Climate of Newark

George Inness, Autumn Meadows, 1869

RECENTLY, there were reports that the Oxford English Dictionary had identified the earliest use of the term “climate change.” The words in their context, an American scientific magazine of 1854, and even in their inflection, differed somewhat from how we read and understand them today. But it’s evident from the brief article in which they were first combined that humans’ effect on climate was already a subject of interest to scientists–and readers–in mid-nineteenth century America.1

When the phrase appeared, William A. Whitehead was putting final touches on his 125th monthly summary of the weather at Newark. Published in the Newark Daily Advertiser without fail at the beginning of every month, his narratives of temperature variations, precipitation, storms and other natural occurrences, and their blend of usefulness, wisdom and wit, earned the admiration of publisher William B. Kinney, and attracted a faithful readership from far and wide.

In his earliest reports Whitehead mentioned storms and other events in distant locations, from Canada to Florida and as far west as St. Louis. He remarked that “the cause of Meteorological science” would be well served if newspapers in other places devoted similar attention to phenomena occurring in nearby cities on the same day, as “additional information from intermediate points might possibly connect them more closely….”2

Eventually, Whitehead had to curtail his references to weather farther afield. But this could have been a sign of his success. The Advertiser, marking the 200th of his monthly reports, commented on how these reports were “looked for with interest in remote quarters, as well as within the district to which they more particularly refer,” and had even exerted an influence on the way other newspapers handled the subject of weather.3

Joseph Henry, first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

A system linking observers in distant places was not a new idea. Army posts had provided such a network since at least 1819, transmitting their statistics to the Office of the Surgeon General. But Whitehead saw very little use being made of this information until Professor James P. Espy, in 1845, converted the reports of some 90 stations throughout the U.S. into a series of charts–“pleasing illustrations” of the phenomena they recorded, and of the benefits of a unified program for the collection, collation and display of weather data.4

Gathering in September 1848, Whitehead and other members of the New Jersey Historical Society “listened with gratification and conviction” to news of such a program. It was just one of many scientific initiatives of the fledgling Smithsonian Institution, presented by Dr. Joseph Henry, its first Secretary. A former professor at Princeton, Henry spoke to the New Jersey Society of “an extended system of meteorological observations, embracing, as far as possible, the whole American continent.”5

With the launch the following year of the Smithsonian’s weather reporting system, Whitehead and 154 fellow correspondents around the country were sent sheafs of blank forms to record their daily observations and transmit them at the end of each month to Washington.6 Some of these citizen scientists also received gratis, or at a reduced price, weather instruments copied from European models, but it’s likely that Whitehead, already a seasoned observer, continued to use and regulate his own trusted thermometers, barometer and rain gauge.

Initially preoccupied with the approach of severe weather, especially winter storms, the Smithsonian Institution soon broadened the scope of its weather program to collect “the statistics necessary to ascertain the character of the climate of North America….”7 As it happens, even before the Smithsonian’s founding in 1846, Whitehead had begun contributing to American climate science by condensing his readings into annual summaries and juxtaposing the numbers to those of all previous years. He began these syntheses of local trends–appearing every January in the Advertiser, frequently under the heading “Climate of Newark”–with the weather of 1844, the first year for which he had a full twelve months of data, and he continued producing them in an “unbroken series” until the 1880s.8

Whitehead’s readings, in their quantity, their consistency and their accumulation over many years, were thought to facilitate measurement of local weather against that of other places, seen as much more of an advantage to readers of the Advertiser than historical comparisons. Still, his wealth of data could not but “conduce to the unfolding of many interesting truths,”9 and if Whitehead took any notice of sustained changes in Newark’s climate, or if his work contains any evidence of climate change, surely one would expect to find it in his annual summaries.

The peace and plenty of Newark were from time to time disrupted by extreme weather, but Whitehead’s accounts convey no sense that this was growing more common. His readings showed significant fluctuations in annual amounts of “water that reaches the surface in rain and snow,” from a low of 34.075 inches in 1856 to a high of 57.05 three years later. But, as he observed in his tenth annual report, over any four- or five-year interval the total came out about the same, “the excess of one year being corrected by the deficiency of another.” Based on previous years’ observations, Whitehead even ventured that after the very dry conditions of 1856 “it is more than probable that 1857 will be very wet”–a prediction that proved correct.10

This was an instance of Whitehead’s climate science at work, a science governed by the “laws of compensation,” according to which extremes were equalized and differences harmonized. These “laws”–which he called “wonderful” and “mysterious”–were capable of “regulating and bringing into order and unity the diversities and variations so apparent in the natural world.”11 The idea that the earth’s equilibrium could never be permanently upset, even by intensive human activity, flowed equally from a religious faith–“God’s in his heaven”–and from a Romantic vision of Nature as an organic whole. In Whitehead’s era, this belief was at the height of its power. 

Mean yearly temperatures at Newark, 1844-1880.

