The Storm Breeder

Despite the evident care of William Redfield's investigations, his findings were sharply attacked, beginning in 1834, by a Philadelphia scientist with a very different theory about the character of storms. In an era of high seas sailing ships, when captains were relying on luck and lore for the safety of their vessels and men, the different ideas these two men held about the behavior of the winds were of special practical interest.

The air does not rotate around storms, James Pollard Espy insisted, but rather it rushes inward from all directions toward the center of low barometric pressure. Where Redfield described a whirlwind, a gravity-driven "aerial vortex," Espy envisioned a heat engine, a "chimney" of warm air expanding as it rises skyward, forming clouds and rain and sucking in surface air like some atmospheric black hole. Between Red-field's centrifugal theory and Espy's centripetal winds was a world of difference, or so it seemed at the time. Their methods of research were certainly different. Redfield's picture of the winds was the result of collating data from on-the-ground observation after a real storm. Espy's was laboratory work that led to a theoretical insight, the first description of the process of convection, and he spent the rest of his life trying to make every observation of every storm conform to it.

Like Redfield, James Espy came relatively late in life to the study of meteorology. He was born on May 9, 1785, in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, the son of French Huguenots. The family moved to the Bluegrass region of Kentucky while James was still an infant, but his father's Huguenot sensibility was so offended by the institution of slavery that eventually the family moved to the Miami Valley region of Ohio. Meanwhile, a daughter had married a Kentuckian from Mount Sterling, and young James stayed behind to be raised by his sister. When he was 18, he entered Transylvania University in Lexington, where he studied classical languages, graduating in 1808. Espy then followed his family to the frontier Ohio country, settling in Xenia, where he taught school and studied law. In 1812, he moved back east to Cumberland, Maryland, where he became principal of a local academy. There he married Margaret Pollard, thereafter adopting her last name as his middle name.

Apparently Espy did not take up any study of the atmosphere until sometime after 1817, when he moved to Philadelphia and became a private instructor of classical languages and mathematics at the Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvania. His first paper on the subject was prepared for the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia in 1821, when he was 36 years old. It would be another 8 years before he would publish his first treatise on the subject of the influence of latent heat on the expansion of air—the core of his breakthrough on convection.

Espy and Redfield were as different from one another as their theories. Redfield was a successful businessman with a strong avocational interest in science. Espy had abandoned the field of classical studies and ever since was searching for ways to finance his meteorological researches. Where Redfield was diffident and shy, Espy was outgoing and egotistical and given to exaggeration. Where Redfield avoided public speaking, Espy was an eager proselytizer of his views.

Divided into opposing factions, the New York scientists supporting Redfield and the Philadelphia scientists in Espy's camp argued for years over the basic questions of the shape and character of storms. Across the Atlantic, Redfield was supported by eminent British scientists, while Espy won the day in France. A barrage of critical reports in scientific journals, polemic review articles, and emotional debates in meetings of scientists ran on for more than a decade. Professor Joseph Henry at the College of New Jersey in Princeton observed that "two hypotheses as to the direction and progress of the wind in these storms have been advocated with an exhibition of feeling unusual in the discussion of a problem of purely scientific character." It was, he said, "as if the violent commotions of the atmosphere induced a sympathetic effect in the minds of those who have attempted to study them." The battle was joined by a third protagonist, Robert Hare, a professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, who insisted that storms were phenomena of vast currents of opposing electrical charge. At a time when knowledge of electricity was fresh, many scientists were willing to speculate about what role it might play in the atmosphere, but only Hare seems to have taken his theory very seriously.

Redfield, the careful observer, began his descriptions by making no claims to having a theory about the cause of the storms or their motive force. The subject at hand was not yet what causes storms but more basically, and less ambitiously, what are storms? But Espy's elaborate theoretical approach to the subject, and his grandiose claims for it, seemed to force the issue. "A majority of readers are content with nothing short of a theory, or some hypothetical pretensions to one," Redfield wrote. When he finally took the plunge in this direction, he was not very persuasive.

Perhaps because of his engineering background, Redfield found a strictly mechanical explanation, what he called somewhat vaguely "the dynamics of the atmosphere." The atmosphere behaves like other fluids, he said, like water flowing over the uneven bottom of a stream or eddies of current whirling about an ocean. Its storms were whirls created by the force of gravity and by the effects of the rotating and orbiting Earth. Air pressure, temperature, moisture—everything else was secondary to the winds, he said. Air pressure was lowest in the center, he argued, because of the centrifugal force of the whirling fluids. A concave formation makes for less atmosphere over the center of a storm in the same way that water whirling in a basin forms a central depression. Redfield dismissed Hare's electricity as a by-product of storms and took direct aim at Espy, who had found his rotary winds "anomalous and inconsistent with received theories."

