Instrumental infrastructures and the geographies of uniformity in nineteenth-century meteorology

Speaker: Dr Simon Naylor # University of Glasgow

29th Jan 2018

15:30 - 17:00

6th Floor Staff Room, Chrystal Macmillian Building

In 1866 Thomas Stevenson, the Scottish civil engineer, published his plans for what he called a ‘meteorological box’, which would shield thermometers and other instruments from the ‘local influence’ of the weather. The Stevenson’s Stand or Screen is now a familiar and unremarkable aspect of meteorological science, but in the nineteenth century it was part of a long-running and fraught debate about how to ensure uniformity across an extensive and diverse set of weather stations. This was not a controversy about the establishment of natural truths but about the imposition of a scientific standard against which local observations could be compared and errors compensated for. From 1868 field trials were held in Strathfield Turgiss, Hampshire, where a number of different pattern stands were tested. Discussions were also held at Royal Meteorological Society (RMetS) meetings to evaluate the relative merits of particular patterns, including their ability to function across the different climatic regimes that covered the British Empire. By the mid-1870s the RMetS had adopted the Stevenson Screen and recommended its use at the stations under its charge. More generally, letters from the Society instructed volunteer observers in the establishment of a functional weather station, in the observational techniques required to ensure useful observations, and in what needed to be done to reduce the data effectively before the results were returned to the Society. A manual was also produced to further aid observers. A historical geography of thermometer screens and epistolary networks allows us to consider what it takes for data to move between scientific sites; it demonstrates the importance of otherwise humble items of scientific infrastructure in achieving scientific mobility; and reminds us that an aspiration to scientific universality was not the same thing as a pretension to universal truth.