The Carbon Crisis, 1663 edition

Well, not really. But in this post over at Carbon Nation, Eric Roston, author of the forthcoming The Carbon Age, writes kindly about my first book, Ice Time, published way back in 1987. He uses that work as a stepping stone to describe some of the pre-history of climate research, linking to a review of 19th century attempts to measure atmospheric carbon.

To extend Eric’s time line, I dug into some of the notes and found the reference to what I believe is the birth of systematic meteorology in the English speaking world. In 1663, Robert Boyle suggested that Robert Hooke, then the fledgling Royal Society’s curator of experiments, start keeping a daily record of London’s weather.

Hooke responded with enormous energy, inventing or improving the basic suite of meteorological inventions — the thermometer, the barometer, rain and wind gauges and other, more specialized devices. He used them to make reliable, standardized measurements in London, and then realized that if he could persuade others to do the same, a picture of a national climate, and not just local weather would emerge. So he published in the proceedings of the Royal Society what amounted to a call to arms, asking the gentlemen of England to rise from their beds and take up their thermometers.

Which they did — most notably, John Locke, rather more famous for other works. Locke’s far-too-exciting political life killed the project after a few months in the 1660s. But beginning in December, 1691, now safely returned from his Dutch exile, he took it up again, making meticulous, daily measurements of the weather afflicting the Essex manor to which he had more or less retired. His weather records ultimately appeared as part of the nation’s stock of knowledge in in 1704 in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

My favorite detail from this story of the birth of a science: Locke used a thermometer made by the celebrated watchmaker Thomas Tompion. Tompion has his own place in the history of standards as the first craftsman known to have used serial numbers to keep track of his productions.

Reading that over, I realize that this may seem like inside baseball. But I love this stuff — after all, someone had to start tracking their work in this way. And it turns out that we know who did.

Image: Thomas Wyke, “Thames Frost Fair,” 1683-4. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Explore posts in the same categories: History, scientific revolution, Uncategorized, weather

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