Wragge

On 26 September 1902, exactly 100 years ago today, the people of Charleville tried to make rain.

Stationed around the town were six Stiger Vortex guns, their long, funnel-shaped barrels aimed skywards.

At noon the guns were manned, and at the direction of the Mayor, ten shots were fired from each in quick succession’.

Charleville’s assault on the weather was marshalled by Queensland’s energetic, but irascible meteorologist, Clement Wragge.

[Wragge enters reading from paper]

‘Soon after the firing a few drops of rain fell, and at 2 o’clock a slight shower fell. At the time of firing the guns a strong wind was blowing, which doubtless interfered with the force of the vortices’.

Doubtless…

‘Later – A second experiment with the Stiger Vortex guns was made at half-past four this afternoon, but without any visible results. An accident happened to two of the guns, one stationed at Mr Ormiston’s paddock, and the other at Mr Spence’s residence; each of these guns had a large piece of iron blown out of the sides, making them worthless…’

[Slams down paper, takes up pen]

To the editor, Brisbane Courier, dear sir…

In regard to your account of the Stiger Vortex experiments recently conducted in Charleville, there are a few matters which I believe require clarification. The experiment was, of course, conceived by myself based upon my recent experience in Europe, and was supported by a number of generous… scientifically-minded subscribers. I arrived in Charleville on the 13 September to supervise the erection of the guns and to instruct the local inhabitants on their operation. Unfortunately, the experiment could not proceed as nary a cloud was to be seen, and so, my time being much in demand, I left the following Tuesday for Brisbane. There the matter remained until I received news a few days ago that the experiment had been tried, and failed.

As soon as I learnt that two of the guns had burst, I wired to Charleville, and found that the accident was due to an overcharge of powder. I left full instructions with the Mayor of Charleville, and sent a copy to the Charleville Times, distinctly stating that the guns were only to be charged with 7oz of powder. I could not manage to stay at Charleville until a favourable opportunity of making the experiments occurred, and, of course, if the Charleville people will not carry out my instructions, I cannot help it.

I have been asked if the experiment was worth attempting with only six guns. Certainly six guns is the very lowest number we can hope to get results from. It would have been much better if there had been ten. Besides, even with the six, the people at Charleville did not carry out the experiment properly. A sufficient number of rounds were not fired. They only fired ten shots. Whereas they should have continued firing for ten minutes, at the rate of two shots a minute from each gun.

[Pen down]

The experiment did not fail, it was not properly attempted. Unintelligent people in Australia may continue to laugh at the Stiger gun, and heap scorn on us and those plucky enough to try it. But what does it matter? – facts are stubborn things, and light travels, laugh who will.

And don’t they laugh… Our position as “Boss weather prophet” for Australasia, as the people call us, is not one altogether to be envied, for if 99 forecasts out of a 100 turn out correctly, and the last one fails, don’t they come down on us like a thousand of bricks… ‘Tis human nature, and so ’twill be till the end. The public seldom think of the responsibility and ‘brain-fag’ involved in running a popular Weather Bureau. They forget that we only claim from 90 to 95 percent of accuracy in forecasting – that heads are not run by a dynamo, or by the precise machinery of a ship’s chronometer; and rapid though the strides have been in meteorology, it is hardly yet what is termed “an exact science”, though some day it may become one.

Yes, it is a strange fact that any single failure forms a rich subject for that cynical sarcasm and delicate irony on the part of the exceptional few who do not know the difference between an isobar and an isothermal line.

But, I suppose, our efforts to advance the science of meteorology are not wholly without recognition. I recently attended the International Meteorological Congress in Paris… it was worth the journey to Europe many times over, once more to be brought into contact with advanced minds and fellow spirits; with that touch of soul free from carping and jealous jibes, that makes true scientists kith and kin… Dr Walz, of the famous American weather bureau, was particularly complimentary of our efforts to establish a meteorological observatory atop Mount Kosciusko. ‘Your Kosciusko experiment needs encouragement’, he said, ‘and the work takes time’. Professor Mohn, the eminent meteorologist of Norway was with us at the time, and he added immediately: ‘Such observations must be valuable’. Well then, I thought, you scoffers in Australia at ‘Old Wragge’ and his work, here is a pill for you to swallow. Take it with your best grace, and may it purge you of prejudice!

