articles and book chapters

June 1, 2015 /
May 12, 2012 /
February 13, 2011 /
November 14, 2006 /
Tim Sherratt, ‘Civilisation versus the giant, winged lizards – Changing climates, changing minds’, Altitude, no. 7, 2006.


‘Modern man is a forest butcher’, warned the pioneering science journalist Hugh McKay in 1923. ‘He is also an oil-spendthrift and a coal waster’, McKay continued, ‘recklessly spending his capital of fuel… with never a thought of the tomorrow when he will stand shivering and motionless in the middle of a coal-less, oil-less, treeless, steel-less planet’.1 Read MoreCivilisation versus the giant, winged lizards

  1. McKay, Hugh Cleland. ‘Mankind’s Last Stand’. Smith’s Weekly 15 September 1923: 29. []
May 1, 2005 /

Author’s pre-print version

Tim Sherratt, ‘Remembering Lawrence Hargrave’, in Graeme Davison and Kimberley Webber (editors), Yesterday’s Tomorrows: The Powerhouse Museum and its precursors, 1880-2005, Powerhouse Museum in association with UNSW Press, Sydney 2005, pp. 174-185.


Hargrave's models on display, 1919.
Remembering Lawrence Hargrave – Hargrave’s models on display, 1919.

In 1962 William Hudson Shaw, a Qantas executive, knocked at the door of a cottage in the seaside village of Walmer, Kent. Shaw was in the grip of an obsession – a ‘labour of love’ to document the ‘true story’ of Australian aeronautical pioneer Lawrence Hargrave.1 This quest had brought Shaw to the home of Helen Gray, Hargrave’s eldest daughter, his beloved ‘Nellie’. Now into her 80s, Helen Gray remained firmly protective of her father’s memory, yet strangely ambivalent about his achievements. Nonetheless, through Hudson Shaw’s visit and the correspondence that followed, the two became friends and collaborators. ‘I feel so grateful that you have such great interest in L.H. [and] his work’, the elderly woman wrote in 1963, ‘what a difference it has made to my life that you appeared at the right time’.2 The biographer gained insight into the personal life of his subject, and the daughter was relieved of the burden of defending her father against the ill-formed judgments of history. Read MoreRemembering Lawrence Hargrave

  1. W H Shaw to Margaret Hudson, 6 December 1963, and to Roger A Dane, 21 January 1964, W H Shaw papers, National Library of Australia: MS 5661. []
  2. Helen Gray to W H Shaw, 25 March and 13 November 1963 [incorrectly dated 1962], Shaw papers. []
March 1, 2005 /
Tim Sherratt, ‘Frontiers of the future: science and progress in 20th-century Australia’, in Deborah Bird Rose and Richard Davis (editors), Dislocating the frontier: essaying the mystique of the outback, ANU E-Press, Canberra, 2006, pp. 121-142.


The glow of his campfire framed a simple tableau of pioneer life. Across this ‘untenanted land’, Edwin Brady mused, ‘little companies’, such as his own, sat by their ‘solitary fires’. ‘They smoked pipes and talked, or watched the coals reflectively’. Around them, the ‘shadowy outlines’ of the bush merged into the dark northern night, and ‘the whispers’ of this ‘unknown’ land gathered about. It seemed to Brady that this camp, this night, represented the ‘actual life’ of the Northern Territory as he had known it. But the future weighed heavily upon that quiet, nostalgic scene. The moment would soon fade, Brady reflected, as the ‘cinematograph of Time’ rolled on. It was 1912, and something new was coming.1 Read MoreFrontiers of the future

  1. Edwin James Brady, Australia Unlimited, p. 570. []
January 1, 2005 /

Author’s preprint version

Tim Sherratt, ‘Human elements’, in Tim Sherratt, Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin (editors), A Change in the Weather: Climate and Culture in Australia, National Museum of Australia Press, Canberra, 2005, pp. 1-17.


