South Asia

Organized Panel Session

1 - Infrastructure and Information in the India Meteorological Department, 1875-1920

Friday, July 6
8:30 AM - 10:00 AM
Location: Cypress, New Building

This paper traces the process by which meteorologists rendered the atmosphere above South Asia visible, through the extension of communication and weather mapping technologies and the extensive recruitment of humans as (imperfect) instruments. The India Meteorological Department’s (IMD’s) first director, Henry Blanford, oversaw the expansion and standardization of a vast system of precision observation designed to produce timely weather information. I show that in laying this artificial sensory infrastructure, scientist-bureaucrats simultaneously advanced arguments about the natural coherence of the territory of British India and the totalizing perspective of imperial knowledge. However, these optimistic claims belied the contingencies and practical constraints of the system, the acute environmental anxieties that motivated it, and the integral role of non-specialist “native” observers. This history of imperial meteorology challenges narratives of “colonial science” that take at face value official declarations of confidence about scientific investigations of Asian nature. As IMD reports and internal records show, overworked officials struggled to keep up with the network’s continual maintenance, inspection, staff management, and calibration. Notwithstanding the suspect veracity of the atmospheric data collected, its expression in quantitative language eventually facilitated comparisons across the empire, recommending alternative spatial and scalar imaginations. For instance, director Gilbert Walker statistically disaggregated the regions of South Asia when he postulated a “tropical” Southern Oscillation in the 1910s. Despite material and conceptual challenges, I argue that this fragile infrastructure proved most adaptable to address changing scientific and administrative problems, even as it conveyed a deceptive message of the IMD’s atmospheric mastery. 

Sarah A. Carson

Princeton University, United States

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1 - Infrastructure and Information in the India Meteorological Department, 1875-1920



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