Inigo Jones: The weather prophet

Author: Tim Sherratt


Canberra was in the grip of a heatwave – the longest in its recorded history. After two weeks of hot weather, the temperature topped the century once more, as 800 visitors swarmed into town for the 1939 meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS). All accommodation was booked; delegates were billeted to homes in Canberra and Queanbeyan, while some of the more adventurous took to camping, creating ‘a miniature scientists’ settlement’ on the banks of the Molonglo River. As well as the heat, visitors grappled with the city’s unusual layout. The Canberra Times reported, ‘even members of the geography and astronomical sections lost their bearings’.[2]

The following day, 11 January 1939, delegates gathered at Telopea Park School for the opening of the congress. As the temperature soared again to a record 108.5º, the Canberra Times observed that ‘most interest of a scientific character centred [on] a courageous prophecy by Mr Inigo Jones the famous Queensland weather forecaster’. Jones predicted an early end to the broiling conditions. ‘The heat wave’, he explained, ‘was cyclical, occurring at 35 year intervals’. There had been similar spells in the 1867–68 season and again, 35 years later, in 1902–03. Therefore the current heat wave, Jones claimed confidently, ‘was following expected lines’.[3] As the heatwave death toll mounted and the threat of bushfire loomed, everyone hoped that he was right.

The ANZAAS meeting brought together the nation’s scientific élite, as well as a number of eminent visitors – including HG Wells. But amidst this jostle of intellectual worthies, Inigo Jones was, according to the Canberra Times, ‘one of the outstanding figures’. Jones was a determined battler whose ‘fight for recognition as a long range forecaster’ had begun in the early 1920s. Although he had received some support from the Queensland government, the newspaper noted that Commonwealth authorities had been ‘stubbornly turning deaf ears to his claims’. However, it seemed that this attitude might finally be changing, for the federal government had recently announced the formation of a special committee to investigate Jones’s methods.[4]

With the details of this committee still to be finalised, the ANZAAS meeting offered Jones a timely platform from which to espouse the benefits of his system. ‘I am getting along with the paper for the Congress and trust to make a good job of it’, Jones wrote to David Rivett, chief of the Council for Scientific Industrial Research (CSIR) in December 1938, ‘perhaps some of the committee of enquiry may hear it read’.[5] His paper surveyed international research into the use of astronomical cycles for long-range weather forecasting, highlighting the significance of his own innovations. ‘After fifty years’ study’ he remained convinced that these cycles held the ‘key to the puzzle’ of seasonal forecasting.[6]

Jones’s presentation was followed by discussion amongst members of the Astronomy, Mathematics, and Physics section of ANZAAS. ‘We have worked out all the cycles in England’, commented Sir George Simpson, the Director of the British Meteorological Bureau, ‘but they only give you an explanation of about 1 per cent of the weather variations’. Nonetheless, he advised Jones to continue his observations in the hope of finding some mathematical relation from which ‘reliable deductions’ could be made.[7] Speaking ‘as one prophet to a brother prophet’, Professor VA Bailey similarly urged Jones to make predictions that were open to scientific verification.[8]

The mood changed, however, when Edward Kidson, the New Zealand government meteorologist, took the floor. Detailed criticism of Jones’s paper ‘would be merely a waste of time’, he asserted. Indeed, he insisted that Jones himself had ‘no clear mental picture’ of the mechanisms he was describing. Kidson was in no mind to indulge the fancies of the elderly Queenslander, and moved that the section express an opinion that the paper ‘fell far below the standard which should be expected in a communication to such a gathering of scientists’.[9] Discussion was quashed and Jones withdrew, disappointed.

This ‘harsh and ill-mannered’ treatment outraged The Land newspaper, one of Jones’s most steadfast supporters. ‘It was a clear indication’, the newspaper thundered, ‘of just what Mr Jones can expect at the hands of those scientists who believe that because a system is new, or not universally accepted, it lacks merit or is not even worthy of investigation’. It warned the government to ensure that such ‘biased critics’ were not appointed to the committee that was to review Jones’s system.[10]

For some Inigo Jones was a neglected visionary, for others he was merely an annoyance. In this talk today I want to trace some of the events leading up to the 1939 review, focusing on the way Jones was perceived and portrayed by meteorologists, by his supporters and, of course, by himself.

A pioneer and a scientist

‘It needs no argument’, Inigo Jones wrote in 1935, ‘to convince anyone that in a country of primary industry like Australia and which is subject to such vicissitudes of rainfall, there can hardly be a more important matter than a foreknowledge of the general trend of the seasons’.[11] Imagine if droughts could be forecast months, or even years ahead – what a difference it would make to the lives of farmers, to the prosperity of the nation. This was the prospect that teased Australians from the late 19th century. Some sought answers in sunspots and the movements of the heavens, some in the influence of Antarctica, but none doubted that the elusive ‘timetable’ of nature offered wealth and security ‘in boundless measure’.[12]

But for Inigo Jones, it seemed, the quest for long-range forecasting was also a matter of personal destiny. Recounting his own history, Jones traced the confluence of heredity and environment, of chance and training, that all seemed to point him to the mysteries of the weather. ‘I suppose that the spirit of scientific enquiry has always been in my blood’, he wrote, ‘since on both my father’s and mother’s sides I am descended from long lines of philosophers, astronomers, engineers and mathematicians’.[13] These scientific leanings were fostered by the Queensland meteorologist, Clement Wragge, who presented young Inigo with a set of meteorological instruments. Jones began taking observations with them in 1887, when he was 15 years old, and continued for more than 60 years.

