I’m pleased to be able to share my paper on British imperial airshipping, which is now out in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers. The paper develops some of my earlier thinking about how airships can help us think in new ways about historical attitudes to both the atmosphere and to the technological future
Abstract. This article explores the elemental encounters and imaginative geographies of empire to develop a new means of engaging with the historical geographies of the future. Futures have recently become an important topic of historical and cultural inquiry, and historical geographers have an important role to play in understanding the place of the future in the past and in interrogating the role of posited futures in shaping action in historical presents. Drawing on literature from science and technology studies, a framework is developed for engaging with the material and imaginative geographies that coalesce around practices of imagination, expectation, and prediction. This framework is then used to reconstruct efforts to develop airship travel in the British Empire in the 1920s and 1930s. At a moment of imperial anxiety, airships were hoped to tie the empire together by conveying bodies, capital, and military capacity between its furthest points. Confident projections of the colonization of global airspace were nonetheless undermined by material encounters with a vibrant, often unpredictable atmospheric environment. The article aims to spur renewed work on the historical geographies of the future, while also contributing to debates on the cultural and political geographies of the atmosphere and of atmospheric knowledge making.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve given two seminars on my airships work, which has been a great opportunity to push forward my thinking a little bit with a view to getting some more writing done on the topic over the summer. Thanks to the good people of QUB Geography and the IHR Transport and Mobility History seminar for their kind hospitality!
In thinking about what the story of British imperial airshipping can tell us about the process of sociotechnical change, I’ve found myself drawn to the idea of ‘hopeful monstrosities’. Frank Geels and Wim Smit take the idea from Mokyr’s The Lever of Riches, and use it to describe technologies which can demonstrably fulfil some social function, but which continually come up short somehow. Nonetheless, they continue to exercise a powerful hold over shared expectations of technological futures.
We can certainly detect this in the case of airships – despite numerous disasters, mishaps and near misses, they retained a powerful hold over those who wanted to re-make the world with new technologies of mobility. Arguably, they retain something of that hold to this day, whether in ideas about new kinds of sustainable aviation or in the retrofuturism of steampunk.
However, there are other senses in which we can think of airships – and specifically Britain’s imperial craft – as ‘monstrous’.
One is a straightforward notion of size. The two new ships, R.100 and R.101, were spectacularly big compared to their predecessors. For their designers, this was a point of pride – old and new engineering scaled up to previously unimaginable magnitudes; ships fit for the world’s biggest empire, and able to easily carry dozens of passengers in the utmost luxury.
Others were sceptical of this ballooning of airship proportions. For the Air Ministry’s chief critic E.F. Spanner, the size and shape of the new craft could only mean structural and aerodynamic instability. The massive areas which the outer fabric would have to cover unsupported made the whole thing liable to damage, and thus to upsetting the aerodynamics (with potentially fatal consequences). Furthermore, German designers had insisted on relatively narrower, more sausage-like shapes; their British counterparts had moved to a fatter profile – a decision which critics like Spanner feared could only create problems for flight in choppy atmospheric conditions.
When R.100 made it across the Atlantic to Canada it was greeted with great enthusiasm by the public of Montreal. Three hundred thousand came to see the ship at the mast. However, the airship was decried as “the monster” in the French-Canadian press. Here, it’s size, as well as the pomp and ceremony which greeted its visit, was taken as symbolic of Britain’s continued imperial hold over Canada, and its suppression of other claims to sovereignty. The press had it quite right – this was a technology quite openly designed to knit together the ‘Anglosphere’ into closer union, and to secure British hegemony in a world where geopolitical plates were shifting.
But there’s another sense in which these ships were ‘monstrous’ – one that touches on recent debates in science studies about hybridity, assemblage, and relationality.
We can take the term ‘monster’ to refer to entities which transcend or disrespect conventional distinctions between nature/culture, human/nonhuman, technology/environment. One of the things that initially drew me to the histories and geographies of imperial airshipping was the fact that this is an aircraft that achieves lift by becoming part of the atmosphere – by enveloping a quantity of gas and then, by regulating the temperature and pressure of that gas in relation to the air outside, entering into a relationship of balanced equilibrium. An airship stays afloat in changing conditions by actively changing the material constitution of itself – venting gas, dropping ballast, seeking or avoiding warm sunshine.
An airship is thus a weirdly hybrid thing – like a balloon, as Derek McCormack describes them, its envelopment of gas sets it apart from the atmosphere, but rather like a cloud, it is never entirely discontinuous with the atmosphere. It is both of and apart from the sky, maintaining flight by adjusting itself – automatically or through the actions of its pilot – to changes in the weather around it. It’s a monstrous hybrid of technology and environment, inside and outside; a hybridity which was rendered by some contemporary critics into a language of fragility and vulnerability. If an airship in flight was such a part of the atmosphere, it was thus acutely vulnerable to the atmosphere’s violent forces, in a way which an aeroplane wasn’t. The record of airships crashing in bad weather would appear to bear out some of these fears.
