- British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment
"When two Englishmen meet," Samuel Johnson observed in the Idler in 1758, "their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know" (69). As Jan Golinski remarks in his graceful and convincing cultural history of weather and enlightenment in Britain, weather talk often serves as a form of phatic communication—a medium of conversational exchange that establishes social bonds rather than exploring its ostensible subject matter. What concerns Golinski, however, is precisely the period in which weather and climate did indeed become subject to intense systematic scrutiny in their own right, from the second half of the seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth. Readable, revealing, and astutely judged, the book's notable achievement is to show how understandings of weather changed because of the emergence of new devices and practices. Novel instruments, techniques, and regimens transformed perceptions of the British climate, thanks in no small part to unprecedented regularity in recording weather conditions.
Golinski begins with a rich discussion of an anonymous Worcestershire diarist, whose private musings on the great storm of 1703 raise several intriguing issues developed throughout: the persistence of providentialist and folkloric understandings of weather; the link between weather monitoring and self-fashioning; and the relation between private observation and the public status of climatic phenomena. The book's central narrative is the transformation wrought by understanding weather through chronological record-keeping rather than singular episodes. Attention to the quotidian and the unremarkable effected this change, in particular daily thermometer and barometer readings, registered and disseminated through a range of specialist and polite print publications. Beginning in the 1660s, members of the Royal Society keenly encouraged correspondents to form a volunteer network of weather watchers. As Golinski stresses, however, this was only one of several endeavors in a discontinuous history of voluntary projects [End Page 623] that lacked strenuous institutional coordination and uniformity of technology and technique. It was nonetheless vigorously embraced around provincial Britain and the American colonies and resulted in an avalanche of data that was difficult to synthesize, but that confirmed certain home truths about the sceptered isle. While zealous and folkloric views of the weather persisted throughout the period, in polite circles British weather reemerged characterized by patterns of minor changeability and, importantly, overall stability. Meteorological boosters held that the climate's variability contributed to alleged British quick-wittedness, while its temperance grounded the virtues of John-Bullish moderation. With marvelous chauvinism, one writer in the Lady's Magazine declared during the 1780s that the Englishman reigned as the "weather-cock of the creation," because "you may find him in different humours in several parts of a variegated day" (63).
Gauging weather through regularities rather than extremes resulted from repositioning it within secular time and plotting its every movement. Weather journals emerged as the essential form of this conjoining of personal observation and collective emplotment. In the 1670s, Robert Hooke fancied he could trace the progress of his melancholy by charting bad English weather. Gradually, however, for those who could withstand the tedium (one such practitioner was the aptly named John Rutty), weather recording required the disciplined subtraction of selves from the accumulation of numbers. Temperature tables, not diaries, were the desiderata of enlightened meteorology's specializing purview, designed to link weather systematically and lawfully to medical, demographic, and agricultural improvement. Monitoring the weather inevitably seemed to encourage self-monitoring, however, including regular measures of body weight and even fingernail growth. Moreover, certain prophetic habits, such as relating personal health to the position of the moon, appeared to get transferred to the new technologies. Barometers, which found homes in thousands of polite households, were welcomed by almanac makers, and their owners often relied on them as talismanic weather predictors. The inextricability of moral and physical concerns was no less keen in the practice of eudiometry: measuring the virtue or goodness of air, a practice linked to programs of aerial reform for purifying the miasmatic airs produced by luxurious urban...