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Climate for a Nation

Forecast: 1 January 1901

Climates of Opinion

Battling the Elements

Forecast: 1 January 2001



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A Climate for a Nation

Forecast: 1 January 1901

The day had been hot, the air hung 'heavy and dead'; but as evening approached, 'ominous-looking clouds' swept over the city, and a thundery change seemed imminent. On this, the last day of the nineteenth century, as Australia prepared to celebrate its birth as a nation, the people of Sydney looked to the weather. 'The keenest dread is that Proclamation Day will be wet', the Age reported, '"Will it rain?" is the question in everybody's mouth'.[1]

The storm broke shortly after 7 o'clock. Fierce winds and heavy rains battered the city's festive finery, toppling some flags and hoardings, and making 'rather a sorry sight' of the buntings. As drizzle continued on into the night, the Government Astronomer, H. C. Russell, offered calm reassurance: 'Prospects are strongly in favor of fine weather for our natal day'.[2]

Despite Russell's confident prediction, 1 January 1901 dawned uncertain. 'Overhanging clouds and portending thunder' threatened to mar the procession that was assembling in the Domain. But just before the parade marched off on its triumphant journey towards the inauguration ceremony, the cloud cover began to break. Suddenly, the sun 'burst forth', flooding the scene with new colour and life: 'His beams were never before half so welcome', remarked the Age. Soon, an 'invigorating southerly breeze' arose, rustling the banners and the flags, freshening the air. The weather, it seemed, had succumbed to the sense of occasion. 'The new nation was awakening', the Age continued, 'and with it inanimate nature was springing into renewed beauty and life.[3]

The sun played the part scripted for it in many of the celebratory odes that heralded the achievement of Federation.[4] The rising sun symbolised Australia's youth, opportunity and integrity. But if the sun's finely-timed appearance seemed portentous, its performance was perhaps a little overdone. By midday its rays were beating down on the closely packed crowds 'with terrific intensity'.[5] Sixteen soldiers collapsed due to the heat.[6] Moreover, in a continent that had yet to emerge from a long and terrible drought, a blazing sun might equally symbolise lost hopes, failures, and ragged, desolate dreams.

Optimism that Australia's 'empty lands' would readily fall to the plough was blunted by the long drought of the 1890s.[7] Nonetheless, expectations remained strong. The new nation's destiny was still imagined to lie somewhere amidst its 'vast spaces', but this destiny was as much of a challenge as it was a gift. If the land was to be won, its character had to be known, its climate understood, its extremes predicted and moderated. While all of the colonies maintained meteorological services, mostly staffed by astronomers like Russell, the value of cooperation and coordination was clear.[8] When the constitution of the new nation was framed, astronomy and meteorology were the only fields of scientific endeavour in which the Commonwealth sought power to legislate.[9] More than just a matter of efficiency, meteorology offered itself as a tool to the eager nation builders.

People in Bright Sparcs - Russell, Henry Chamberlain

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