The budding meteorologist joined Wragge’s staff in 1888. The timing was critical, for shortly afterwards Wragge himself began to develop a system of long-range forecasting. When, in 1892, Jones’s family moved to a property named ‘Crohamhurst’ near the Glasshouse Mountains in eastern Queensland, he packed up his instruments, and left for the bush ‘armed with a knowledge of the plan which Mr Wragge had for the solution of the problem of seasonal forecasting’.[14]

But fate was not finished with Inigo Jones, for less than six months after his arrival at Crohamhurst a period of torrential rain began. On 2 February 1893, Jones observed the Australian record rainfall – 35.714 inches in 24 hours. This record, Jones later reflected, was evidence of an ‘extremely sensitive reaction to sunspot effects’, making Crohamhurst an ideal location for a ‘national observatory’ to study seasonal forecasting.[15] Led to it by ‘circumstances that almost savour of the supernatural’, Jones explained in the 1940s, Crohamhurst had been ‘a wonderful and almost uncanny factor’ in his research.[16]

Living at Crohamhurst also brought to the surface another ‘important hereditary leaning’: an ‘inherent love of the country’ passed down through ‘long lines of landed proprietors’. It was this combination, Jones supposed, ‘of the feelings of a countryman and a scientific mind’ that drew him so strongly to the question of seasonal forecasting.[17] Working as a farmer enabled Jones ‘to sympathise with the trials and labours’ of his fellow pioneers.[18] Most particularly, it was through his own experience of drought and hardship that he gained both the ability to see ‘clearly the inner meaning of the problem’ and the feeling that he was ‘called to find the answer’.[19] In the early 1920s, with Wragge’s attempts at seasonal forecasting in mind, and more than 30 years of his own observations to hand, Inigo Jones set about ‘to try and solve the problem’.[20]

By now you’re probably wondering what Jone’s solution actually was. Put simply, he believed that cyclical variations in the activity of the sun, visible as sunspots, controlled the earth’s climate, and that these variations were themselves largely determined by the orbits of Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus. If you wanted to know what the weather would be like on 1 January next year, you would calculate the positions of the planets on that day and then look back through the record of weather observations to a time when the planetary positions were the same. If the locations of the planets matched, then so would the weather – more or less. Or perhaps less than more, for what seemed to set Jones apart from other weather prophets were the levels of complexity he added to this basic cyclical system.

It is worth noting that to make predictions with this system you need a very, very long, unbroken series of weather observations. Jones was fond of quoting the opinion of Queensland University’s professor of mathematics that a full test of his theory could not be made without 300 years of data. But that was only the beginning of the difficulties. First, there was some inherent variability in the sunspot cycle that could not be accounted for by the movements of the planets. Hence any prediction had to be backed up by constant study of the sun. Second, Jones claimed that the position of sunspots determined the scope of their influence. So sunspots to the south of the sun’s equator mainly affected the weather in the southern hemisphere, and vice versa. Third, there was a lag effect, caused by the melting of Antarctic ice and the cooling of ocean currents, which moderated the impact of the sunspot cycle. And last, Jones insisted that there was no single climatic cycle, but rather a series of local cycles that had to be studied and understood separately. ‘There is very little correlation between one region or locality and another’, he argued, thus ‘each locality as it has its own climate so has its own sequence’.[21]

So, it was difficult for Jones to make precise predictions. However, it was equally difficult to dismiss them, for any failure could be explained by invoking one of these modifying factors. For Jones, this system was a work in progress, the full power of which would only emerge after many years of observation and testing. But for that to be achieved he needed the cooperation of the nation’s meteorologists.

Sceptics

‘I recently ran into an official of the Weather Bureau’, Jones wrote in 1940 to Fritz Loewe, Associate Professor of Meteorology at the University of Melbourne, ‘and from his remarks gathered that the news of my decease would not be altogether received with the deepest regret’.[22] Inigo Jones developed the basic principles of his system in 1913, and was so encouraged by the results that he wrote to Commonwealth Bureau of Meteorology to share his discoveries, thinking, as he later recalled, ‘that coming from a former member of staff of one of the State Offices … they would act at once on my suggestions’.[23] He was wrong. It was the beginning of a long and testy relationship.

Jones tried again and again. In 1924 he suggested that he might be appointed to the Weather Bureau in some sort of research capacity. This time he enlisted the support of Sir Littleton Groom, the Attorney-General and member for Darling Downs. Groom had a long interest in the application of science to rural development, and he also had been the minister responsible for the establishment of the Weather Bureau in 1906. It didn’t help. The Commonwealth Meteorologist, Henry Ambrose Hunt, replied to Groom that Jones’s comments on the relationship between sunspots and rainfall ‘where interesting are certainly not novel’. Research in this field was already being pursued, he explained, ‘by men … capable of critically examining their material by accepted statistical standards’. Jones, on the other hand, ‘presents as proved facts and established relationships sets of figures that will not even bear a cursory visual comparison’.[24]

The following year, 1925, Hunt expanded his critique in a note for the Secretary of his department. ‘Mr Jones is an enthusiastic observer and an interested reader in matters regarding rainfall and its possible relation to solar phenomena’, he remarked, ‘but enthusiasm is only one element in the essentials of a good research worker’. (This is possibly Hunt's nicest remark about Jones.) Hunt drew attention once again to the lack of any statistical analysis in Jones’s work and concluded: ‘To accord official recognition to a worker distinguished more by his enthusiasm than by a passion for precision might seriously embarrass the Government’.[25] This was not, however, the end of the matter.

