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.
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.
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.
This Thursday (14th July) we will be hosting Vladimir Jankovic, an historian of science at the University of Manchester, for a public lecture on the question of ‘What do we talk about when we talk about climate?’ The talk will form the first Hayman Rooke Lecture in Environmental Humanities, a new lecture series with which we aim to promote some of the great work happening in Nottingham and beyond at the intersections of environmental change and the humanities.
Vlad’s work will be known to anyone interested in the history of meteorology and the intellectual history of climate. He’s long been a friend to geographers, arguing in Reading the Skies for a spatial turn in the history of meteorology, and pioneering work on the significance of space, place and scale in understanding the production and circulation of ideas about climate and its changes. His talk will coincide with a workshop at Nottingham which will aim to finalise the contents of an edited book featuring some new conversations between historical geographers and historians of science on these topics – more about that soon.
Vlad will trace some of the history of architectural dealings with climate, to examine how the idea of climate itself is about much more than a physical atmosphere, but about the ways we inhabit our worlds spatially, culturally and ethically. His abstract appears below, a registration for the talk can be completed here.
Drawing on select examples of the ‘environmentalization’ of modernist projects, this public talk reflects on how the language of ‘climate’ (and weather) informs the spatial rendering of everyday life and, conversely, how such a rendering informs the meaning, scale and relevance of ‘climate’ in ideas and their spatial manifestation. How do architectural and urban planning concerns shape different understandings of climate? What kind of socio-cultural concern underlies a climatological approach and, equally, what kind of approach underlies a climatological solution to the production of architectural and urban space? More generally, how does ‘climate’ emerge in locution, space and practice?
I’ve got a new paper out in Minerva, co-authored with Mike Hulme (KCL), on the establishment of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research at the UK Met Office. It’s available open-access by following the link below:
Abstract. How climate models came to gain and exercise epistemic authority has been a key concern of recent climate change historiography. Using newly released archival materials and recently conducted interviews with key actors, we reconstruct negotiations between UK climate scientists and policymakers which led to the opening of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in 1990. We historicize earlier arguments about the unique institutional culture of the Hadley Centre, and link this culture to broader characteristics of UK regulatory practice and environmental politics. A product of a particular time and place, the Hadley Centre was shaped not just by scientific ambition, but by a Conservative governmental preference for ‘sound science’ and high evidential standards in environmental policymaking. Civil servants sought a prediction programme which would appeal to such sensibilities, with transient and regional climate simulation techniques seemingly offering both scientific prestige and persuasive power. Beyond the national level, we also offer new insights into the early role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and an evolving international political context in the shaping of scientific practices and institutions.
Although not strictly related to my Imperial Weather project, it was the research for this paper – specifically poking about in the Met Office archives – which led to my accidental discovery of the interwar Conferences of Empire Meteorologists, and thus my new interest in the history of colonial atmospheric science. It’s amazing how much our research directions are shaped by serendipity and chance encounters!
But the story we tell in this paper, about the institutionalisation of climate prediction and the re-shaping of UK environmental politics around a new concern with global climate change, could be considered something of a book-end to the story I want to tell about earlier British engagements with the ‘global’ atmosphere, as given shape and form by the colonial enterprise.
The paper is based on some governmental archive materials, released in 2013, which document the negotiations between climate scientists at the Met Office, officials at the Department of Environment, and Conservative politicians about the shape a new climate prediction centre should take, and what its priorities should be. We were also able to interview some of the key movers and shakers from the time about their experiences.
Others have skilfully documented how the Hadley Centre is uniquely close to policymakers, at least in contrast to comparable modelling centres around the world (see e.g. Simon Shackley in Changing the Atmosphere, or this earlier paper in Minerva). The task we set ourselves was simple – to explain how those close relationships came about, and what that can tell us about the broader nature of environmental politics and cultures of expert advice in the UK.
I should take this opportunity to thank those we interviewed for the project, whose insights greatly enriched our analysis, and to acknowledge the generous support of King’s College London for the conduct of the work.
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
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‘.
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.