How Victorians went about Predicting the Weather

Katharine Anderson likes her history messy, interdisciplinary and inexact. So what better subject for a book on Victorian science history than the weather?

"Meteorology is a highly interdisciplinary science," said Anderson, associate professor in the science and society program in York’s Faculty of Arts and author of Predicting the Weather: Victorians and the Science of Meteorology (University of Chicago Press, 2005), which was released on June 15. "I wanted to study meteorology not just because I’m fascinated by weather but because it doesn’t have a heroic intellectual history. It has a history of problems precisely because it crosses boundaries and brings together different interests. In fact, it didn’t succeed as a science until about 60 to 100 years later."

Anderson says her first book is really a study of failure in terms of the high expectations people had for the science at the time. There was significant public support for meteorology because it "seemed to be a useful science, one that everybody wanted, and one that would answer the question of how much science should be funded as a public responsibility." However, it also hurt the case for public funding because it wasn’t exact. "People had to learn what level of exactness was acceptable," says Anderson.

About the Book

Predicting the WeatherVictorian Britain, with its maritime economy and strong links between government and scientific enterprises, founded an office to collect meteorological statistics in 1854, in an effort to foster a modern science of the weather. But as the office turned to prediction, rather than collection of data, the fragile science became a public spectacle, with its forecasts open to daily scrutiny in the newspapers. Meteorology came to play a pivotal role in debates about the responsibility of scientists and the authority of science.

Right: Cover illustration, "the dic-tater", an 1838 caricature of an Irish weather prophet who sold almanacs

Studying meteorology as a means to examine the historical identity of prediction, Anderson offers an account of forecasting that analyzes scientific practice and ideas about evidence, the organization of science in public life, and the articulation of scientific values in Victorian culture. In Predicting the Weather, she grapples with fundamental questions about the function, intelligibility and boundaries of scientific work while exposing the public expectations that shaped the practice of science during this period.

About the Authour

Katharine AndersonKatharine Anderson (left) teaches the history of science and technology in the modern period, from the scientific revolution to the present. In both her teaching and research, she examines the way that our understanding of the natural world shapes and is shaped by our social relations, our built environment, and intellectual life in different times and places.

Predicting the Weather is Anderson’s first book. She has written several book chapters and numerous articles on 19th century science and technology and serves as book review editor for ISIS, the prestigious journal of the History of Science Society, which is based at York under humanities Professor Bernard Lightman. (See story in the Feb. 5, 2004 issue of YFile).

Anderson, who received a Massey Fellowship for 2005-2006, is also interested in the history of mind and intelligence, especially ideas about instinct, and teaches an upper-year course on psychology, materialism and religion in Victorian culture. She is currently working on two projects: a study of life-saving and life-saving technologies in the 18th and 19th centuries; and the use of historical evidence in population ecology, especially in fisheries, with the working title "What is History Good For?"