Finally, interwar airships were odd hybrids of the mechanical and the organic. There was perhaps a bit of bio-mimicry going on, with the automatic gas valve system talked about in the press as an “ingenious adaptation” of fish gills. R.101 was “bristling” with new technologies, itself a monstrous assemblage of innovations and experiments, perhaps without sufficient testing of how all these new things would work together. R.100, in contrast, has been viewed retrospectively as a more ‘elegant’ design, simple and efficient, and not relying too heavily on the new and the untried.
In both ships though the gas bags were made of goldbeater’s skin, a material manufactured from the intestines of oxen and cows, paired with cotton for strength. Hundreds of thousands of separate skins, sourced from the meat industries of North and South America, would be pieced together – apparently the fact that the membranes were in one sense still ‘alive’ helped with the creation of sealed seams; the pieces would adhere together into a larger whole. Prized for its impermeability, goldbeater’s skin had earlier made appearances in oboe reeds and condoms. It has also been used in hygrometers, where its sensitivity to changes in humidity is prized. However, this sensitivity also posed problems when ships would be flying through variably moist and dry air, and the different responses of the skin and the cotton to drying could lead to the whole structure becoming dangerously misshapen and distorted. This was a particular worry for journeys into tropical atmospheres – different versions of the gas bag fabric were left out in the Egyptian sun to figure out the best way to assemble a gas bag which would stand up to a tropical climate.
Some involved in the design of the ships worried about the “natural imperfections” of an animal substance like ox intestine, and about the impossibility – given the quantities involved (several hundred-thousand cow’s worth) – of checking for consistency. Patents were filed for artificial replacements, but these weren’t developed in time for the first flights of Britain’s imperial airships, which took to the air with their ox-guts, ‘hopeful monstrosities’ in a variety of senses, with one of them, of course, never to return.
Reading the critics of the airship scheme, particularly Spanner, there is one final, more moralistic version of monstrosity at play – the apparent inattention of designers, or perhaps their paymasters, to adequate safety testing of these new technological assemblages, and the underestimation of the risks being taken by passengers of the first flights. Here was a monstrous disregard for the lives of those onboard, which was perhaps a direct consequence of the widespread hopes and expectations for a future remade by airships. Hopeful monstrosities, indeed.
 E.F. Spanner, This Airship Business! and Gentlemen Prefer Aeroplanes!
I’ve just returned from a few weeks in Mauritius, where I was lucky enough to spend some time both exploring the archives and exploring the island, to follow-up on and deepen my engagement with the island’s meteorological history.
I started working on the history of meteorology in Mauritius by following Albert Walter, founding director of the British East African Meteorological Service, back to the place where he cut his teeth. Walter left behind rich personal archives, and the history of organised weather observation on the island, which really begins in 1851 with the founding of the Meteorological Society of Mauritius, is equally well documented through a trail of publications which can be largely accessed in the UK.
I have a paper coming out soon in the British Journal for the History of Science which traces some of this history, based largely on archival materials available locally. My aim in Mauritius was to flesh out some key points of that history (for a potted history of Mauritian meteorology, see here).
Mauritius Meteorological Services H.Q., Vacoas, where Dr. Renganaden Virasami kindly showed me around.
An historic anemometer, still going strong at MMS.
The story which I narrate in my paper goes something like this: in 1851 a Met. Society was formed with the aim of formalising observation on the island, and promoting the use of ship log books to compile observations on tropical cyclones. Charles Meldrum took the lead on the latter, developing new theoretical insights on cyclone formation and behaviour which pushed forward ‘cyclonology’ while also helping mariners navigate tropical seas more safely. By the late 19th century however, ships were no longer calling at Mauritius so regularly to deposit their observations. Attention turned instead to further refining techniques of ‘single station forecasting’, whereby the rules being laid down by Meldrum and others could be used to observe and predict cyclone behaviour using just the instruments at one observatory. Mauritius wasn’t connected to anywhere by telegraph which could warn it of impending storms – the meteorologists were on their own. They therefore had new responsibilities to their paymasters in the colonial government, and rules were carefully set down about how meteorologists should go about making predictions and sending warnings when a storm was approaching. So from seeking to standardise meteorological practice across the wide Indian Ocean, the meteorologists themselves became subject to the regulation of the observatory by the government. I hitch this story to various broader conversations in history of science, most especially concerning the role of colonial ‘peripheries’ as sites for the production of original and authoritative knowledge, and about the links between science and colonial power.
I went to Mauritius wanting to explore more this relationship of responsibility between meteorologist and government, particularly in a colonial context where a British governmental class was superimposed on a largely Francophone economic elite, and a growing population of Indian labourers and smallholders. French and Anglophone meteorologists were split during the 19th century on consequential points of cyclone theory, and I wondered how this played out in multicultural and multilingual Mauritius.
