The falling snow in the last few days has greatly excited our young pre-school visitors, who have raced round the garden making angels, throwing snow balls, making a snow man, and gazing in total fascination at the snowflakes falling on their blue and red anoraks. The inquisitiveness, the enthusiasm, are very reminiscent of what must have been the attitude of the early Fellows when they founded the Royal Society. And needless to say, the weather and snow were also topics of never-ending interest.
Barely three months after the Society was founded on 30 November 1660, the first item recorded in the minutes of the scientific meeting of 27 March 1661 was ‘To Enquire whether the flakes of snow are bigger or lesse in Tenariff then here’ , as well as ‘Whether the grosse fume of oyl of Tartar mixt with aquaforte will ascend as much, more, or lesse, above than below the mountain of Tenariff’. Tenarife does not immediately spring to mind in connection with snow, though the island itself and its volcano was an interesting source of investigation. In July 1776 Jean Masson recorded in his Journal (AP/3/6) that he ‘Camped overnight at Estancia delos Inglese, where the Fahrenheit Thermometer fell 16 degrees in two hours’. He then ascended a ‘remarkable steep part called Altavista, followed by the region called Malpais, and in the middle, an icy cave (Cueva del Hiel) which was almost full of snow and ice and the water so extremely cold that I could not drink a glass of it even when mixed with half Brandy’.
Robert Hooke, the Society’s Curator of Experiments, was also fascinated by snow; in 1662 he records ‘Exposing a peice of black cloath or a black hatt to the falling Snow I observed such an infinite variety of curiously figured Snow that it would be almost as impossible, to draw skeme of every of them, as exactly to imitate, the curious and Geometrical Mechanisms of Nature in any one. …In which I observed that if they were of any regular figures they were always brancht out with 6 principal branches, which as all of the same Flake were much of the same make; so of differing Flakes, was there observable a strong variety. … Other Observations, and my Conjectures at the causes of these strange Phenomena, I at present omit, till further tryall and observations have better informed me.’ Some of his researches subsequently appeared in ‘Micrographia’ (London, 1665) pp 88-93. The fascination with the variety of shapes of snow flakes proved an never ending source of curiosity, as drawings of them were sent to the Society by Fellows throughout the 18th century.
Experiments with snow and frost were made by early Fellows such as Robert Boyle, Hooke’s mentor, Dr Charleton, Theodore Haak, John Beale, and William Balle, including curing haemorrhages with ice and snow. Travellers trying to make their way through the snow may be interested – and cheered – by a 1709 account of a woman from Chardock in Dorset, who having lost her way in a snow storm, was discovered buried under four feet of snow, and who then recovered from the experience. Or those who can predict the weather by the effect upon themselves, reassured by an account by Richard Owen, better known for dinosaurs, of his account of the face ache of his wife ‘whose nerves are like a barometer’ in predicting snow accurately.
Users of snow equipment should be appreciative of the work done by Thomas Gold (1920-2004), FRS 1964, better known as an astrophysicist and as one of the three early proposers of the ‘steady state’ hypothesis of the universe and for his connection with the Apollo programme and his work on moondust, who in 1952 worked on a project constructing a snow vehicle driven by a rubber track, which became the snowmobile or skidoo. In 1970 he had another idea for a motorized snow vehicle which he submitted to Moto Guzzi, and offered to work with them on it, though sadly in this case it seems nothing came of it.