Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

"In Nebula Nebulorum": The Dry Fog of the Summer of 1783 and the Introduction of Lightning Rods in the German Empire

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

"In Nebula Nebulorum": The Dry Fog of the Summer of 1783 and the Introduction of Lightning Rods in the German Empire

Article excerpt

THE YEAR 1783 HAS A FIRM PLACE IN HISTORY BOOKS and chronologies of human achievements. It was June 4, 1783, when the brothers Montgolfier let their first hot air balloon ascend into the sky over Annonay in the southwest of France. The news spread fast, and in the following months, people all over Europe tried to launch their own balloons. Ballooning was the talk of the day, and the media bursting with new accounts of fortunate and less fortunate attempts to fly1

Yet if we had a chance to ask the people of the time what was most memorable and peculiar about that summer of 1 783, they would probably give a different answer. Yes, uhere was something in the air, but the people in many parts of Europe might rather have referred to the strange weather that started roughly in midJune, two weeks after the ascent of the first montgolfière balloon. It was a summer marked by a most strange "dry fog," a white veil in the air that had no moisture in it like ordinary fog. The sunlight was clouded to such an extent Üiat people were able to look right into the sun. Visibility was poor, and in some places the air smelled of sulfur. At sunrise and at sunset the sun often turned crimson or cherry-red and heightened the frightening appearance of the elements. The fog lasted for about five weeks, disappearing around July 20, only to return with lower intensity in August until the beginning of September (with considerable local variation). The fog was joined by very high temperatures. According to recent reconstructions of climate historians, the summer of 1 783 was one of the three hottest summers in western Europe in the last three centuries.2

As if that were not enough, the summer of 1783 was also marked by a frequency and ferocity of thunderstorms without parallel in the memory of the living. In 1788 Anton Pilgram, an early climate historian and statistician from Vienna, calls 1783 the "strongest thunderyear I ever experienced."5 Others went further, claiming that human memory had not recorded a summer with such

heavy thunderstorms.4 With respect to England, the Gentleman's Magazine "for July reported a country-wide increase in death by lightning, a phenomenon 'more fatal, during the course of the present month, than has been known for many years'."5 In July and August 1783 hardly a newspaper issue was without reports describing the frequent lightning and the immense damage it caused to buildings, deploring the lives it took when it struck people in fields, houses, or while ringing church bells.6

In this essay, I will concentrate on the German Empire, but the phenomenon as such- the dry fog, and the huge number of thunderstorms- was a European one. The reading public of the time was very well aware of the European dimension of the strange weather.8 The dry fog was a weather phenomenon as much as it was a media phenomenon. The people remembered the simultaneous appearance of the fog and the heavy lightning. And they remembered having read about it. A decade later, the Swabian minister and amateur scientist Gottlieb Christoph Bohnenberger still recalled: "Everybody knows, how dry the air was at the time of the high smoke in the summer of 1783, but also how numerous the thunderstorms were, and how heavy their outbreaks were nearly everywhere. All the time one would hear about the unlucky ones who were killed by lightning, and in all newspapers one would read about the terrible thunderstorms and the destruction and the havoc thev caused."9

Pauper and Professor

How did the people react in the face of these most unusual phenomena? Due to the limited sources it is hard to tell what the "common man," the farmer in the countryside or the artisan in the city, thought about the fog. Mostly we can only retrieve some indirect evidence. Some of the newspapers reported growing public fear and apprehension. These articles tell us, of course, only what the authors thought the people were thinking. These writers often draw on the stereotype of the common man who resorts to superstition when confronted with unusual phenomena instead of reason and natural philosophy. …

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