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: 1816. The first religious newspaper in the U. S. the Boston Recorder, is published. In California, Boston sailor Thomas Doakes jumped ship at San Juan Bautista, becoming the first U. S. citizen to settle in California. (And perhaps the first snowbird). New York City made five shipments of ice to the South, Asia and South America.

1817. On February 14th, a soup kitchen opened in New York City. And on March 4th, James Monroe became the first president to be inaugurated outdoors.

"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;


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 with them."

So hoist anchor, click link and off you sail.

(Mike Phillips can be reached at: mike@cronab.demon.co.uk)


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:

Jan 14
Hearings begin before the New Jersey state legislature to determine whether Robert Fulton or Nicholas Roosevelt invented the steamboat with vertical wheels.

Jan 24
The postponed steamboat hearings resume.

Jan 27
Fulton testifies in his own behalf.

Feb 4
John R. Livingston is granted his suit to have the New Jersey monopoly act repealed - a narrow victory for Fulton.

Feb 23
Inventor Robert Fulton dies, in New York City, of pneumonia.

Feb 25
Fulton is buried in lower Manhattan.

Nov 23
Canada's first streetlamps are installed, in Montréal.

Technology - A British patent costs £70.

Jan 9
Sir Humphrey Davy's safety lamp for miners is successfully tested.

Jul 12
French philosopher M. Rudy lectures on sun spots, in Paris.

Sep 11
Optical glass manufacturer Carl Zeiss is born in Germany.

Dec 6
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 States.

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 existing.

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 scientific periodical.

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 inventions.

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)

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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 mail.

David Minor david_minor@mlsonline.com

© 1996 david Minor / Eagles Byte