The Weather Watchers

Amateur Climatologists and Environmental Consciousness, 1810-20


  • Sean Munger University of Oregon


In the early nineteenth century, enthusiastic observers of weather phenomena, armed with freelyavailable meteorological instruments like thermometers, barometers and wind gauges, kept detailed and systematic records of weather conditions in various locations. These observers— who I term “weather watchers”—neither identified themselves as professional scientists nor were generally regarded as such by peers, yet they searched for broad patterns in their data and used it to construct scientific-sounding theories about how they thought weather and climate worked. The theories themselves were unpersuasive and bordered on the fanciful, but they did exemplify an interesting conception of the environment as existing in two interrelated layers with vastly different scope and construction. This dual-layered environmental consciousness becomes especially clear during the second decade of the nineteenth century, a period of temporary global climate change driven by a series of volcanic eruptions. Public fascination with the weather and climate events of this “Cold Decade” were both a motivating factor for the weather watchers’ search for predictive patterns and also provided them a unique opportunity to address a largely unfilled demand for meteorological information in the press. This paper will explore these dimensions of the weather watchers and their thinking by profiling three particular examples from the United States and Britain: Thomas Jefferson, George Mackenzie and Luke Howard. In doing so, students of the history of meteorology and climatology may appreciate the usefulness of the Cold Decade as a lens to bring into clearer focus the environmental thinking of the era.