By this time, Jones was beginning to gather popular support for his efforts. His forecasts were being published in the Queensland press, earning him a small income. The life of a farmer was quickly giving way to the labours of a weather prophet. However, Jones was already in his fifties and the work, as we have seen, was extremely complex and time-consuming. There were masses of data to be collected and analysed. Moreover, if the system was to be fully perfected, many more years of work were necessary. Jones could not manage alone – either he needed resources to train an eager, young apprentice to carry on his labours, or the Weather Bureau itself would have to adopt and develop his system. And so he began a campaign for government support that would last for 30 years. Sometimes he wrote directly to the prime minister or cabinet members, at other times he tapped into a network of parliamentary supporters who would pass his requests up the political hierarchy. In either case, his letters eventually landed on the desk of the Commonwealth Meteorologist.

9 March 1927, Commonwealth Meteorologist to the Secretary, Home and Territories Department:

Referring to your memorandum of 7 March forwarding a letter from Mr Inigo Jones of Crohamhurst, Queensland, to Mr EDC Corser, MHR.

In the first place I would like to point out that my considered opinion with regard to Mr Jones’ work has been quite clearly expressed on numerous occasions and nothing has occurred which requires any modification thereof.

Under present circumstances any change in the Ministry for Home and Territories or in the personnel along any of the other avenues by which it is possible to approach the Government for assistance in scientific investigations means that a fresh move will be made by Mr Jones using all the direct and indirect means which he can devise to press his case. Again and again my senior officers have to devote much time to the refutation of the claims of Mr Jones …

The total inroad on the time of my staff has assumed very serious proportions … I feel that the time has come when my Minister should protect me from these disturbances of the work of my Branch.[26]

5 September 1927, Commonwealth Meteorologist to the Secretary, Home and Territories Department:

Further consideration of Mr Jones’ statement has in no way altered my previously expressed opinions …[27]

7 August 1928, Commonwealth Meteorologist to the Secretary, Home and Territories Department:

Much valuable time has been wasted in this office in investigating Mr Jones’ claims and I am convinced that he is unable to issue useful predictions covering long periods …[28]

7 May 1929, Commonwealth Meteorologist to the Secretary, Home and Territories Department:

Mr Jones’ letter consists of the same useless reiteration of the difficulty of explaining his theories. If they are not clarified in his own mind there can be little hope of a clear exposition being made …

I should be grateful if in the future you would free me from any obligation to spend further valuable time in examining Mr Jones’ work or claims …[29]

15 January 1930, Commonwealth Meteorologist to the Secretary, Department of Home Affairs:

For years past, Mr Jones has seized the opportunities offered by every political change to endeavour to use for his own ends new channels of communication.

He has placed upon successive Ministers and Members of the House of Representatives the indignity of examining personal claims which are worthless.

Long years of familiarity with Mr Jones’ writings have failed to disclose any scientific attack on the problems he essays to solve nor do analyses of his forecasts show any notable measure of success.

As the present campaign for funds can do little but annoy the Queensland Members of the Federal Parliament, I suggest that each Member might be saved some unnecessary correspondence if informed individually in the above terms that Mr Jones’ claims had already received full consideration.[30]

Inigo Jones was not a name to be uttered lightly in the corridors of the Weather Bureau. However, throughout this period and for many years beyond, Jones made regular requests to the Bureau for rainfall and other data. These were supplied without complaint. In direct correspondence a polite façade was maintained, while tempers boiled beneath. ‘Quantities of data have been supplied entirely without hope of results but to avoid any semblance of prejudice’, explained Hunt’s successor, WS Watt.[31]

Of course, the meteorologists fully appreciated the growing clamour for long-range forecasts, and had undertaken some of their own research. ET Quayle, one of the Bureau’s early investigators, had examined part of the relationship we now know as Southern Oscillation Index.[32] But while certain avenues held promise, the Bureau was hardly about to start issuing timetables for coming droughts. In 1923, an Argus reporter quizzed Hunt on the possibility of climatic cycles. ‘He smiled a little wistfully’, the reporter observed, and then replied: ‘We have gone into all the cycles that are known … One finds many coincidences that are encouraging, and then comes a point when the bottom falls out of any theory that may have been tentatively formed’.[33]

Hunt’s main criticism of Jones was that he was unable, or unwilling, to subject his theory to detailed statistical analysis. He would not put it to the test. ‘Whenever I approach the Central Weather Bureau’, Jones complained, they meet me with a call for co-efficients’.[34] Jones insisted ‘the time is not yet ripe for Mathematics in this research’, the complexity of his system and the lack of observational data made for ‘infinite complications’. ‘In reply to my suggestions of co-operative discussion’, Jones complained to the Treasurer, Earle Page, in 1927, ‘mathematical tests were suggested when it must have been evident that such tests were quite beyond the powers of a single individual, even if the materials for them were available’.[35]