"The grand error into which the whole school of meteorologists appear to have fallen consists in ascribing to heat and rarefaction the origin and support of the great atmospheric currents which are found to prevail over a great portion of the globe," Redfield wrote. In his biographical memoir of Redfield presented in 1857 to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Denison Olmsted lamented the fact that his friend had even made an attempt to advance a theory of storms, which he found vague and unsatisfactory. "I have almost regretted that he did not adhere to the ground he originally took, namely that he had not undertaken to explain the reason why the winds blow, but only to show how they blow," he said. "So far was matter of fact; all beyond was hypothesis. His facts are impregnable; his hypothesis doubtful."

James P. Espy's theory of storms was much more interesting and might have represented a striking advance in understanding the processes behind the formation of clouds and precipitation. When it came to his relations with fellow scientists, however, Espy was his own worst enemy. Even his friend Joseph Henry lamented a certain "want of prudence" in his colleague. Years later, another friend, Alexander Dallas Bache, would put his finger on a fundamental problem in Espy's approach to science. "His views were positive and his conclusions absolute, and so was the expression of them," wrote Bache. "He was not prone to examine and reexamine premises and conclusions, but considered what had once been passed upon his judgment as finally settled. Hence his views did not make that impression upon cooler temperaments among men of science to which they were entitled—obtaining more credit among scholars and men of general reading in our country than among scientific men, and making but little progress abroad." Espy had the habit of belittling the work of fellow investigators and so often offended other scientists. The controversy over storm theories took on a negative and bitter quality. Olmsted observed that large questions remained at the end of each theory of the causes of storms, and that "we still remain to a great degree in ignorance. Each of the combatants appears to me to be more successful in showing the insufficiency of the other's views than in establishing his own."

The core of Espy's conception relied on the law of gases that describes the relationship of pressure and volume, and on the release of latent heat by condensation. Espy applied English chemist John Dalton's interesting new idea that air containing more water vapor is lighter, rather than heavier, than air containing less. He employed the recent work of John Frederic Daniell on humidity and dew point and the insight of Joseph Black that water absorbs and releases latent heat in the processes of evaporation and condensation. For the first time, Espy accurately described the process of convection—the rise and expansion of warm air, its cooling to condensation, and its release of latent heat. Typically, he saw this insight in the grandest of terms: "It occurred to me at once that this was the lever by which the meteorologist was to move the world!"

Unfortunately, Espy saw as apparently essential to this vision of the energy behind storms the notion that wind rushes radially inward or straight toward the center of low pressure from all directions. When both Redfield and Espy examined the aftermath of the same storms, Redfield couldn't see any evidence for the winds turning inward, and Espy couldn't see evidence of any revolution. Neither Redfield nor Espy were aware of the work that was under way by the French mathematician Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis—at the very time of the American storm controversy—which explained and quantified the effect of deflection on moving objects by the rotation of a sphere. As U.S. Weather Bureau meteorologist Eric R. Miller would observe a century later, Espy "could not admit the rotation observed by Redfield because he knew of no force capable of producing it." The seminal paper on what would become known as the Coriolis effect was published in 1835—too late to save Espy's pioneering theory of storms. In fact, the idea would not be taken up seriously by meteorologists for 25 years. Even if he had seen that article, he probably would not have changed his thinking. It was a hallmark of his character that once James P. Espy reached a conclusion, however improbable, he never looked back to critically reexamine his thinking. As one historian of science observed, so devoted was Espy to his findings "that he became a prisoner of his own theories." Everywhere he went, at every storm scene, in every lecture hall, he denied the rotary motion of tornadoes, waterspouts, hurricanes, and other tropical storms. Observations that suggested a whirlwind were just not done as well as observations made by James Espy. Like a prizefighter leading with his chin, he attached his important insight into cloud formation and precipitation to his mistaken and somewhat irrelevant idea about the flow of the winds.

Espy seemed to take quite literally the notion that convection was "the lever by which the meteorologist was to move the world!" He saw in convection the answer for everything about weather. "In short," he wrote, "it is believed that all the phenomena of rains, hails, snows and water spouts, change of winds and depressions of the barometer follow as easy and natural corollaries from the theory here advanced, that there is an expansion of the air containing transparent vapour when that vapour is condensed into water."

