Richard Hamblyn at The Times Literary Supplement:
“When two Englishmen meet”, wrote Samuel Johnson in 1758, “their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.” It remains an insightful observation, not for what it says about the British obsession with weather – that was a truism even then – but for what it says about the value of natural knowledge. Talking about the weather in the present tense is a more or less futile undertaking, but it was as far as the science of meteorology had advanced in the millennium and a half since the appearance of Aristotle’s influential treatise, theMeteorologica, in the fourth century BC. Since then, the sky had remained an unknowable blue wilderness, populated by meteors (“any bodies in the air or sky that are of a flux and transitory nature”, according to Johnson’s Dictionary: hence “meteorology”), but as the nineteenth century dawned, things began to change. In 1802, Luke Howard gave clouds the names we still use today (cirrus, stratus, cumulus), and in 1804, Francis Beaufort devised the standardized wind-scale that now bears his name. “People were looking at the skies in new ways”, as Peter Moore observes at the outset of The Weather Experiment, his gripping account of nineteenth-century weather science, and by the middle of the century the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade (better known today as the Met Office) was ready to issue the world’s first official weather forecast.