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Meteorological Modernism

Weather forecasting and its literary legacies 

During the period of European modernism (c1850-1930) meteorological science developed in significant ways: the first same-day weather forecast (1851); the infrastructural innovations of the UK meteorological office (1854); the first collaboration between the Smithsonian Institute and the telegraph service in the USA (1861); the first synoptic weather charts by Francis Galton (1863); the first analyses of upper air flows (the weather above the weather we see and feel) (1890s); and the first mathematical forecast by Lewis Fry Richardson (1922).

This history comprises a systematic and technological reorganisation of natural knowledge; but more than this, as a series of readjustments in the mapping of space and time, it describes a shift in the cultural and perceptual experience of nature. It is this shift that modernist literature bears witness to. The research questions for this project are as follows: 

  • Can we chart a development in weather science away from standard observational practices of the C19th towards its cybernetic formalisation in the 1940s? If so, can we decode through literary texts, the cultural significance of this trajectory, thinking especially of how C20th weather forecasting begins to use abstraction to communicate moods, and potentially to manage the movement of populations? 
  • Can the intertwined histories of meteorological science and modernist literature help us better appreciate the mediations between natural science and everyday cultural practices? 
  • If we accept that weather affects our psychology and embodiment (a modern history that runs from pathetic fallacy to Seasonal Affective Disorder) can we further accept that cultures of abstracting and predicting weather, linked to modern cultures of risk and financial speculation, also have profound psycho-political and somatic consequences? 
  • How do we read this history in the age of the Anthropocene? More generally, how do discursive and representational histories of this kind – such as Peter Sloterdijk’s claim that C20th modernity has undergone a ‘Meteorological Reformation’ – interact with contemporary climate science and the question of its mediation? 

Read more about the literary legacies of modern forecasting and how World War 1 changed the weather for good.

For further information please contact Dr Barry Sheils.