It was, while visiting Europe, that we took the opportunity to learn as much as possible of the Stiger Vortex gun. The achievements of Herr Stiger are undeniable. Vineyards once at the mercy of destructive hailstorms are now protected. Winegrowers in Styria, Switzerland, France and Italy have adopted his methods, so that in upper Italy alone there are now actually 10,000 shooting stations. Scientific opinion is divided as to what actually takes place by the firing into the upper air, but the results are clear. The vortex guns break up the clouds and prevent the hail from forming. And not only so, for rain instead of hail frequently results.

We have stated, and again repeat, that the ‘Stiger Vortex’ has frequently resulted in rain when practised with a complete battery; and we hold to the opinion that if ten or more pieces could be discharged on an organised plan against the heavy ‘dry’ cloud masses of continental Australia, which so often promise rain and then pass away without any precipitation, a downpour would probably result. At any rate, it seemed the experiment was thoroughly worth trying.

And how is such service both to science and the people of Australia rewarded? At a time of drought, when accurate meteorological information is more important than ever, the Queensland Government has decided that it can no longer maintain a weather bureau. Can it be true? Who does not know of the Chief Weather Bureau, Brisbane? Who is there without interest in the weather? Who, in fact, among the entire Australasian people fail to read the general forecasts for the entire Commonwealth and the surrounding seas, New Zealand and New Caledonia, when they can get the daily papers? Does some fair lady contemplate a sea trip to Sydney – well, she studies the forecasts. Is a valuable horse to be shipped, crops reaped or lands planted; it’s all the same – ‘What does Wragge say?’ And the same question, from Sydney to Perth, and Thursday Island to Hobart, till we really fancy that we are of some use in the world after all. But that, it seems, is not enough.

Fortunately we have our supporters still. The Federal Government has agreed to free carriage of our telegrams, and the governments of Queensland and NSW will continue to subsidise our work. The weather bureau is now a private concern, but our efforts on behalf of all Australians shall continue. There is, however, the broader question of how the meteorological needs of the country might best be met.

Now the Australian is a grand fellow all round, and we like him, not only because of that downright good nature , which is born in him, but also because he is probably the greatest sky reader in the world in an amateur sort of way. For in this strange land of extremes – this country of long droughts and heavy floods – environment raises a meteorological race, and when he can find nothing else to speak about, he talks of the weather.

It seems only fitting then that this youthful nation should be served by a first-class meteorological service, thoroughly practical and for the benefit of every section of the community. It is time for the government of this fair commonwealth to establish a Federal Weather Bureau to replace the current unsatisfactory system where state observatories run by astronomers provide a service which is merely adequate. Please do not misunderstand me, astronomy, we all know, is the most sublime of sciences, and one that has entranced me from my youth. Sublime, however, as is the study of astronomical questions, meteorology is, par excellence, the more practical of the two, especially as regards the momentous and varied interests of these rapidly advancing colonies. Interesting indeed as it is for the astronomer to observe the umbrae of some gigantic sun-spot, in which the earth would lie as would a small pebble in the craters of our hugest volcano; absorbing as is the study of the configuration of Mars, and the wonderful characteristics of the lunar craters, old sea floors, and mountain chains – not forgetting also, the cloud belts of the mighty Jupiter, and the wondrous rings of Saturn, as instances – it is of infinitely more importance not only to the practical business men of Greater Britain, but also to every section of the Australasian community from the wealthy merchant to the humble housewife to be able to interpret aright coming changes in the weather, and the indications and use of their meteorological instruments – even if such be only a pet corn and a rheumatic joint.

I am not alone in my assessment, the Melbourne Age published a convincing case for the establishment of a Federal Bureau headed by an experienced and dedicated meteorologist.

‘Unfortunately, meteorology is not as yet an exact science’, the article notes, ‘and meteorologists are like poets in being born and not made’…

Poets… yes…

‘Mr Clement Wragge, in Queensland, seems to be one of the former, and possesses the enthusiasm for his occupation which alone can lead to great results. It is no slur upon the weather prophets in the other colonies, who combine the functions of astronomers and meteorologists, that they have neither the training nor disposition for the work. Indeed, the very mathematical accuracy which astronomy requires probably unfits a man for taking the broad view of meteorological data requisite for successful forecasting; and if ever a complete knowledge of atmospheric circulation and the laws ruling weather are to be secured, it will be by some enthusiast like Mr Wragge.’