‘I say emphatically that the climate has changed’, Henry Hodgson told the Argus in 1928. The experience of seventy-eight years brooked no denial, summers were milder, and thunderstorms were fewer. ‘It is no use telling me that weather bureau statistics do not bear this out’, he added defiantly. ‘You can do anything with statistics, but no statistics will convince me that the climate has not changed radically.’1

It’s hard not to have some sympathy for Mr Hodgson, for even as we express our concerns about global warming and educate ourselves about the characteristics of Australia’s variable climate, there remains a nagging feeling that somehow he was right. Think back to the boiling-hot Christmases of your youth, to those long weeks spent at the beach, and answer honestly – do you remember summer as being hotter? Read MoreHuman elements

  1. Argus, 29 December 1928, p. 15. []
July 3, 2001 /
forecast: 1 January 1901

The day had been hot, the air hung ‘heavy and dead’; but as evening approached, ‘ominous-looking clouds’ swept over the city, and a thundery change seemed imminent. On this, the last day of the nineteenth century, as Australia prepared to celebrate its birth as a nation, the people of Sydney looked to the weather. ‘The keenest dread is that Proclamation Day will be wet’, the Age reported, ‘“Will it rain?” is the question in everybody’s mouth’.1

The storm broke shortly after 7 o’clock. Fierce winds and heavy rains battered the city’s festive finery, toppling some flags and hoardings, and making ‘rather a sorry sight’ of the buntings. As drizzle continued on into the night, the Government Astronomer, H.C. Russell, offered calm reassurance: ‘Prospects are strongly in favor of fine weather for our natal day’.2

Despite Russell’s confident prediction, 1 January 1901 dawned uncertain. ‘Overhanging clouds and portending thunder’ threatened to mar the procession that was assembling in the Domain. But just before the parade marched off on its triumphant journey towards the inauguration ceremony, the cloud cover began to break. Suddenly, the sun ‘burst forth’, flooding the scene with new colour and life: ‘His beams were never before half so welcome’, remarked the Age. Soon, an ‘invigorating southerly breeze’ arose, rustling the banners and the flags, freshening the air. The weather, it seemed, had succumbed to the sense of occasion. ‘The new nation was awakening’, the Age continued, ‘and with it inanimate nature was springing into renewed beauty and life’.3 Read MoreA climate for a nation

  1. Age, 1 January 1901, p5; Daily Telegraph, 1 January 1901, p. 5. []
  2. Daily Telegraph, 1 January 1901, p. 5; Age, 1 January 1901, p. 6. See also Helen Irving, To constitute a nation: a cultural history of Australia’s constitution, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 16-17 []
  3. Age, 2 January 1901, p. 5 []
July 1, 2001 /
the charleville rainmaker

Cloudy skies at last! On 26 September 1902, the drought-wearied residents of Charleville looked to the heavens with new hope. They knew, of course, that clouds offered no certainty of rain; too often before they had watched them drift on, merely taunting with the possibility of relief. But this time the people of Charleville had science on their side. They were going to make it 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’. A few drops of rain fell, but nothing more until two o’clock, when there was a light shower. The drought had not been broken, but it seemed an encouraging start. Perhaps, it was suggested, the prevailing strong winds had ‘interfered with the force of the vortices’.1

Later that afternoon, the experiment was repeated. This time there was no rain. Nothing. Moreover, two of the guns exploded, rendering them unusable. No-one was injured, but the experiment had clearly failed. There would be no more rain. The clouds again moved on, while the would-be rainmakers succumbed to disappointment and recrimination.2 Read MoreThe weather prophets

  1. Brisbane Courier, 27 September 1902, p.5. []
  2. Ibid.; various versions of this story. []
November 15, 1998 /

HISTORY OF SCIENCE in Australia is a field intimidated by its subject. Historians have been too slow to examine the local context of knowledge production and use, deferring to scientists and their uncritical catalogues of the past. Historical analysis has given way, too often, to the antiquarian plod or the celebratory frolic. Read MoreThe history of Australian science