Odds & Ends
A Newsletter of Eagles Byte Historical Research
October 1996, No. 13
All Too Short a Date
Blame it on the Displeasure of the Deity? That was a popular theory, at
least in 1816.
Blame it on the barycenter? Perhaps.
Before I started my research for this article I had never heard of the barycenter.
It' s described as the center of mass of the Solar System. Supposedly the
sun, with all of us in orbitary tow, loops around this theoretical point
in space every 10 to 20 years. But there doesn't seem to be a reliable schedule
for the Astronomical Transit System.
Apparently there are occasions when the sun falls just short in its loop
and goes back and gets it right. Admirable!
This example of celestial loop-the-loop is known as the Solar Retrograde
Theory. If it holds true, the SRT could account for a few deviations in
the workings of our own planet. It's claimed that when the sun makes its
extra loop, sunspot frequency decreases while volcanic activity steps up.
And in recent years volcanoes have been taking the blame for major changes
in our planet's atmosphere. Perhaps even dinosauricide.
In the late 1600s and early 1700s Earth was treated to the Maunder Minimum,
a period of fifty to seventy-five years which created the "Little Ice
Age". It was not unusual during that time for London's River Thames
to freeze over.
Our most recent SRT occurred in April of 1990. The volcanic Mount Pinatubo
was in the news and five years later the 1995-1996 winter was unusually
cold and prolonged over parts of North America. So there might be something
to the theory.
I make no claims either way, but the theory is applied most often to the
years 1815 - 1817.
On April 5th, 1815, Dutch East Indies residents near Sumatra's Mount Tambora
volcano felt shock waves beneath their feet and under the keels of their
boats. Six days later there were further shocks and the next day Tambora
erupted, pouring fifty cubic kilometers of ash skyward as high as 43 kilometers,
blotting out the sun. Then conditions seemingly returned to normal, except
for sunsets that were far more spectacular than normal. And the fact that
the average temperature of the globe began dropping, eventually decreasing
a whole degree.
September 23rd brought a hurricane, "the September Gale of 1815",
to New England. Memorable, but not all that much out of the ordinary. Then
on December 2nd, the Hudson River froze over. Also a little out of the ordinary.
It was going to be a cold winter. Perhaps that accounted for a bit of inflation
around my part of New York State as the price for Genesee River wheat reached
a high of $15 a barrel. This area wasn't heavily populated then and everyone
seems to have survived the ensuing winter, at least as well as farmers along
a frontier could expect to. Spring, as always, was anticipated.
Things don't always come to those who wait. The climate warmed and crops
across New York and New England were planted. And then, on June 6th a cold
wave swept from Canada to Virginia. Laundry that had been laid out to dry
on the grass at Plymouth, Connecticut, was found frozen stiff. The Berkshires,
New Hampshire and Vermont received ten inches of snow.
Five days later the area "wahmed up considerable." Then the cold
shifted west and a blizzard slammed the Cleveland area on the 17th. On July
9th, a killing frost settled over northern New England.
Europe wasn't receiving the meteorological blows that were falling on North
America, but colder weather was having an adverse effect on crops across
the continent. Britain seems to have escaped the worst effects, perhaps
due to the Gulf Stream. The Naval Chronicles reported average temperatures
falling from an average 47.56 degrees for the period between the first of
the year and the 18th of July in 1814, and an average 50.73 for the same
period in the following year, to a period average of 20.25 in 1816. It also
reported, "The rain this year has been very frequently attended by
cold winds." As the summer wore on the Chronicles reported, "Rain
and high wind on 30, 31 Aug. Frost on morning of 2 Sep. Wheat harvest is
getting on rapidly, in some places it has finished. Grain crop in general
is its usual size, and in most places there is a good average crop."
France was not as sanguine. Crops were not coming along well there and on
August 7th the government forbade grain exports.
Two weeks later damaging frosts again struck New England, and on the 30th
they occurred a third time; Cleveland reeled under a second blizzard. The
following day the ship James , sailing near Canada's Grand Banks
spotted a mile-long iceberg, and snow fell near London.
While some were feeling the cold wind of God's Wrath in their faces and
down their chimneys, others were seeking more understandable causes or preparing
for anticipated food shortages. On October 30th the Philadelphia Society
for the Promotion of Agriculture, the country's first farmers' group, authorized
a study of the past summer's weather in the U. S. And on the 20th of November
the French government began importing grain. Famine began stalking Bavaria,
lasting for over two years.
1817 brought moderating weather and scattered relief, although grain riots
broke out in Fauville, France, on January 17th (Authorities there must have
worriedly recollected events of the Revolution.) On the 26th, Swiss churches
declared a day of special collections to alleviate famine conditions.
But Spring did arrive and soon the nightmare was ending for most of the
affected regions. On August 5th, the German city of Ulm celebrated the end
of its food shortage with a thanksgiving. Western New York State seems to
have felt a positive effect - during the last three months of the year,
5,000 bushels of flour were shipped out of the Genesee River to Montréal,
and the open boat Troyer brought Buffalo the first flour from the west.
Another year would see Rochester exporting 26,000 barrels of flour.
There are a few coincidental events during the period, having to do with
weather, religion and food, that are interesting to note:
"Eighteen hundred and froze to death" - "The Year without
a Summer" - was over. Shakespeare had then been dead for over two centuries,
but he may have summed 1816 up best in one of his sonnets when he wrote:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer's lease hath all too short a date;
PEARL OF AN URL
The data from the Naval Chronicles in the above article from was generously
provided, on request, by Michael Phillips of Plymouth, England. Mike maintains
a page for England's Plymouth Naval
Base Museum, as well as other links.
