On the morning of 30 April 1865, Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy, head of the British Meteorological Department, slit his throat. Because Fitzroy had been the captain of the Beagle, which several decades earlier had carried the young Charles Darwin around the world to conduct the research that eventually bore fruit in On the Origin of Species (1859), and because he was a devout evangelical, some historians have chalked up his suicide to guilt over his unwitting complicity in the genesis of a scientific theory he detested. But it is more likely, as Katharine Anderson suggests in her engaging and enlightening study of Victorian meteorology, that the depressive Fitzroy was pushed over the edge by a quite different scientific controversy. Could the weather, and more particularly storms, be predicted? As a seaman and a scientist, Fitzroy had campaigned for a system of storm warnings, based on collations of data telegraphed to the Meteorological Department by observers from more than a dozen sites, six mornings a week. His elaborate signal code of cones and drums to alert ships to approaching gales was well enough known to figure in parodies and political cartoons in the London press. But the accuracy, and even the possibility, of his forecasts was doubted by some of the most prestigious scientific authorities, as Fitzroy was painfully aware. The Royal Society had been notably cool, intimating that his forecasts were more oracular than scientific.
LRB 3 November 2005 | PDF Download