Predicting the Unpredictable: The Transition of Meteorological Forecasting in Hong Kong c. 1874-1906 by Dr Fiona Williamson
Date : 04 Apr 2018
Time : 16:00 - 17:30
Venue : Asia Research Institute, Meeting Room
AS8 Level 7, 10 Kent Ridge Crescent, Singapore 119260
National University of Singapore @ KRC


Dr Connor Graham, Asia Research Institute, and Tembusu College, National University of Singapore


This paper explores the conceptualisation of ‘uncertainty’ in late nineteenth-century scientific thought. Exploring meteorological science in late nineteenth century Hong Kong–a British colony since 1841–it considers the changing ways forecasting was addressed historically, especially the categories of ‘certainty’ versus, ‘uncertainty’ or ‘prediction’ versus ‘predictability’. In the early nineteenth century forecasting the weather was considered impossible. By the end of the century, it was confidently expected that, with time, the mass collection of meteorological observations would lead to a full understanding of weather patterns and hence, the ability to predict them. This shift in perception was driven by various factors included pressure to provide an accurate typhoon warning system and economic protectionism. These concerns and others helped shape the course of meteorology from subjective abstract theory into an objective science of pragmatics based on observational analysis. Whilst the story of nineteenth-century British meteorology has to some extent already been told, it has, thus far, concentrated on British shores, and less on the external practices, places and peoples that contributed knowledge and experience to the field. This article therefore aims to address this gap whilst also exploring how the qualification of a phenomenon–such as a typhoon–as ‘predictable’ opened the door to innovation and discovery.


Fiona Williamson is a social and environmental historian working on intersections between climate and urban society in Singapore and Hong Kong and the history of meteorological science in the China Seas region. Fiona also work on a variety of multi-disciplinary projects, including the history of urban heat, nature-induced disasters, and climate change with scientists and geographers. She is currently working on a monograph project provisionally titled Cities and Climates: Extreme Weather and Society in Colonial Singapore and Hong Kong.


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