The Plymouth Naval Base Museum page contains, among other documents, extracts
from George Sallet's autobiography of an U. S. destroyer sailor throughout
the Pacific War; the story of Graham Island, a new island appearing in the
Sicilian Channel in the early 1830s; the 1882 wreck of the Douro; extracts
from the Naval Chronicle between 1799 and 1816; and exploits of British
Submarine commanders in the Dardenalles in 1914 and 1915. You can also link
to Royal Navy pictures from 1898. From there on you can access "A page
of useful information for readers of naval history" and follow strands
of the web to an Index to Pictures of U. S. Ships from Revolutionary War
to 1941 (via Gopher); a guided tour around the USS Kittyhawk; a data base
containing more than 50,000 wrecks at Northern Maritime Research; and North
American Maritime Museums.
You can also link from the Plymouth page to The World Ship Society and The
Algerines Association, an organization "formed in 1984 to bring together
in mutual friendship those who served in the Algerine Class and other naval
vessels such as danlayers and minesweepers of other classes which served
So hoist anchor, click link and off you sail.
(Mike Phillips can be reached at: email@example.com)
What else was happening in the world of science and technology during the
second half of the 1810s. A search on "sci" turns up the following:
Hearings begin before the New Jersey state legislature to determine whether
Robert Fulton or Nicholas Roosevelt invented the steamboat with vertical
The postponed steamboat hearings resume.
Fulton testifies in his own behalf.
John R. Livingston is granted his suit to have the New Jersey monopoly act
repealed - a narrow victory for Fulton.
Inventor Robert Fulton dies, in New York City, of pneumonia.
Fulton is buried in lower Manhattan.
Canada's first streetlamps are installed, in Montréal.
Technology - A British patent costs £70.
Sir Humphrey Davy's safety lamp for miners is successfully tested.
French philosopher M. Rudy lectures on sun spots, in Paris.
Optical glass manufacturer Carl Zeiss is born in Germany.
Eli Whitney marries the granddaughter of evangelist Jonathan Edwards.
Baltimore, Maryland, becomes the first U. S. city lit by gas.
Boats - The steamer Chancellor Livingston, the last steamboat built
to Fulton's specifications, goes into service on the Hudson River.
England - Charles Babbage is elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. **
John Loudon McAdam devises a new method of road surfacing.
Geology - William Maclure's Observations on the Geology of the United
Law - The U. S. Supreme Court rules, in Lowell v. Lewis , that an
invention need only have utility, not be more useful than those already
Technology - Richard Roberts devises a metal planing machine, although he's
not the first to do so.
Benjamin Silliman founds The American Journal of Science, the earliest
German physiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond is born in Berlin.
Agriculture - Secretary of the Treasury T. H. Crawford instructs U. S. consuls
in foreign countries to collect agricultural samples and learn of agricultural
Food - Vermont's John Conant invents a cooking stove. ** New York's Ezra
Daggett and Thomas Kensett begin canning fish.
Technology - U. S. inventor Oliver Evans, 64, dies.
Transportation - The Savannah completes her first voyage to Europe,
using some steam power.
You were asked for the last name of the Portuguese navigator who discovered
the Senegal River, in 1445. The answer is Lançarote.
In 1941 a writer published a novel featuring a meteorologist tracking a
huge weather disturbance as it crossed the U. S. The scientist was eccentric;
he gave the storm a woman's name, not a common practice at the time. Name
the novel and its author.
EB SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY: (more detailed versions available)
- Barrow, John D. & Silk, Joseph - The Left Hand of Creation: The
Origin and Evolution of the Expanding Universe (New York, Oxford University
- Bonfanti, Leo - New England Side Trips, Volume 1 (Pride Publications)
- Burnell, Marcia - Heritage Above: A Tribute to Maine's Tradition of
Weather Vanes (Down East Books)
- Cohen, I. Bernard - Album of Science: The Nineteenth Century (New York,
- Copernicus, Nicholaus - On the Revolution of Heavenly Spheres (Amherst,
New York, Prometheus)
- Flexner, Doris & Stuart - The Pessimist's Guide to History (Avon,
New York, 1992)
- Harrington, C. R. - The Year Without a Summer? : World Climate in 1816
(Ottawa, Canadian Museum of Nature, 1992)
- Keppler, Johannes - Epitome of Copernican Astronomy AND Harmonies of
the World (Amherst, Prometheus)
- Parton, Ethel - The Year Without a Summer, a Story of 1816 (1945)
- Reader's Digest - Living Earth Book of Wind and Weather (New York, Random
- Stommel, Harry and Elizabeth - Volcano Weather : the Story of 1816,
the Year Without a Summer (1983)
- Struik, Dirk J. - Yankee Science in the Making (New York, Dover)
- Wagner, Ronald L. & Adler, Bill, Jr. - The Weather Sourcebook (Old
* * *
I hope, as we begin our second year of snooping around in the world's history,
that you've enjoyed this issue of Odds & Ends.
Christmas isn't far off. Consider an Eagles Byte timeline for the history
lover on your list, or for yourself. $3 for each year by e-mail; $4 by snail
ODDS & ENDS INDEX