how to predict the weather

We’ve all noticed that freshwater leeches get unusually agitated before the weather changes, right? And yet it took Dr. George Merryweather to think of making a leech-based storm warning system in 1850. He captured leeches and placed them on a tiny carousel, each leech ensconced in a glass bottle—clear glass, so they could see their compatriots and not “endure the affliction of solitary confinement”. Each leech was connected by chain to a bell at the top of the carousel, which would ring as a result of their pre-storm writhing. There it was: Merryweather’s Tempest Prognosticator (the initial name was “An Atmospheric Electromagnetic Telegraph, conducted by Animal Instinct”). Henry George once said “The march of invention has clothed mankind with powers of which a century ago the boldest imagination could not have dreamt,” and never was he more right than the development of hematophagic meteorological divination.

If it’s true, as Lawrence Durrell said, that “our inventions mirror our secret wishes,” then Merryweather either wished for better weather prediction or cross-species bondage play. The first time he heard that bell chime, followed shortly thereafter by distant peals of thunder, a look of horror crossed his face. Then, in a voice just above a whisper, he said “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”

the prognosticator

Actually, he was invited to demonstrate his invention at the 1851 Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, more commonly known as the Great Exhibition, in London. He was assigned booth 12 in the “Parasitomancy” section of the Dome of Discovery, between a lamprey-based stock market prognosticator and a childbed fever predictor that involved a poultice made from corn smut, across the aisle from Dr. Baxter’s Portable Hecatomb.

The Exhibition was held in the Crystal Palace, which enclosed 18 acres of land, featuring a 27-foot tall, four-ton pink glass fountain, the world’s first public toilets, McCormick’s reaper, Colt handguns, a bladed “defensive umbrella”, an 80-blade knife, elaborate porcelains and silks, Cossack armor, a 100 pound lump of gold, stuffed animal tableaux, and an unending assortment of gadgets, doodads, gizmos, and gewgaws.

Pearl-clutching preceded the show’s start. The King of Hanover said “The folly and absurdity of the Queen in allowing this trumpery must strike every sensible and well-thinking mind”. Others thought that—by some kind of mystical transmutation—the inventions would incite a revolutionary mob, presumably high on “technological progress”, I guess. To Marx, it was the canonical example of capitalism’s fetishization of commodities, but he might have changed his mind if only he’d seen the tempest prognosticator (also if Marx time-traveled to now, he would be like “So workers still have not seized the means of produ—mein gott, the bun on this mcgriddle is made of pancakes.”).

Some six million people attended the expo, but there’s no surviving record of how the emergency alert leech broadcast system was received. It was largely forgotten until the museum of the Whitby Philosophical Society (of which Merryweather was a member) built a replica in the 1950s.

the crystal palace

Collectors of banal coincidence and/or Ripley’s Believe it or Not-level ephemera might notice: hey, the guy named Merryweather built a device to predict the weather! Noting the correspondence between occupations and names has a long tradition. An 1888 magazine notes “a hosier named Hosegood; an auctioneer named Sales; and a draper named Cuff.” And of course the judges named Judge, lawyers named Law, dentists named Dennis, vicars named Vickers, the catholic Cardinal Sin, and the urologist researcher team named Splatt and Weedon (or Burns, Cox, Hardwick, and Woodcock). Let’s not forget the firefighter named Les McBurney, the Republican candidate named Rich White.

Some have turned the name->occupation linkage into an actual hypothesis. Nominative determinism is the idea that our names can play some role in determining our character, professions, likes, dislikes, and so on. The idea goes back at least to the early 20th century German psychologist Wilhelm Steckel, who wrote of the “obligation (or compulsion) of the name,” an idea later taken up by Carl Jung (who noted that Freud, whose name means “joy” wrote often on the sex and the pleasure principle).

There’s even some evidence for the idea. A well-known but also well-contested 2002 study (Pelham, Mirenberg, & Jones, 2002) found that people are disproportionately likely to live in towns resembling their names (i.e., people named Louis are overrepresented in St. Louis), disproportionately likely to live in towns related to their birthday (e.g., people born on the 2nd of the month are overrepresented in towns like Two Harbors), disproportionately likely to choose careers resembling their names (men named Dennis are overrepresented among dentists). A 2015 followup (Pelham & Carvallo, 2015) demonstrated that people are disproportionately likely to marry spouses who share their birthday number, and also—not joking—that men named Cal and Tex are disproportionately likely to move to states resembling their names.

The authors of those studies suggested that implicit egotism was the underlying cause. Essentially, that we like things about ourselves (like our name or birthday), and subconsciously make decisions that reflect and reinforce that. Another explanation, with some more historiographic juice, is that when surnames began to be adopted in the middle ages, many people adopted the name of their occupation—Smith, Miller, and so on. If they had chosen these occupations because of a genetically-driven predisposition, then name->occupation links could be hereditary.

I think it’s all confirmation bias and, in Jung’s term, “whimsicalities of chance,” so the explanations are irrelevant. All that matters here is leech augury.

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