A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 3, chapter V
The new science of meteorology
Evaporation, cloud formation, and dew
There is at least one form of meteor, however, of those that interested our forebears whose meteorological importance they did not overestimate. This is the vapor of water. How great was the interest in this familiar meteor at the beginning of the century is attested by the number of theories then extant regarding it; and these conflicting theories bear witness also to the difficulty with which the familiar phenomenon of the evaporation of water was explained.

Franklin had suggested that air dissolves water much as water dissolves salt, and this theory was still popular, though Deluc had disproved it by showing that water evaporates even more rapidly in a vacuum than in air. Deluc's own theory, borrowed from earlier chemists, was that evaporation is the chemical union of particles of water with particles of the supposititious element heat. Erasmus Darwin combined the two theories, suggesting that the air might hold a variable quantity of vapor in mere solution, and in addition a permanent moiety in chemical combination with caloric.

Undisturbed by these conflicting views, that strangely original genius, John Dalton, afterwards to be known as perhaps the greatest of theoretical chemists, took the question in hand, and solved it by showing that water exists in the air as an utterly independent gas. He reached a partial insight into the matter in 1793, when his first volume of meteorological essays was published; but the full elucidation of the problem came to him in 1801. The merit of his studies was at once recognized, but the tenability of his hypothesis was long and ardently disputed.

While the nature of evaporation was in dispute, as a matter of course the question of precipitation must be equally undetermined. The most famous theory of the period was that formulated by Dr. Hutton in a paper read before the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and published in the volume of transactions which contained also the same author's epoch-making paper on geology. This "theory of rain" explained precipitation as due to the cooling of a current of saturated air by contact with a colder current, the assumption being that the surplusage of moisture was precipitated in a chemical sense, just as the excess of salt dissolved in hot water is precipitated when the water cools. The idea that the cooling of the saturated air causes the precipitation of its moisture is the germ of truth that renders this paper of Hutton's important. All correct later theories build on this foundation.

"Let us suppose the surface of this earth wholly covered with water," said Hutton, "and that the sun were stationary, being always vertical in one place; then, from the laws of heat and rarefaction, there would be formed a circulation in the atmosphere, flowing from the dark and cold hemisphere to the heated and illuminated place, in all directions, towards the place of the greatest cold.

"As there is for the atmosphere of this earth a constant cooling cause, this fluid body could only arrive at a certain degree of heat; and this would be regularly decreasing from the centre of illumination to the opposite point of the globe, most distant from the light and heat. Between these two regions of extreme heat and cold there would, in every place, be found two streams of air following in opposite directions. If those streams of air, therefore, shall be supposed as both sufficiently saturated with humidity, then, as they are of different temperatures, there would be formed a continual condensation of aqueous vapor, in some middle region of the atmosphere, by the commixtion of part of those two opposite streams.

"Hence there is reason to believe that in this supposed case there would be formed upon the surface of the globe three different regions - the torrid region, the temperate, and the frigid. These three regions would continue stationary; and the operations of each would be continual. In the torrid region, nothing but evaporation and heat would take place; no cloud could be formed, because in changing the transparency of the atmosphere to opacity it would be heated immediately by the operation of light, and thus the condensed water would be again evaporated. But this power of the sun would have a termination; and it is these that would begin the region of temperate heat and of continual rain. It is not probable that the region of temperance would reach far beyond the region of light; and in the hemisphere of darkness there would be found a region of extreme cold and perfect dryness.

"Let us now suppose the earth as turning on its axis in the equinoctial situation. The torrid region would thus be changed into a zone, in which there would be night and day; consequently, here would be much temperance, compared with the torrid region now considered; and here perhaps there would be formed periodical condensation and evaporation of humidity, corresponding to the seasons of night and day. As temperance would thus be introduced into the region of torrid extremity, so would the effect of this change be felt over all the globe, every part of which would now be illuminated, consequently heated in some degree. Thus we would have a line of great heat and evaporation, graduating each way into a point of great cold and congelation. Between these two extremes of heat and cold there would be found in each hemisphere a region of much temperance, in relation to heat, but of much humidity in the atmosphere, perhaps of continual rain and condensation.

"The supposition now formed must appear extremely unfit for making this globe a habitable world in every part; but having thus seen the effect of night and day in temperating the effects of heat and cold in every place, we are now prepared to contemplate the effects of supposing this globe to revolve around the sun with a certain inclination of its axis. By this beautiful contrivance, that comparatively uninhabited globe is now divided into two hemispheres, each of which is thus provided with a summer and a winter season. But our present view is limited to the evaporation and condensation of humidity; and, in this contrivance of the seasons, there must appear an ample provision for those alternate operations in every part; for as the place of the vertical sun is moved alternately from one tropic to the other, heat and cold, the original causes of evaporation and condensation, must be carried over all the globe, producing either annual seasons of rain or diurnal seasons of condensation and evaporation, or both these seasons, more or less - that is, in some degree.