The meteorologists wanted statistical evidence, but Jones claimed it was impossible. Jones wanted the opportunity to explain his system to them point by point, but the meteorologists considered it a waste of time. Hunt’s blunt assessment was that Jones ‘has not the mental equipment and training which would enable him to do valuable work in the field he has taken up’.[36] Jones, on the other hand, considered that the Bureau’s attitude expressed ‘a contempt for the question which does not display that spirit of enquiry and encouragement that should distinguish a scientific Department’.[37]

In February 1931, Jones suggested to Littleton Groom that, with Hunt’s retirement imminent, it might at last be possible ‘to make an arrangement whereby I might carry on this work on the lines I have always advised’. ‘I do not desire the post of Commonwealth Meteorologist’, he added modestly.[38] But when Jones’s latest round of lobbying finally hit the desk of the new Commonwealth Meteorologist, WS Watt, it received familiar treatment. ‘Mr Jones has wasted more valuable time of the officers of this Bureau than can justly be afforded for such purposes’, Watt fumed, ‘Mr Jones’ claims have been reviewed ad nauseam since he makes use of every change in the Federal Ministry to raise the old question afresh’.[39]

Supporters

On 5 June 1938, John McEwen, the Minister for the Interior, issued a press release announcing that the Bureau of Meteorology was to establish a ‘special research division’ to develop long-range forecasts. ‘No greater contribution could be made … to the welfare of primary producers’, he proclaimed, ‘than the ultimate success of this department of research’. McEwen admitted that ‘immediate spectacular results’ were unlikely, but stressed the fact that while the Bureau ‘did not have any exclusive rights in this form of research’, its staff ‘were as well, if not better, informed on the subject than outside investigators’.[40]

As is often the way with press releases, the reality was rather more modest. The Bureau was planning to restructure its research activities, and seasonal forecasting was one topic marked for future investigation. It would be another ten years before the Bureau would mount an organised attack on the problem. But with demand for action growing, McEwen no doubt hoped that his announcement would relieve some pressure, and perhaps diminish the hold of Inigo Jones upon the public’s imagination. He was wrong.

Jones’s efforts had been gathering widespread favour through the 1920s and 1930s. His forecasts were widely distributed, and he had won the recognition of rural and financial organisations, such as the Graziers’ Association of New South Wales and the Queensland Council of Agriculture. In 1928, a band of prominent Brisbane burghers established the ‘Inigo Jones Seasonal Weather Forecasting Trust’, with the Lord Mayor as Chairman. The Trust raised funds to further Jones’s research, and successfully lobbied the Queensland government to provide an annual subsidy. With the Trust’s help, Jones was able to build an observatory at his beloved Crohamhurst, opened in 1935 by the Governor of Queensland, Sir Leslie Wilson. ‘The work being done here, and done by Mr Inigo Jones’, the governor proclaimed, ‘is an invaluable work for Australia – one of vital importance’.[41]

In one of the folders of documents featured in the Just Add Water exhibition, you may have come across a booklet by GW Nowland entitled, A Message from the Sun and Stars in Australia’s Rainfall Records. Nowland, a bank manager from Wellington, New South Wales, was a fan of Inigo Jones, who would later collaborate with him on a series of long-range forecasts. In 1937, he visited Crohamhurst and reported his findings to the Queensland Minister for Lands. ‘We know that almost every man on the land in country districts learns of Mr Jones’ forecasts during difficult periods and is guided by same’, Nowland remarked; but while ‘the community benefits to an incalculable extent thereby, no monetary contribution has been given to Mr Jones by any Government other than the Queensland Govt.’ ‘The main question in the near future’, Nowland argued, ‘will be whether we are to go back to the uncertainty and chaos of former years, or is Australia to have the benefit of regular information distributed throughout the press from an Australian Seasonal Weather Forecasting Station’. The urgency of obtaining additional government support for Jones’s work was ‘apparent to all on the land’.[42]

Such views were widely shared – Inigo Jones was carrying out research that was vital to the future of Australia, and deserved the generous assistance of government. So McEwen’s announcement wrought considerable dismay. How could the Bureau of Meteorology undertake research into long-range forecasting without the participation of Australia’s pre-eminent weather prophet? The Graziers’ Association was ‘exceedingly disappointed’, while the Council of Agriculture urged McEwen to co-opt Jones’s services.[43] ‘In point of fact the job is done’, Jones himself wrote angrily to his local member, BH Corser, ‘we have here made discoveries of the greatest importance and any other work is at best just duplication and waste of public money’.[44]

The issue was raised in the Senate, where Allan MacDonald, representing the Minister for the Interior, explained that Jones’s claims ‘have been fully investigated by technical officers of the Commonwealth Weather Bureau, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and other scientific bodies, all of whom have been of the opinion that the work Mr Jones is doing is not of such a nature as to justify support from the Commonwealth Government’.[45] This was the stock reply that the department had been using for years, but in these circumstances it only served to foment a tide of outrage and indignation. Not only was Inigo Jones being ignored, but his work was being denigrated, his credibility questioned by faceless scientific functionaries. ‘Present and past controllers of the Commonwealth Weather Bureau … have never taken the trouble to know anything about the long range forecasting hypothesis of Mr Jones’, wrote JA Austin, honorary secretary of the Queensland Country Party, ‘nor have they ever visited his Observatory to seek any information about it’. Instead, he added, ‘they treat it with the disdain of high-salaried bureaucrats’.[46]

Certain that the government’s supposed ‘scientific authorities’ were ‘dead wrong’, the Land organised its own test of Jones’s theories. ‘We believe that the only real test of theories of any kind is whether they work out in practice’, the newspaper asserted, inviting its readers to write in with their own opinions of Jones’s forecasts. ‘The more letters’, it added, ‘the greater chances of securing official recognition of the value of Mr Jones’s work’.[47] Over the next few months, the Land published extracts from many of these letters, as well as updates on Jones’s current forecasts, usually under the headline ‘Right again!’[48] Determined to present the views of country folk directly to those in power, the newspaper promised that all the letters received would be duly forwarded to the minister himself. As indeed they were – all 102 letters, from all over rural New South Wales, now reside in the National Archives of Australia, providing us with an invaluable snapshot of the beliefs and experiences of ordinary farmers in the late 1930s.