The findings of his last several yearly reports, however, might be seen to throw a slender shadow of doubt on such certainties. After 1875, a year drastically colder than any before it, Newark’s mean yearly temperatures climbed back steadily, reaching a new high in 1878 of 53.63° Fahrenheit, nearly three degrees above the average of all past years.12 The year 1877, the second warmest in Whitehead’s records, was also remarkable for the scant days on which he observed snow, “a less number than in any previous year” and fewer than half the average.13

In 1856, the same journal that two years earlier had brought the phrase “climate change” into being carried an account of carbon dioxide’s tendency to increase the warming effect of the sun, based on experiments recently conducted by Eunice Foote.14 Her report, “Circumstances affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays,” was first read by Joseph Henry before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and published subsequently under her own name. Foote’s research, long overlooked, is now regarded as a cornerstone of climate science.15 If he had even known of these findings in 1856, Whitehead could not have thought to associate them with what he observed twenty years later. Yet it’s tempting to imagine him a witness to their realization, and to the beginnings of a new normal.

Copyright © 2021 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] The author of the unsigned article “The magnet and cold,” Scientific American 10:6 (21 October 1854) 48, reviewed “climatic changes” known from recorded history, and favored a theory based on shifts in the earth’s magnetic field over any explanation related to agriculture. “Climatic changes” was altered to “climate changes” when the column was reprinted in The United States magazine of science, art, manufactures, agriculture, commerce and trade 1:8 (15 December 1854) 234-235. The country’s first official meteorologist, James P. Espy “the Storm King,” was renowned for his advocacy of human-engineered climate modification, although Whitehead harbored doubts about his theory that intentional burning of forests could help relieve drought. W., “Review of the Weather for April, 1845,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 1 May 1845 2:3.

[2] W., “Review of the Weather for May 1844,” Newark daily advertiser 1 June 1844 2:3-4.

[3] “The Climate of Newark,” Newark daily advertiser 14 January 1860 2:2.

[4] W., “Review of the Weather for April, 1845.” In the national government’s starting to gather and publish “information upon matters not immediately connected with affairs of state,” Whitehead nonetheless detected “an apprehension, ill founded it is hoped, that such a course is not in accordance with the views of the people….” Why else, he asked, would meteorology “assume so much the character of private enterprise on the part of a clerk in the office of a Surgeon General?”

[5] Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society [ser. 1] 3:3 (1848) 125, 130.

[6] The National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville, N.C., now hold the records of the Smithsonian observations, including the earliest of Whitehead’s “meteorological journals” known, a daily tabulation for March 1849 at the bottom of which he wrote “I have no more blanks.” I am grateful to Chris Stachelski for this information.

[7] Joseph Henry, “Meteorology in its connection with agriculture,” in Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the year 1855. Agriculture (Washington 1856) (357-371) 370. 

[8] The heading “Climate of Newark” was combined in the Advertiser with, or substituted for, “Yearly Meteorological Report” during the 1850s and 1860s. In some years, “Climate of Newark” was the title of columns printed separately from the tables of data, narratives–invariably unsigned–that were certainly also the work of Whitehead. The last of the annual summaries seems to be that in W., “Yearly meteorological report. No. XXXVII–for 1880,” Newark daily advertiser 8 January 1881 1:1.

[9] “The climate of Newark,” Newark daily advertiser 15 January 1864 2:1. Cf. “The climate of Newark,” Newark daily advertiser 14 January 1860 2:4; “Yearly meteorological report. No. XXX for 1873,” Newark daily advertiser 14 January 1874 1:1.

[10] W., “Climate of Newark. Meterological [sic] table for 1853,” Newark daily advertiser 10 January 1854 2:5; W., “Climate of Newark. Meteorological table for 1856,” Newark daily advertiser 29 January 1857 2:7; W., “The climate of Newark. Meteorological table for 1857,” Newark daily advertiser 27 January 1858 2:3.

[11] “The climate of Newark,” Newark daily advertiser 14 January 1860 2:2; “The climate of Newark,” Newark daily advertiser 15 January 1864 2:1; “The climate of Newark,” Newark daily advertiser 26 January 1869 2:2.

[12] W., “Yearly meteorological report. No. XXXV–for 1878,” Newark daily advertiser 10 January 1879 1:1.

[13] W., “Yearly meteorological report. No. XXXIV–for 1875,” Newark daily advertiser 10 January 1878 3:1.

[14] “Scientific ladies.–Experiments with condensed gases,” Scientific American 12:1 (13 September 1856) 5.

[15] See Roland Jackson, “Eunice Foote, John Tyndall and a question of priority,” Notes and records. The Royal Society journal of the history of science 74:1 (13 February 2019) 105-118.

Images: 1) George Inness (1825-1894), Autumn Meadows. Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art (Acc. no. 1974.75). Gift of Walter Knight Sturges, 1974.  2) Joseph Henry, ca. 1840s. Photograph of daguerreotype.  Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 11, folder 1. Copyright Chicago Historical Society.  3) Mean yearly temperatures at Newark, 1844-1880: graph based on William A. Whitehead’s yearly meteorological reports, created with the kind assistance of Beth Zak-Cohen.

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