"The original cause of motion in the atmosphere is the influence of the sun heating the surface of the earth exposed to that luminary. We have not supposed that surface to have been of one uniform shape and similar substance; from whence it has followed that the annual propers of the sun, perhaps also the diurnal propers, would produce a regular condensation of rain in certain regions, and the evaporation of humidity in others; and this would have a regular progress in certain determined seasons, and would not vary. But nothing can be more distant from this supposition, that is the natural constitution of the earth; for the globe is composed of sea and land, in no regular shape or mixture, while the surface of the land is also irregular with respect to its elevations and depressions, and various with regard to the humidity and dryness of that part which is exposed to heat as the cause of evaporation. Hence a source of the most valuable motions in the fluid atmosphere with aqueous vapor, more or less, so far as other natural operations will admit; and hence a source of the most irregular commixture of the several parts of this elastic fluid, whether saturated or not with aqueous vapor.

"According to the theory, nothing is required for the production of rain besides the mixture of portions of the atmosphere with humidity, and of mixing the parts that are in different degrees of heat. But we have seen the causes of saturating every portion of the atmosphere with humidity and of mixing the parts which are in different degrees of heat. Consequently, over all the surface of the globe there should happen occasionally rain and evaporation, more or less; and also, in every place, those vicissitudes should be observed to take place with some tendency to regularity, which, however, may be so disturbed as to be hardly distinguishable upon many occasions. Variable winds and variable rains should be found in proportion as each place is situated in an irregular mixture of land and water; whereas regular winds should be found in proportion to the uniformity of the surface; and regular rains in proportion to the regular changes of those winds by which the mixture of the atmosphere necessary to the rain may be produced. But as it will be acknowledged that this is the case in almost all this earth where rain appears according to the conditions here specified, the theory is found to be thus in conformity with nature, and natural appearances are thus explained by the theory."[1]

 The next ambitious attempt to explain the phenomena of aqueous meteors was made by Luke Howard, in his remarkable paper on clouds, published in the Philosophical Magazine in 1803 - the paper in which the names cirrus, cumulus, stratus, etc., afterwards so universally adopted, were first proposed. In this paper Howard acknowledges his indebtedness to Dalton for the theory of evaporation; yet he still clings to the idea that the vapor, though independent of the air, is combined with particles of caloric. He holds that clouds are composed of vapor that has previously risen from the earth, combating the opinions of those who believe that they are formed by the union of hydrogen and oxygen existing independently in the air; though he agrees with these theorists that electricity has entered largely into the modus operandi of cloud formation. He opposes the opinion of Deluc and De Saussure that clouds are composed of particles of water in the form of hollow vesicles (miniature balloons, in short, perhaps filled with hydrogen), which untenable opinion was a revival of the theory as to the formation of all vapor which Dr. Halley had advocated early in the eighteenth century.

Of particular interest are Howard's views as to the formation of dew, which he explains as caused by the particles of caloric forsaking the vapor to enter the cool body, leaving the water on the surface. This comes as near the truth, perhaps, as could be expected while the old idea as to the materiality of heat held sway. Howard believed, however, that dew is usually formed in the air at some height, and that it settles to the surface, opposing the opinion, which had gained vogue in France and in America (where Noah Webster prominently advocated it), that dew ascends from the earth.

The complete solution of the problem of dew formation - which really involved also the entire question of precipitation of watery vapor in any form - was made by Dr. W. C. Wells, a man of American birth, whose life, however, after boyhood, was spent in Scotland (where as a young man he enjoyed the friendship of David Hume) and in London. Inspired, no doubt, by the researches of Mack, Hutton, and their confreres of that Edinburgh school, Wells made observations on evaporation and precipitation as early as 1784, but other things claimed his attention; and though he asserts that the subject was often in his mind, he did not take it up again in earnest until about 1812.

Meantime the observations on heat of Rumford and Davy and Leslie had cleared the way for a proper interpretation of the facts - about the facts themselves there had long been practical unanimity of opinion. Dr. Black, with his latent-heat observations, had really given the clew to all subsequent discussions of the subject of precipitation of vapor; and from this time on it had been known that heat is taken up when water evaporates, and given out again when it condenses. Dr. Darwin had shown in 1788, in a paper before the Royal Society, that air gives off heat on contracting and takes it up on expanding; and Dalton, in his essay of 1793, had explained this phenomenon as due to the condensation and vaporization of the water contained in the air.

But some curious and puzzling observations which Professor Patrick Wilson, professor of astronomy in the University of Glasgow, had communicated to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1784, and some similar ones made by Mr. Six, of Canterbury, a few years later, had remained unexplained. Both these gentlemen observed that the air is cooler where dew is forming than the air a few feet higher, and they inferred that the dew in forming had taken up heat, in apparent violation of established physical principles.

It remained for Wells, in his memorable paper of 1816, to show that these observers had simply placed the cart before the horse. He made it clear that the air is not cooler because the dew is formed, but that the dew is formed because the air is cooler - having become so through radiation of heat from the solids on which the dew forms. The dew itself, in forming, gives out its latent heat, and so tends to equalize the temperature.