Of the 102 letters, only three opposed government assistance to Jones. Most writers, like CKR Kilby of Hall, claimed to place ‘a great deal of faith’ in Jones’s ‘very often accurate forecasts’.[49] Percy Byfield of Gundaroo wanted to see Jones ‘at the head of the Commonwealth weather bureau’, as he was ‘the only one forecasting with any degree of accuracy’.[50] Many correspondents similarly sought to contrast Jones’s forecasts with those of conventional meteorologists. ‘I can say he is miles ahead of other weather men’, wrote David J Stanfield of Tumut, ‘I reckon he has been 85% correct while our state day to day forecasters are nearly that percentage wrong’.[51] David Povey of Bredbo agreed. ‘He is the only man that has went months ahead and on many occasions has been right to the day of rain’, he explained, while forecasts from the weather bureau were ‘very often wrong going only 24 hours’ – ‘If it is raining we usually get a forecast of rain, and a flood warning when the creeks have gone down again’.[52]

These were not merely abstract opinions, a number of writers described how they had used Jones’s forecasts in the management of their farms. On Jones’s advice, George P Woodfield sold most of his stock, just avoiding the ‘real slump’ a few weeks later when ‘sheep became absolutely unsaleable’.[53] Eli Smith of Whitton had not intended sowing a crop as ‘the outlook was so black’. But he had been persuaded otherwise by Jones’s predictions and now had ‘140 acres of a very promising wheat crop and 50 acres of oats’.[54] ‘If he is not on the crown pay role [sic] well he should be’, wrote JK Nielsen of Little Plain, ‘for he has saved many of the men on the land’.[55]

Nor were the correspondents blind to their hero’s errors, with many admitting that he did indeed make mistakes. But as HT Manning of Barellan put it: ‘If he hasn’t been able to give us a 100% record of accurate forecasts so far we might ask what have his sceptics given us!’[56] Jones’s mistakes were readily forgiven, for as so many of the writers claimed this ‘acme of weather prophets’ was ‘on the right track’.[57] That phrase is repeated again and again. Inigo Jones was having a go. He was working for them, for rural dwellers, offering hope, reassurance and confidence. In contrast, the efforts of the Weather Bureau seemed focused on the city. ‘Like the City Press and many other Sydney institutions’, observed A Heath of Curlewis, ‘their idea of NSW & Australia does not get past the Country of Cumberland’.[58]

In September 1938, a Department of the Interior memorandum noted that, since the minister’s press statement some three months earlier, ‘lengthy correspondence has been received supporting the claims to recognition of Mr Inigo Jones of Queensland’. Amongst Jones’s supporters it listed the Graziers’ Association of New South Wales, the Council of Agriculture, the Queensland Country Party, the Minister for Repatriation, the Minister for Defence, as well as an assortment of influential landholders and MPs. ‘The recent statement’, the memorandum noted dryly, ‘has revived a controversy which has been before the Commonwealth authorities since 1925’.[59] The latest flurry, however, seemed to leave departmental officials a little uneasy.

As it had done for a decade or more, the department passed the claims of Jones’s supporters on to the Commonwealth Meteorologist for comment. And as he had done for a decade or more, the Commonwealth Meteorologist replied that Jones’s system had been investigated and rejected before, and that nothing new had been brought forward to alter that assessment. But this time it wasn’t enough. The department had lost confidence in the assurances of the Weather Bureau, and had decided that a detailed review was necessary to relieve the political pressure. As another departmental memo admitted, ‘until such time as meteorological experts visit his Observatory and make an investigation on the spot in company with the claimant … Mr Jones has some cause for complaining of the inadequacy of previous investigations’.[60] But Watt would not budge. Instead of succumbing to this change in the weather, he and his officers compiled a detailed rebuttal, complete with a critical analysis of Jones’s forecasts. It was too late.

In June 1938, McEwen’s press release had explained how Bureau of Meteorology staff were the best informed and most experienced to undertake research into seasonal forecasting. In November 1938, however, he issued another statement, announcing that an arrangement had been made for the University of Melbourne to establish a committee ‘to investigate the scientific work of Mr Inigo Jones’. The statement added, ‘I have not regarded it as a satisfactory solution of the problem to refer the matter to the Commonwealth Meteorological Authorities for their comment’.[61] It was an admission that the Bureau was biased against Jones. After many years of lobbying, it seemed that the weather prophet had finally got the better of his meteorological rivals.