Espy claimed not only the ability to explain events, but to control them. Nothing made him more famous or more seriously damaged his reputation among fellow scientists than his grand assertion that he could move the world by making rain. He wasn't the first person to make such a claim, of course, but to the chagrin of his fellow scientists, he was the first meteorologist to do it. Before long, people who had no idea about the storm controversy among scientists had heard about Espy's claim that he could breed storms by setting fires. He became known as the Storm King, or the Storm Breeder.

"Few of our philosophers are better known to the public at large . . . and few names, even among political men, have found of late a greater circulation," observed a writer in the November 1841 edition of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review. "Who has not heard of his wonderful power of commanding the elements, of transforming the clearest summer afternoon into a cloudy, raining, thundering night, by ordering the invisible waters of the heaven to accumulate in a chosen place, and produce there clouds and rain, with all their usual consequences?"

Espy proposed an experiment: setting the western forests ablaze during the summer with weekly fires of 40 acres every 20 miles along a north-south line up to 700 miles long. He claimed that as a result of this conflagration "a rain of great length, north and south, will commence on or near the line of fires; that the rain will travel towards the east side-foremost; that it will not break up until it reaches far into the Atlantic Ocean; that it will rain over the whole country east of the place of beginning; that it will rain only a few hours at any one place ... enough and not too much." Like everything else about his science, no amount of public ridicule would dissuade Espy from this view.

Frustrated with his inability to topple Redfield's work on winds, and running out of funds to finance his own research, Espy in 1837 began taking his science on the road with a series of public lecture tours. While this campaign of self-promotion brought financial rewards, it caused Espy to lose face among fellow scientists. More than one critic sneered that Espy, having failed to persuade fellow scientists of his views, had taken his propositions to a less discerning audience. And he certainly had. Public audiences enjoyed his earnest and artful presentations, and people who may not have understood his science certainly understood his rainmaking claims. He cultivated newspaper editors and reporters who fawned over his appearances. Writing in the New York Express, one enthusiastic journalist reported that "if professor Espy can do what he thinks can be done, make a storm, at once, man is almost master of the world."

In 1840, Espy took his cause to the savants of Europe, accepting invitations to address the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the French Académie des Sciences. Redfield also was invited, but he was unable to make the journey. Among the British, Espy encountered criticism of his theories from Sir John Herschel and Sir David Brewster. Their countryman, Lieutenant Colonel William Reid, Redfield's collaborator, already had presented the results of Redfield's researches to the organization, and Herschel read another Redfield paper after Espy's departure. In Paris, Espy found a more sympathetic audience. The mathematician François Arago was reported to have said, "England has its Newton, France its Cuvier, and America its Espy." Not everyone took this remark as a compliment to American science. A commission of the Académie des Sciences praised his work and urged that Espy be supported financially by the U.S. government.

Fresh from this remarkable accomplishment, Espy presented himself again to the U.S. Congress. He sought federal funds for a national system of simultaneous weather observations and funds for his own salary to oversee such a network. He also sought a provisional appropriation of $10,000 to be paid him, proportionally, if he were able to bring rain to 10,000 square miles during a drought. A visit from "Mr. Espy, the storm breeder," was recorded by John Quincy Adams, who, after serving as president, had become a member of the House of Representatives. "The man is methodically monomaniac, and the dimensions of his organ of self-esteem have been swollen to the size of a goiter by a report of a committee of the National Institute of France endorsing all of his crack-brained discoveries in meteorology," wrote Adams. "I told him with all possible civility that it would be of no use to memorialize the House of Representatives in behalf of his three wishes."

Arago may have been impressed with Espy, but the leading American mathematician of the day, Benjamin Peirce of New York, was not. Peirce wrote in a critical article in 1842 that he had attempted to be impartial but probably had failed, "for there is an air of self-satisfaction and contempt for the views of other observers in his statements, which irresistibly arouses the demon of obstinacy. Even storm-kings are intolerable in a republic."

A more sympathetic Joseph Henry, who as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution often found himself trying to mediate the controversy, observed after Espy's presentation to the British scientists at Glasgow that it was a "matter of congratulation" that the savants of Europe were taking such notice of all of the meteorological research under way in the United States. "The interesting theories of Espy and of Redfield, contradictory as they may now appear, will probably be found not incompatible with each other," he wrote, "and they undoubtedly form the most important steps towards the widest generation which have yet been attempted in reference to the complex phenomena of the motions of the atmosphere."

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