I therefore started at the National Library, which boasts rich holdings of historic newspapers, which I hoped would tell me more about the cultural politics of weather prediction. Sadly though, coverage of the particular periods and events I was interested in (particularly the big cyclones between 1892 and 1902) was a bit scanty, with the newspapers fragile and damaged (perhaps because so many others had been thumbing through them to research these consequential events, or perhaps because the storms themselves had damaged archival holdings..?)
I was therefore incredibly grateful to Jacques Pougnet and Edley Michaud, both of the re-booted Meteorological Society, for helping me fill in some of the gaps with materials they have amassed over the years during their own investigations into the island’s meteorological history.
Heading to the National Archives, located in a re-purposed factory on an industrial estate outside the capital Port Louis, I was delighted to find a big tranche of correspondence which I hadn’t known to exist. The periods 1850-1880 and 1900-1910 were well covered, allowing me to dig deeper into both the genesis and contested evolution of organised meteorology.
The earlier materials helped me learn more about Henri Bousquet, a mysterious figure who was for a few years around 1850 the official government observer, but who had a difficult relationship with the Met. Society and with the government. His idiosyncratic approach to weather observation won him few friends and even fewer admirers, but after he was turfed out of the observatory he valiantly continued his own researches into cyclonology. In the 1860s he tried to get his work published in Paris but no publishing house would take it on. Exasperated at this latest rejection, he destroyed his manuscripts. This rather tragic personal history has made him hard to trace in the archives, but finding a bunch of his correspondence has helped me to flesh out exactly what the crux of the disagreements were.
The later materials have helped me trace the evolving relationship between the government and the meteorologists at the Royal Alfred Observatory, including Albert Walter. Those relationships of responsibility, trust and accountability are thrown into relief both by newspaper coverage of missed cyclones, and in governmental investigations into the Observatory’s work and whether it was worth the public money.
I hope too to be able to develop some ideas around the history of thinking about climate and health on the island, revisiting some of Charles Meldrum’s work on the topic, and how ideas about climatic change – whose genesis Richard Grove traced so well in Green Imperialism – intersected in the late 19th century with concerns about immigration and health on the island.
This might take longer to work up into publishable research, but I hope that my forthcoming Anthropocene module for our Geography undergraduates, which I’ll be writing over the coming months, will provide space to reflect a little on Mauritius as a microcosm of Anthropocene thought and practice. It’s all there – a proto-environmentalism around forest and climate protection, a racialised biopolitics of population, and a sense, around 1880, that it was too late for humans to retreat from their re-working of nature, so human mastery should be embraced instead and island nature carefully designed to sustain a plantation economy (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). With Donna Haraway recently calling for us to reconsider the Anthropocene as the Plantationocene, Mauritius is an ideal site for thought.
I’m incredibly grateful for all the help I received during my visit, from the wonderful librarians and archivists, my hosts Audrey and Robert, the guy who chased me down the street when I left my bank card in an ATM, and innumerable others. I should say another special thanks again to Jacques Pougnet, Edley Michaud, Renganaden Virasami and Rory Walshe, whose generous advice, help and expertise has helped me enormously in piecing together this history.
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.
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!
Last 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.
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.
The paper is the outcome of a long-standing side project on how artists and designers have sought to represent the possible effects of global environmental change in very local settings, often through strategies of visual composition such as montage, collage and graphical manipulation. I’m interested in how such images play on ideas of place, and how the representation of spatial otherness functions as an analogue for futurity.
There are some interesting parallels with the main themes of my current project – i.e. how colonial actors sought to come to terms with climate – scientifically, but also politically and normatively. Imperial ideologies were shot-through with ideas of climatic determinism, of racial superiority shaped by climatic superiority, and many of the practices of colonialism were informed and directed by ‘imaginative geographies’ of climatic excess, danger and inhospitability. Regional climatologies, describing the stable characteristics of the climates of distant places, were also moral climatologies, to borrow David Livingstone’s term, speaking of stable orderings of people, place and environment.
The montaged climate futures which I examine in the paper work by disrupting some of these deep-seated notions of climatic otherness, and of related fears of the destabilisation of our moral climatologies. But this destabilisation narrative also has a long history, which can be read from the genealogy of the ruin in western European art. Fantasizing about the future ruins of one’s civilisation was rarely subversive; rather it played upon notions of the grand endurance of civilisation’s artefacts beyond the timescales of shifting human fortunes. To imagine ruination was to promise immortality.
However, I argue in the paper that the historical radicalism of montage as a mode of artistic production offers the seed of more progressive, reflexive kinds of future-visioning. ‘Reflexive’ in the sense that montage makes clear the choices and cuts made by the artist. The decision of what to add in, and what to leave out, becomes part of the representation itself. There are some radical lessons in there not just for the visualisation of climate-changed futures, but for much broader modes of constructing futures, where the black-boxing of such choices can have significant epistemic and political consequences (see, for example, the ongoing controversy over the under-acknowledged inclusion of certain ‘climate engineering’ technologies in recent climate change scenarios).
More of the images on which I based my discussion can be found collected together here.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.