Sunday, January 08, 2006


It's Official: British Weather Sucks

Today's Times of London review of Tom Fort's Under the Weather: Us and the Elements (available in the UK but not yet in the US) includes this amusing bit of lore:

There are many cranks and eccentrics here, but none more interesting than Dr George Merryweather (apt name), a general practitioner in Whitby, Yorkshire, the coastal town later honoured with a visit by Count Dracula. Merryweather had read a letter from the poet William Cowper to his cousin Lady Hesketh extolling the prophetic virtues of his pet leech: “I have a leech in a bottle that foretells all these prodigies and convulsions of Nature. No change in the weather surprises him . . . he is worth all the barometers in the world.”

Drawing inspiration from Cowper’s fond report, Merryweather confined leeches in bottles and kept a close watch on their movements. When the leeches were calm, the weather was mild, but when they were restless it was in anticipation of a storm at sea. Thus was born Merryweather’s Tempest Prognosticator, a device with 12 leeches in as many bottles on a specially constructed circular stand. Tubes and a bell struck by a dozen little hammers completed the design. Fort observes wryly that Merryweather was deeply attached to his bloodsuckers.

In going through 19th century issues of Notes and Queries I came across a number of letters referring to this peculiar invention, some by people who swore they saw it, and others insisting it was surely a hoax. But Merryweather's "Tempest Prognosticator" was indeed shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851:

On the circular base of his apparatus he installed glass jars, in each of which a leech was imprisoned and attached to a fine chain that led up to a miniature belfry -- from whence the tinkling tocsin would be sounded on the approach of a tempest." The model was displayed in the Dome of Discovery's 'Sky' gallery...

An antique barometer dealer in Britain has apparently now built a working replica.

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