of ideas about anthropogenic climate change in the 1970s and 1980s. Climate change became a key topic for the Conferences of Commonwealth Meteorologists, as they became known, and there’s an interesting question about the role of the Commonwealth -with its high number of small island states – in the development of particular notions of collective vulnerability and of collective political identities.

So, lots to follow up on, and I hope that my new project will be able to go beyond the documentary traces of metropolitan coordination to explore more fully the histories and geographies of colonial meteorology, and its imbrications with different forms of colonial government and culture.