The review

In February 1939, a month or so after the ANZAAS congress in Canberra, the Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University, John Medley, wrote to the Minister of the Interior about the committee of review announced the previous November. ‘About Inigo Jones’, he asked, half in jest, half in hope, ‘Was he blown out sufficiently at the Canberra Conference, or are you going on with it?’[62] Black Jack McEwen did not share Medley’s sense of humour. ‘I do not think that the Canberra Conference dealt conclusively with Inigo Jones’, he replied stiffly, ‘I consider that it is still desirable that his work should be investigated by the Committee you suggest’.[63]

Medley had been reluctantly dragged into the Inigo Jones affair by the Chief Executive Officer of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), David Rivett. Jones had been corresponding with Rivett for a number of years, as the weather prophet sought to extract from CSIR the support that had been denied him by the Bureau of Meteorology. Rivett’s attitude to Jones was complex. While he accepted the judgements of his meteorological brethren, he thought Jones deserved a considered hearing. ‘One naturally feels … a great amount of sympathy with and interest in him personally’, Rivett wrote to Littleton Groom, ‘he is so obviously sincere and so convinced of the usefulness of his ideas’.[64] On a visit to Brisbane in 1931, Rivett took the trouble to meet with Jones personally. ‘I wanted to see the man himself and hear directly what he had to say’, Rivett explained. But he found that Jones was ‘not the type at all’. It was, Rivett concluded, ‘just another rather pathetic case of a man without fundamental training and lacking any critical judgment getting hold of an idea which has perhaps some sound basis, but which he can never possibly exploit thoroughly’.[65]

However, Rivett remained troubled. CSIR had close links with primary producers, and he was less inclined than the meteorologists simply to dismiss their opinions. He also continued to wonder whether there might be something in Jones’s theories. ‘Of course the whole trouble in this matter is that meteorology is not yet a science’, he wrote to HC Richards at the University of Queensland, ‘there is guess-work even under the best conditions’.[66] Similarly, he reported to his minister, RG Casey, that ‘even though professional meteorologists look with a scornful eye on his work, I think one has to be a little careful not to be unduly critical in a subject which is still in the highly empirical stage’.[67]

And so, in September 1938, as discontent multiplied over the government’s treatment of Jones, it was Rivett who proposed a solution. To support the development of aviation in Australia, the government had recently decided to fund an associate-professorship in meteorology at the University of Melbourne. Why not simply make it one of the duties of this new position to report on Jones’s system? ‘Strong pressure is being exerted on the Government to arrange for an enquiry’, Rivett wrote to Medley, ‘and, in accordance with the practice which is technically known as “passing the buck”, I have suggested to the Canberra people that the new Associate Professor of Meteorology might be asked to come to the help of the Government’.[68]

Medley was nervous about being caught in the political storm. Fritz Loewe, who had been earmarked for the new post, was a German refugee, and Medley was reluctant to expose him to what he described as ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous newspapers’.[69] But after much dithering it was agreed that a committee would be formed to shield Loewe from any public backlash and, in April 1939, the membership and terms of reference of the committee were finally announced.[70] It was to be chaired by JM Baldwin, the Victorian Government Astronomer, and featured three, physicists from the University of Melbourne. Loewe was secretary, and WB Rimmer, from the Commonwealth Solar Observatory, was later co-opted. Although the Weather Bureau had been side-stepped in the establishment of the review, HM Treloar, the Bureau’s head of research and training, was also appointed to the committee. Treloar had a particular interest in seasonal forecasting, and he and Loewe undertook the detailed analysis upon which the committee’s final decision was based.

And what was that decision? It is no surprise that the committee recommended against Commonwealth funding of Jones’s activities. However, unlike the rather dogmatic dismissals that had become the standard practice of the Weather Bureau, the review committee worked hard to appear fair in its assessment. Loewe and Rimmer took evidence from a number of Jones’s supporters in Sydney, and travelled to Crohamhurst so that Jones could explain to them the detail of his system. Their final report summarised the theoretical basis of the system in some detail, admitting that it was not without scientific support, but concluding that ‘this basis is not firm enough to carry by itself the heavy superstructure of a complete forecasting system’.[71]

But accuracy was the key factor. The vagueness of Jones’s theories could be ignored if they delivered accurate forecasts. The tests conducted by the committee, however, indicated that the percentage of correct long-range forecasts was ‘not appreciably greater than that which could be established from a knowledge of average conditions’.[72] The committee’s report conceded that many people and organisations connected with primary industry believed in the accuracy of Jones’s forecasts but, in the end, they were just wrong.

And there the matter rested … briefly, until Jones and his followers once again cranked up the lobbying campaign, rejecting the committee’s report as biased and inadequate. In 1950 another review was organised with similar results, and in 1953 a member of the Bureau’s Queensland office, worked alongside Jones for some weeks. His assessment was more positive, but nothing was ever really resolved. Jones died in 1954. His work was carried on by Lennox Walker.

It is interesting to speculate on the consequences of the Inigo Jones saga for the internal culture of the Bureau of Meteorology. In the 1940s, Harry Treloar found himself the object of senior management displeasure when he lobbied for the Bureau to release seasonal forecasts based on the work of ET Quayle. In his chapter in ‘A change in the weather’, Neville Nicholls describes how research on El Niño in the 1970s was confronted by lingering resistance to the idea of seasonal forecasting.[73] Perhaps the constant hectoring by Jones’s army of supporters made the Bureau more cautious and defensive than it otherwise might have been.

