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The Weather Prophets

The Charleville Rainmaker

Reading the Signs

Weather to Order

The Long-range Outlook



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The Weather Prophets

The Charleville Rainmaker

Cloudy skies at last! On 26 September 1902, the drought-wearied residents of Charleville looked to the heavens with new hope. They knew, of course, that clouds offered no certainty of rain; too often before they had watched them drift on, merely taunting with the possibility of relief. But this time the people of Charleville had science on their side. They were going to make it rain.

Stationed around the town were six Stiger Vortex guns, their long, funnel-shaped barrels aimed skywards. At noon the guns were manned, and at the direction of the Mayor, ten shots were 'fired from each in quick succession'. A few drops of rain fell, but nothing more until two o'clock, when there was a light shower. The drought had not been broken, but it seemed an encouraging start. Perhaps, it was suggested, the prevailing strong winds had 'interfered with the force of the vortices'.[1]

Later that afternoon, the experiment was repeated. This time there was no rain. Nothing. Moreover, two of the guns exploded, rendering them unusable. No-one was injured, but the experiment had clearly failed. There would be no more rain. The clouds again moved on, while the would-be rainmakers succumbed to disappointment and recrimination.[2]

Charleville's assault on the weather was marshalled by Clement Wragge, Queensland's energetic, but irascible meteorologist.[3] On a visit to Europe in 1901, Wragge had investigated the use of the Stiger Vortex to disperse hailstorms over Italian vineyards. His research led him to believe that the guns might be usefully employed against 'the heavy "dry" cloud masses of continental Australia', those 'which so often promise rain and then pass away without any precipitation'. Discharging a Stiger Vortex battery into the clouds would 'probably result' in a 'downpour', Wragge suggested. In any case, he added, 'the experiment is thoroughly worth trying'.[4]

Many Queenslanders shared his enthusiasm. Public subscriptions funded the construction of the guns, and Wragge supervised their installation at Charleville.[5] But there were no clouds on which to test them. An impatient Wragge departed after a few days, leaving the experiment in the hands of the town's mayor. When informed of its failure, Wragge had no doubt who was to blame. 'I could not manage to stay at Charleville until a favourable opportunity of making the experiments occurred', he explained, 'and, of course, if the Charleville people will not carry out my instructions, I cannot help it'.[6]

Wragge's angry outburst was typical of the man and his career. Although he was well regarded by the public, Wragge had the unhelpful knack of alienating many of his colleagues and potential supporters. Styling himself as the 'Boss weather prophet', and promulgating Australia-wide predictions from his 'Chief Weather Bureau, Brisbane', Wragge sought to claim both the continent and the discipline as his own, hindering attempts to foster intercolonial cooperation.[7] And yet, for all his arrogance and irritability, Wragge successfully focused attention on the significance of meteorology for the developing nation. His vision of a Federal Weather Bureau would finally be achieved, but he would not be the one to lead it.[8]

The failure of his Charleville experiment was just one of a series of disappointments that were to bring Wragge's Australian career to a sad and bitter end. Lack of funds forced him to close his weather bureau in 1903, and his ambition to take charge of the newly-established Commonwealth service was thwarted by the appointment of H. A. Hunt a few years later. Rejected and seemingly unwanted, Wragge left the country to establish an observatory in New Zealand. Just as his attempt to master Charleville's weather had ended in anger and derision, so his efforts to control Australian meteorology left him isolated and indignant—a weather prophet in the wilderness.

People in Bright Sparcs - Hunt, Henry Ambrose ; Wragge, Clement Lindley

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