Simon Winchester: Recording the weather with a wavering blue line

Each Sunday morning, I wind all the clocks in the house. There are seven of them, and the process takes about a half hour, what with all the tinkering and adjusting that is needed. My intention in doing so is that when they each chime the Sunday midnight they will do so more or less in unison - and may continue thus until the following Wednesday or Thursday, after which, inevitably, they gradually each fall out of rate, and then chime their various twelves, as the saying has it, "in friendly disagreement."

There is one other Sunday task, the one which I cherish most: I change the paper on the dining room barograph.

I have been doing this now for all of the 16 years I have lived in Sandisfield, and as a result now have a stack of papers a good six inches thick, on which the town's weekly weather has been faithfully recorded in a succession of wavering lines of blue ink.

This barograph is an elegant English-made instrument of brass levers and drums and a silver vacuum chamber, all enclosed in a pretty case of glass and teakwood. My late parents sent it to me for my 57th birthday, in September 2001 - and as a Sandisfield housewarming present.

Most will remember that, with the events of what is now known as 9/11, that particular month was terribly grim. This quite unexpected gift arrived from London two weeks later, in an enormous box — not inspected by U.S. Customs, which rather surprised me — and opening it to find this exquisite instrument offered our family a brief moment of joy, a reminder that for most, life could indeed now continue.

And so I have kept on changing the barograph's recording paper weekly ever since, more than eight hundred times so far — as reminder to myself of the kindness of my faraway parents, as a memorial, as a celebration of the continuation of good cheer and human existence.

And because I'm totally enthralled by weather.

The instrument itself is a simple thing, built simply to record on paper the outside atmospheric pressure as it fluctuates, hour by hour, day by day. The recording paper, eleven inches long and matched to wrap around the outside of a clockwork-powered brass cylinder (parent reader: demand from your child the cylinder's diameter), measures out the passing days. A pen, its nib filled with a slow-drying glycerine-and-ink mixture, presses lightly against the unscrolling paper and, since it is connected by an intricate arrangement of levers to the aforesaid vacuum chamber, rises and falls along with the pressure outside, leaving its wavering blue trace.

A barograph is not a means of forecasting what will happen to the weather — I have an array of barometers that help do that — but rather a rather elegant means of recording what did happen — a meteorological history of town. From time to time, when nostalgia beckons, I venture into the dining-room cupboard to fish out the papers and look back at how the weather was. I am then reminded, quite charmingly, of quite another Sandisfield. I am viewing a portrait of a country environment that somehow transcends all of our more mundane arguments we have over tax increases and road repairs and the travails of Wired West.

Here at random for instance, on one of the sheets, is the record for the week ending December 14, 2008.

The blue line, shivering its way unremarkably through the week's beginning makes a sudden, massive downward dive late on the evening of Thursday, 11th. It plummets further still during the night and the dawning, and continues yet further almost until noon. During that time, I have noted on the graph: 2am, power cut, phones down; 3pm, two inches of ice accumulated; dusk, State of Emergency; 6am, National Guard deployed. And then, beneath all these lesser notes, I see I had written, in a larger capitals: GREAT ICE STORM. ONE FOR THE HISTORY BOOKS.

And all this on one little sheet, one of eight hundred in my dining-room closet. It is a tiny if memorable component of a history book that grows ever longer, week by succeeding week. If I'm lucky — and if my plucky little machine keeps on ticking — I'll be able to accumulate another eight hundred sheets, maybe more, before I run out of my own personal ink. After which, here will lie three decades of Sandisfield's weather story, of her rain and sun, her snow, her mud, her blackflies, her autumn colors and her all-too-frequent accumulations of ice.

What will my successors do with the records? Keep them, and keep on recording more? Or toss them all away, along with this puzzling little contraption on which all was recorded. Sad to say, I suspect that it will be latter — since in 20 years' time few will probably know or care what a barograph is or ever was? Maybe some kind of relative of a typewriter, a telex, a flip phone or a tape-recorder? Cute, like a sextant or an astrolabe or an orrery — but a device quite mysterious and unfathomable. Of no immediate use.

Put it up in the attic, dear. Along with all those wretched clocks.

Author, journalist and traveler Simon Winchester lives on a farm in Sheffield. This article first appeared in the Sandisfield Times.


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