One wonders too about those 99 supportive letters to the Land. The review committee was asked to investigate the ‘value’ of Jones’s forecasts to primary producers, but all it really did was to say that their perceptions of his accuracy were misguided. Is accuracy the only indicator of value? At the very least, one might argue that, even if his predictions were not valid, Jones was providing farmers with data on average seasonal conditions in a form that they could use and understand. Perhaps, it was not simply the content of his forecasts that was important, but the way they were received, the way landholders integrated them with their own knowledge of the local environment. I do not think that Jones’s supporters were simply mistaken or deluded. If we are to understand the significance of Inigo Jones to many ordinary, practical people, we have to work harder than that.

Conclusion

Let’s return, in conclusion, to the 1939 ANZAAS congress in Canberra. You will recall that Inigo Jones predicted an early end to the continuing heatwave. There were some signs he might be right – a brief shower, some clouds – and the temperature on Thursday 12 January only reached 103.4º. At least it was a little cooler. But on the following day, Friday 13 January, the temperature climbed again, up to 107.4º. The change didn’t come until Sunday – like many of Jones’s predictions it was close enough to please his supporters, but far enough to bolster his critics.

But we remember Friday 13 January for another reason. The heatwave across southeastern Australia killed more than 400 people, and set bushfires raging across millions of hectares. The fires reached their terrifying peak on Friday 13 January 1939 – ‘Black Friday’ – a day, that Stephen Pyne suggests, ‘sucked 150 years of settlement into a colossal maelstrom of fire’.[74]

Fire, flood and drought all remind us of our limitations. For all our scientific knowledge and technological sophistication, still we are subject to the arbitrary, and often violent, whims of nature. How do we reconcile our expectations of security and stability with an environment that steadfastly refuses to follow a timetable. The story of Inigo Jones is part of a larger story that sets our desire for control, our longing for certainty, against one of the most variable climates on earth.