Well said…

So what sort of man is needed to head a Federal Weather Bureau? Clearly he should be a practical scientist of sterling honour and integrity, strength of will, determination, and untiring energy, possessing sound judgment and diplomatic tact, called upon as he would be to deal with an ‘army’ of observers, staffs, and assistants in the various states of the Commonwealth. He should be a stern, but generous, disciplinarian, demanding of his assistants rigid punctuality and accuracy in all their work. He should be a man who would fearlessly do his duty in the interests of the Commonwealth, regardless alike of praise or blame by individuals or small sectional interests. He should push ahead and do his very utmost to bring the grand service over which he rules to the highest possible state of practical efficiency. However, he should not be like an automaton, ever glued or lashed with red tape to his office chair – red tape should be his servant, not his master – but disregarding personal inconvenience he should periodically visit his men, cultivate their acquaintance, treat them as gentlemen, study with kindness their idiosyncrasies and little peculiarities, and so by precept and example should inculcate the gospel of duty and the grand factor of love.

Where could such a man be found… well… it is not for us to say…

We may be offered the position of Federal Meteorologist, or we may not; we may accept it or otherwise, but if the former, we never put hands to the plough and then draw back. No; we were educated in the positive school of “can and will”, not in the negative academy of “can’t and doubt”, and if the position is offered and accepted we both can and shall carry out a programme calculated best to serve science, the country, and the people.

[Break]

In-Clement Wragge delivered a lecture to a moderate audience at the Braidwood Literary Institute on Tuesday night last on astronomy, meteorology and other things. After disposing of these subjects, he dealt with the uses of radium, for which he adopted the extraordinary course of collecting a second admission fee, which came as a complete surprise to the audience. In fact, it had a most inclement effect.

– Queanbeyan Age, 21 November 1911

[Wragge re-enters tries to collect money from audience]

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your… generosity…

From your attendance here this evening I must thankfully conclude that my reputation has not yet faded into obscurity. You will recall, I should think, that I was director of the Chief Weather Bureau in Brisbane until 1903, when state governments withdrew their subsidies, and, reluctantly I was forced to cease operations.

But, I have at least had time to travel. From my youth, the love of roaming was ever uppermost – a yearning for the sea and a knowledge of the world uncontrollable. What a charm, what a keen fascination, has travel to the intelligent mind! All the world is a playground, and change of latitude brings ever-varying phenomena, which, to a being in tune with the Infinite, are perpetual sources of instruction and profit. And so, after all the barometric reductions, percentages of humidity, vapour tensions and isothermals; after lectures galore and hard, hard, work; I was again as a lad off for a holiday, bound to the isle of youth and beauty – Tahiti.

Oh! those glorious tropic evenings at sea. How one luxuriates in the balmy air, how soft the Pacific zephyrs, how impelling to tales of love! The maidens sang sweetly by the break of the poop – those catchy airs of the “Summer Isles of Eden”, full of romance, that makes one’s ideas of peace and tender passion a home in the Pacific with Mahinna in the palm thatch, free from care, and dark-eyed pickaninnies gambolling on the coral floor.

The pathetic agony of the refrain sung by such voices was quite too touching, so we followed with an antidote, select versions of those dear old chanties, “Blow! My bonny boys, blow”, and “Leave her, Johnny, leave her”, real sailors’ songs of the old time, racy of the deep sea and redolent of spun yarn…

“For shame”, we hear some prude exclaim, “Fancy a respectable scientist, the former director of a Government Weather Bureau, indulging in such frivolity”.

But I must explain that we were once at sea; and do you imagine that we are some cynic parcelled with red tape and the etiquette of office? Do you suppose that because a man is a scientist he must needs be at zero with isobars for breakfast and isobrontons for dinner? Think you that we can eat the “black bulb in vacuo” and digest the rain gauge? No! We love to feel warm life in our veins, to enjoy while we may – that is true philosophy. Live in the eternal “now”, and make the best of it; autumn leaves will come in time.

