Henry Piddington and the 'New Science of Cyclonology'

'A curious and beautiful' 19th-century experiment based on being thrashed by a deadly storm.

Feb 21 2015, 7:46pm

​Image: NASA

​We're used to looking at weather from above. Whether it's giant colorful arrows overlaid on cartoon maps or the white whorls of a pubescent hurricane imaged from orbit, we understand weather with a distinctly macro perspective.

It's hard to imagine the alternative, where weather is just a sudden thing in the sky or the lingering plague of a drought. This is weather from the ground, as the merchant and proto-meteorologist Henry Piddington would have seen it in February of 1845 as his ship circled about the southern Indian Ocean some 1,200 miles off the coast of southeastern Africa. Locked into a terrifying and seemingly endless storm, Paddington was poised to make one of more crucial observations in early meteorology.

Storms were the dominant hazard to ships traveling through the southern latitudes, and an earlier voyage by Piddington, one of his first research platforms, found the seafaring scientist tossed about in a storm that would go on to kill 20,000 people.

On his storm-swept 1845 voyage, Piddington noticed something peculiar: After six days of fighting through the storm, seemingly on a determinate course, Piddington's ship, the Charles Heddle, had gone nowhere. It had plowed forward only to return to where the ship had started from. It made four loops in all, each one hundreds of miles across. He termed the phenomenon a cyclone, after the "coils of a snake."

"The Charles Heddle . . . has been performing for us a very curious and beautiful experiment, as cleverly as if she had been sent out to do it," he later wrote, according to a 1997 short biography/appreciation ​published in the journal Weather.

Piddington would go on to write books describing the new science of cyclonic storms, including The Sailor's Horn-Book for the Law of Storms. He became something of a cyclone safety missionary, preaching to sailors the dangers and emerging mechanics of the storms. In one of his subsequent pamphlets, Paddington made some of the first scientific estimations of storm surge, correctly ​predicting the inadequacy of a new port constructed outside of Calcutta, India. Soon after completion, it was destroyed.

Of storm surges, Piddington wrote:

The wall of water, as the inundation is not, as it seems to be, a permanent rise of the body of the ocean, but a single wave, or two, or three waves (which are in fact the waves of a bore from the sea) and are not followed by a succession of the same hnd, and they find on shore no expanse of water upon which the electric or other action can be continued to raise more water.

Piddington's "new science of Cyclonology" was nothing less than an obsession, yet it never quite caught on as such among other scientists and meteorologists. More so, it was a public or practical science, a collection of knowledge used by sailors to understand and avoid storms in new and better ways. Mostly, he's known to meteorologists as the source of the term "cyclone," and less so as a super-intense advocate and scientist. Looking at a radar image of a cyclone, Piddington himself would have been surprised at the accuracy of his own nomenclature.

His unplanned but fortuitous experiment aboard the Charles Heddle wouldn't be repeated until the 1930s, when a flotilla of Japanese ships found itself mired in a tropical storm. The flotilla dropped its planned naval exercises and instead began taking continuous readings of wind and wave observations. This has only been repeated one more time since, aboard an Indian Ocean drilling rig in the 1970s.

"Let me intreat those who have read the foregoing pages to reflect, that this investiga- tion has claims upon every man far above those of most scientific researches," the not-particularly-humble but endlessly quotable Piddington wrote in 1844. "It claims attention alike from the man of science, for it relates to some of the most mysterious and awful phenomenon of our globe . . . from the seaman, for it is with him question of life and death, of safety or of ruin; and of disgrace or credit from the friend of humanity, for it deeply concerns human life and human suffering; and from all other classes . . ."