Notes

1.A longer version of this talk was published as 'Inigo Jones – The weather prophet', Metarch Papers, no. 16, February 2007. Copies can be obtained from the Publications Section of the Bureau of Meteorology.
2.Canberra Times, 11 January 1939, p. 4.
3.Canberra Times, 12 January 1939, pp. 2 & 4.
4.Canberra Times, 18 January 1939, p. 6.
5.Inigo Jones to ACD Rivett, 23 December 1938, NAA: A9778/3, G25/32 Part 3.
6.Inigo Jones, ‘On the methods adopted as a means of seasonal forecasting at Crohamhurst Observatory and the reason therefor’, Crohamhurst Observatory Paper, no. 10, 1939.
7.Brisbane Courier Mail, 18 January 1939, p. 2.
8.Sydney Morning Herald, 18 January 1939, p. 19.
9.Sydney Morning Herald, 18 January 1939, p. 19.
10.Editorial, Land, 20 January 1939, p. 11.
11.Inigo Jones, 'The Crohamhurst Observatory: its location and functions and the inaugural ceremony', Crohamhurst Observatory Paper, no. 1, 1935, p. 1.
12.Walter Jago, ‘We may soon foretell the weather’, Argus, 29 October 1938, Weekend Magazine, pp. 8–9.
13.‘Why I built the Crohamhurst Observatory’, NAA: A1, 1938/24704.
14.Jones, ‘Long range weather forecasting’, Queensland Geographical Journal, vol. xlviii, p. 4.
15.‘Why I built the Crohamhurst Observatory’, NAA: A1, 1938/24704.
16.Jones, ‘Long range weather forecasting’, Queensland Geographical Journal, vol. xlviii, p. 14.
17.‘Why I built the Crohamhurst Observatory’, NAA: A1, 1938/24704.
18.Nephelo-Coccygia, p. 3
19.Nephelo-Coccygia, p. 5
20.Nephelo-Coccygia, p. 3.
21.Inigo Jones, ‘On the methods adopted as a means of seasonal forecasting at Crohamhurst Observatory and the reason therefor’, Crohamhurst Observatory Paper, no. 10, 1939, p. 12.
22.Jones to Fritz Loewe, 28 August 1940, University of Melbourne Archives (UMA): Loewe papers, series 3, box 59.
23.Jones to Littleton Groom, 4 February 1931, NAA: A1, 1938/3981.
24.HA Hunt to Littleton Groom, 7 July 1924, NAA: A1, 1938/3981.
25.HA Hunt to Secretary, Home and Territories Department, 28 February 1925, NAA: A1, 1938/3981.
26.HA Hunt to Secretary, Home and Territories Department, 9 March 1927, NAA: A1, 1938/3981.
27.HA Hunt to Secretary, Home and Territories Department, 5 September 1927, NAA: A1, 1938/3981.
28.HA Hunt to Secretary, Home and Territories Department, 7 August 1928, NAA: A1, 1938/3981.
29.HA Hunt to Secretary, Home and Territories Department, 7 May 1929, NAA: A1, 1938/3981.
30.HA Hunt to Secretary, Department of Home Affairs, 15 January 1930, NAA: A1, 1938/3981.
31.WS Watt to Secretary, Department of the Interior, 26 October 1932, NAA: A1, 1938/3981.
32.Neville Nicholls, ‘Climatic outlooks: from revolutionary science to orthodoxy’, in Tim Sherratt, Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin (eds), A Change in the Weather: Climate and Culture in Australia, National Museum of Australia Press, Canberra, 2005, pp. 19–20.
33.Argus, 7 April 1923, p. 8.
34.Jones to SM Bruce, 10 February 1926, NAA: A1, 1938/3981.
35.Jones to Earle Page, 18 July 1927, NAA: A1, 1938/3981.
36.HA Hunt to Secretary, Home and Territories Department, 9 March 1927, NAA: A1, 1938/3981.
37.Jones to PE Deane (Secretary, Prime Minister’s Department), 31 March 1926, NAA: A1, 1938/3981.
38.Jones to Littleton Groom, 4 February 1931, NAA: A1, 1938/3981.
39.WS Watt to Secretary, Department of the Interior, 26 October 1932, NAA: A1, 1938/3981.
40.‘Long range weather forecasts – new meteorological service’, press release issued by J McEwen (Minister for the Interior), 5 June 1938, NAA: A1, 1938/3981.
41.Inigo Jones, 'The Crohamhurst Observatory: its location and functions and the inaugural ceremony', p. 12.
42.Copy of letter from GW Nowland to Percy Pease (Queensland Minister for Lands), 6 December 1937, NAA: A1, 1938/24704.
43.JW Allen (General Secretary, Graziers’ Association of New South Wales) to J McEwen (Minister for the Interior), 25 July 1938, NAA: A1, 1938/24704; Secretary of the Council of Agriculture to J McEwen (Minister for the Interior), 1 July 1938, NAA: A1, 1938/24704.
44.Jones to BH Corser, 15 June 1938, NAA: A1, 1938/24704.
45.Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 25 June 1938, vol. 156, p. 2660.
46.JA Austin (Honorary Secretary, Queensland Country Party) to J McEwen (Minister for the Interior), 9 July 1938, NAA: A1, 1938/24704.
47.Land, 1 July 1938, p. 3.
48.For example, see the Land, 22 July 1938, p. 3; 12 August 1938, p. 13; 26 August 1938, p. 4.
49.CKR Kilby (Parkwood, Hall, Federal Capital Territory) to the Land, 20 July 1938, NAA: A1, 1938/24704.
50.Percy C Byfield (Gundaroo) to the Land, 12 July 1938, NAA: A1, 1938/24704.
51.David J Stanfield (Blowering West, Tumut) to the Land, 18 August 1938, NAA: A1, 1938/24704.
52.David Povey (‘Gurrabeeal’, Bredbo) to the Land, 18 July 1938, NAA: A1, 1938/24704.
53.George P Woodfield (‘Bygalorie Park’) to the Land, 8 July 1938, NAA: A1, 1938/24704.
54.Eli E Smith (‘La Motte’, Whitton) to the Land, 11 August 1938, NAA: A1, 1938/24704.
55.JK Nielsen (LittlePlain) to the Land, no date [July 1938], NAA: A1, 1938/24704.
56.HT Manning (Barellan) to the Land, 10 July 1938, NAA: A1, 1938/24704.
57.Boehm Brothers, (Pleasant View, Trundle) to the Land, 13 June [presumably July] 1938, NAA: A1, 1938/24704. For descriptions of Jones as ‘on the right track’, see, for example the following letters to the Land: HW Heckendorf, 14 July 1938; J McQueen, 23 July 1938; Douglas Cutler, 25 July 1938; AH Tom, 5 July 1938; NAA: A1, 1938/24704.
58.A Heath (‘Pine Cliffs’, Curlewis) to the Land, 11 July 1938, NAA: A1, 1938/24704.
59.Memorandum for the Acting Secretary, Department of the Interior, 9 September 1938, NAA: A1, 1938/3981.
60.Memorandum from HC Newman for the Acting Secretary, Department of the Interior, 18 August 1938, NAA: A1, 1938/24704.
61.‘Mr Inigo Jones’, press statement, 9 November 1938, NAA: A1, 1938/3981.
62.JDG Medley to J McEwen, 27 February 1939, UMA: UM312, 1942/435.
63.J McEwen to JDG Medley, 2 March 1939, UMA: UM312, 1940/457.
64.ACD Rivett to Littleton Groom, 7 August 1933, NAA: A9778, G25/32 Part 1.
65.ACD Rivett to SG Tallents, 29 April 1931, NAA: A9778, G25/32 Part 1.
66.ACD Rivett to HC Richards, 28 July 1938, NAA: A9778, G25/32 Part 2.
67.ACD Rivett to RG Casey, 27 July 1938, NAA: A9778, G25/32 Part 2.
68.ACD Rivett to JDG Medley, 6 October 1938, NAA: A9778, G25/32 Part 2.
69.JDG Medley to ACD Rivett, 14 October 1938, NAA: A9778, G25/32 Part 2.
70.'Inigo Jones' forecasting – investigation by experts', press statement, 20 April 1939, NAA: A431, 1953/591.
71.'Report of the Committee appointed to enquire into the forecasting system of Mr Inigo Jones of Crohamhurst (Queensland)', July 1940, NAA: A431, 1953/591.
72.'Report of the Committee appointed to enquire into the forecasting system of Mr Inigo Jones of Crohamhurst (Queensland)', July 1940, NAA: A431, 1953/591.
73.Nicholls, 'Climatic outlooks: from revolutionary science to orthodoxy', in Tim Sherratt, Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin (eds), A Change in the Weather: Climate and Culture in Australia, National Museum of Australia Press, Canberra, 2005, pp. 20-25.
74.Stephen J Pyne, Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1992, p. 309.

File references

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2014