[Pause]

One cannot work for ever, and a holiday is as necessary to the human economy as daily bread and the air we breathe. Work and rest, action and reaction, come within the realm of cosmic law as suns “die” and others are born, as winter follows summer and night the day; and if we would live in harmony with first principles we, too, must obey the dictum of God, or cords will snap and Nature be avenged by debiting our account in the Bank of Life with compound interest. What then can be better than a trip to the islands? Change of scene means renewed health. And if you are a lady, bored by the vagueries of artificial “society”, longing for the beautiful and the freedom of Nature, you come too and bring your relations. Go to the Union or the Oceanic Company and book for Tahiti. The fares are cheap enough; and, after all, what’s the use of money unless rationally used? You cannot take it with you across the Styx, and it may happen that you’ll get notions from your dusky sisters – only, for God’s sake, be yourself; drop all “side”, if only for a month, in the pilgrimage of life – and – don’t get jealous; don’t impute evil where there is none. Learn, oh, learn! That the world is wide, although but a molecule in an Endless Universe, and that people differ, and customs too, while yet belonging to the Eternal Whole.

How much one should value the present now, and bear in mind that “death” comes nearer.

And what am I doing now? You may know that I have emigrated to New Zealand, where I am occupied in building a new observatory, and planting my garden. I give lectures…

Before I left Australia, I was encouraged to believe that I might be appointed to lead the new Federal Weather Bureau, an organisation whose establishment I had long advocated. But did they choose the man who had established meteorological observatories on Ben Nevis, Mt Kosciusko and Mt Wellington, the man whose scientific achievements were recognised internationally, who had received the gold medal of the Scottish Meteorological Society. Did they choose the man who had advised the governments of Queensland and Tasmania, who had established the Chief Weather Bureau in Brisbane, serviced by a network of observing stations across Australia and the Pacific, the man whose authority and reputation for accuracy amongst the Australian populace were unmatched. No, they chose an assistant from the Sydney Observatory, Mr Hunt, whose achievements seem to consist solely of a prize-winning essay on the ‘southerly buster’….

But, I wish him well.

We must live in the now and not allow our regrets to fester. When I think of the service I could have provided the people of Australia, the advances in meteorology and climatology that could have been pursued, but… It is now for Mr Hunt to prove his abilities, and I wish him well. While I… give lectures.

[Pause]

But what are troubles such as these when viewed in the light of noble Science, in the light of a mind imbued with a sense of the Majesty of the Universe! Think of it – reflect!

Take even a leaf. What is it? Just a laboratory of cells, each one of which contains multitudes of molecules which are formed of atoms inconceivably minute and counted by the billion. These atoms in turn are composed of electrons whirling in symmetry; and force and motion are everywhere, and nothing is solid in Nature. Then, like a flash, review if you can all the wonders of Earth, with God in the fly, bird, beast, and man – God is everything that is, has been, and ever will be, with “Sermons in stones”, in flowers, and the crested wave. Hypnotise the body and free the Soul, and away it goes, with infinite speed, surveying the sun, the hydrogen flames, the great coronae – thence through the ether from planet to planet, calling on Vesta and steamy Saturn; on and away till Neptune is left and the whole Solar System becomes but a speck; onward, onward, on through the depths of the Milky Way, swamping the trillions multiplied by trillions, past the nebulae clashing in impact, viewing the suns in infinite variety – red suns, green, blue, violet orange; away past Sirius and great Canopus; by simple systems and compound systems, with planets galore and beings superb, suited to conditions in which they live, farther yet and never ending – ad infinitum! ad infinitum! With the music of the Cosmos pervading all in tune and harmony throughout the spheres and the anthem swelling for ever and ever, “Benedicte! Benedicte! Thou Infinite Dynamo who art in all, whose Laws are Life”.

[Pause]

Live in the eternal “now”, and make the best of it; autumn leaves will come in time.

Death! forsooth; what is it? Nought but a change.

In the course of a lecture in November 1922, Clement Wragge suffered a stroke. He died on 5 December 1922 in Auckland.

Compiled from a number of Clement Wragge’s writings (yes I’ll add the details when I can find them again).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Tim Sherratt Written by:

I'm a historian and hacker who researches the possibilities and politics of digital cultural collections.

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