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Early China Coast Meteorology

The Role of Hong Kong

P. Kevin MacKeown

Publication Year: 2011

In this colourful story of the Hong Kong Observatory, P. Kevin MacKeown takes us through the development of the Observatory in the Crown colony in the period 1882–1912, featuring in particular its nettlesome founding director William Doberck. A Danish astronomer with little interest in meteorology, though eminently qualified for the senior scientific position, Doberck proved to be a very difficult employee — constantly clashing with his superiors, his confreres, and with the commercial community. Despite the antagonism between Doberck and the Jesuit observatories, a successful storm warning system was developed over several years. MacKeown also introduces the earliest efforts of quantitative meteorology in the region, and documents the additional contributions made by Jesuit observatories at Manila and Shanghai. The study of typhoons and their forecasting was of the greatest importance, and MacKeown details the earliest studies of storms in the China Sea. Apart from general readers interested in Hong Kong’s history, this book will attract historians of science, especially those familiar with China and with Western colonialism in Asia.

Published by: Hong Kong University Press, HKU

Series: Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Studies

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-5


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pp. 6-7

List of Figures

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pp. vii-viii

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Foreword to the Series

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pp. ix-x

All of us these days take for granted the existence of weather forecasts. Nearly all of us read or listen to them — but most of us harbour some sort of feeling such as: “Why can’t they ever get it right?” This book will not answer that question, but it might provide the comfort to know that people have, perhaps unfairly, been asking it in Hong Kong for almost 130 years. ...

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pp. xi-xii

When I joined the then Royal Observatory in 1974, I was given a little book on the history of the Observatory. It led me to believe that the Observatory had its beginning in a recommendation of the Royal Society and that its initial mission was scientific in nature, comprising astronomical (for time keeping), meteorological and geomagnetic observations. It was quite convincing since my ...

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pp. xiii-xiv

By the middle of the nineteenth century meteorology had become a frontier science, but, unlike most frontier sciences, a most valuable one in practical terms. It was a science that should easily have translated to East Asia, where its benefits were transparently obvious. The Japanese, when they set about it, rapidly adapted to the paradigm; the Chinese, fearful of colonial encroachment, ...

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pp. xv-xvi

Grateful thanks are due to the ever helpful staff at the Hong Kong Public Records Office, and at the Special Collections Section of the Hong Kong University Library. Likewise thanks are extended to the directors of the Hong Kong Observatory, C. Y. Lam and Dr. B. Y. Lee, and to their staff, notably Leung Wing Mo and Dr. Lee Tsz Cheung, for generous assistance, and to Michael ...

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1 Nineteenth-Century Observatories

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pp. 1-25

The scientific approach to the physical world which blossomed in Europe from the time of Newton and his contemporaries onwards only slowly diffused to more distant regions, and that encroachment was largely under the cloak of European colonial expansion. The extension of the community of science can hardly be described as a missionary undertaking. The propagation of the ways ...

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2 An Observatory for Hong Kong

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pp. 27-54

Within the first thirty years of the setting up of the Colony of Hong Kong, its commercial importance grew significantly, this growth bringing with it a large increase in the number of vessels stopping off. In those days before radiotelegraphy or satellite communication, reading a physical clock on board was required in determining one’s longitude, and frequent calibration of the clock, ...

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3 A Director for the New Observatory

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pp. 22-72

Almost all the obstacles, inter-personal and financial, to setting up the new observatory had been overcome by late October 1882 when Price arrived back in Hong Kong, so at that end it was full steam ahead for the construction of the Observatory. The only outstanding item was a request for permission from the War Office to occupy the site on Mt. Elgin. This eventually arrived ...

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4 Government Astronomer or ‘Merely a Meteorological Observer’

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pp. 73-106

That the new observatory in Hong Kong was seen as a lynch-pin in a network of observatories is evident from several sources. Col. Palmer, in his 1881 proposals for an observatory, noted the enthusiasm of the director of the Manila Observatory, Fr. Faura, for such a complimentary station, and commented on how a proposed series of meteorological stations under the Chinese Maritime Customs ‘working ...

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5 Universal Dissatisfaction

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pp. 107-132

With the role of astronomy in the Observatory ostensibly sidelined, more harmonious relations between Kowloon and Central might have been anticipated and meteorological results in keeping with the government’s expectations forthcoming. However, in October 1887 we find Stewart, always keen to avoid bald confrontation, again writing personally to Doberck. Marked ‘Private’ and ...

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6 Typhoon Studies

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pp. 133-172

In this chapter we will take a look at the situation at the Observatory and its achievements over the first fifteen years or so of its existence, in particular its role in the study of typhoons, with a diversion for some more scandal en route. Figg, during his leave found a wife, one Frances Maria Cole, whom he married at Newton Abbot, in Devon, in the late summer of 1891, and in late October, ...

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7 A Jesuit Conspiracy!

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pp. 173-205

After fifteen years of effort Doberck and Figg, and their more recently arrived colleagues, had established a modus operandi at the Observatory. Figg, with assistance from Anna, was responsible for weather prognostication while Doberck, ensnaring Plummer in his projects where necessary, increasingly drifted back to the study of astronomy. Unlike in more northerly latitudes, ...

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8 A New Age

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pp. 207-228

Whatever the circumstances under which Doberck departed, he did attempt to have his legacy secured in the Observatory by lobbying strongly for Figg to be appointed as his successor. With Plummer the nominally senior staff in situ, but to some extent not persona grata, it was always on the cards that someone would be brought in from outside in order to resolve the dichotomy. On 30 ...

Appendix A: A Gazeteer

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pp. 229-230

Appendix B: Hong Kong Observatory Publications

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pp. 231-233

Appendix C: Publications of John I. Plummer

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pp. 235-238

Appendix D: Publications of A. W. Doberck

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pp. 239-248


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pp. 249-271


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pp. 273-277


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pp. 279-289

E-ISBN-13: 9789888053759
Print-ISBN-13: 9789888028856

Page Count: 308
Illustrations: 22 b/w illus
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Studies