Wells's paper is so admirable an illustration of the lucid presentation of clearly conceived experiments and logical conclusions that we should do it injustice not to present it entire. The author's mention of the observations of Six and Wilson gives added value to his own presentation.

 Dr. Wells's Essay on Dew.
"I was led in the autumn of 1784, by the event of a rude experiment, to think it probable that the formation of dew is attended with the production of cold. In 1788, a paper on hoar-frost, by Mr. Patrick Wilson, of Glasgow, was published in the first volume of the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, by which it appeared that this opinion bad been entertained by that gentleman before it had occurred to myself. In the course of the same year, Mr. Six, of Canterbury, mentioned in a paper communicated to the Royal Society that on clear and dewy nights he always found the mercury lower in a thermometer laid upon the ground in a meadow in his neighborhood than it was in a similar thermometer suspended in the air six feet above the former; and that upon one night the difference amounted to five degrees of Fahrenheit's scale. Mr. Six, however, did not suppose, agreeably to the opinion of Mr. Wilson and myself, that the cold was occasioned by the formation of dew, but imagined that it proceeded partly from the low temperature of the air, through which the dew, already formed in the atmosphere, had descended, and partly from the evaporation of moisture from the ground, on which his thermometer had been placed. The conjecture of Mr. Wilson and the observations of Mr. Six, together with many facts which I afterwards learned in the course of reading, strengthened my opinion; but I made no attempt, before the autumn of 1811, to ascertain by experiment if it were just, though it had in the mean time almost daily occurred to my thoughts. Happening, in that season, to be in that country in a clear and calm night, I laid a thermometer upon grass wet with dew, and suspended a second in the air, two feet above the other. An hour afterwards the thermometer on the grass was found to be eight degrees lower, by Fahrenheit's division, than the one in the air. Similar results having been obtained from several similar experiments, made during the same autumn, I determined in the next spring to prosecute the subject with some degree of steadiness, and with that view went frequently to the house of one of my friends who lives in Surrey.

At the end of two months I fancied that I had collected information worthy of being published; but, fortunately, while preparing an account of it I met by accident with a small posthumous work by Mr. Six, printed at Canterbury in 1794, in which are related differences observed on dewy nights between thermometers placed upon grass and others in the air that are much greater than those mentioned in the paper presented by him to the Royal Society in 1788. In this work, too, the cold of the grass is attributed, in agreement with the opinion of Mr. Wilson, altogether to the dew deposited upon it. The value of my own observations appearing to me now much diminished, though they embraced many points left untouched by Mr. Six, I gave up my intentions of making them known. Shortly after, however, upon considering the subject more closely, I began to suspect that Mr. Wilson, Mr. Six, and myself had all committed an error regarding the cold which accompanies dew as an effect of the formation of that fluid. I therefore resumed my experiments, and having by means of them, I think, not only established the justness of my suspicions, but ascertained the real cause both of dew and of several other natural appearances which have hitherto received no sufficient explanation, I venture now to submit to the consideration of the learned an account of some of my labors, without regard to the order of time in which they were performed, and of various conclusions which may be drawn from them, mixed with facts and opinions already published by others:

"There are various occurrences in nature which seem to me strictly allied to dew, though their relation to it be not always at first sight perceivable. The statement and explanation of several of these will form the concluding part of the present essay.

"1. I observed one morning, in winter, that the insides of the panes of glass in the windows of my bedchamber were all of them moist, but that those which had been covered by an inside shutter during the night were much more so than the others which had been uncovered. Supposing that this diversity of appearance depended upon a difference of temperature, I applied the naked bulbs of two delicate thermometers to a covered and uncovered pane; on which I found that the former was three degrees colder than the latter. The air of the chamber, though no fire was kept in it, was at this time eleven and one-half degrees warmer than that without. Similar experiments were made on many other mornings, the results of which were that the warmth of the internal air exceeded that of the external from eight to eighteen degrees, the temperature of the covered panes would be from one to five degrees less than the uncovered; that the covered were sometimes dewed, while the uncovered were dry; that at other times both were free from moisture; that the outsides of the covered and uncovered panes had similar differences with respect to heat, though not so great as those of the inner surfaces; and that no variation in the quantity of these differences was occasioned by the weather's being cloudy or fair, provided the heat of the internal air exceeded that of the external equally in both of those states of the atmosphere.

"The remote reason of these differences did not immediately present itself. I soon, however, saw that the closed shutter shielded the glass which it covered from the heat that was radiated to the windows by the walls and furniture of the room, and thus kept it nearer to the temperature of the external air than those parts could be which, from being uncovered, received the heat emitted to them by the bodies just mentioned.

"In making these experiments, I seldom observed the inside of any pane to be more than a little damped, though it might be from eight to twelve degrees colder than the general mass of the air in the room; while, in the open air, I had often found a great dew to form on substances only three or four degrees colder than the atmosphere. This at first surprised me; but the cause now seems plain. The air of the chamber had once been a portion of the external atmosphere, and had afterwards been heated, when it could receive little accessories to its original moisture. It constantly required being cooled considerably before it was even brought back to its former nearness to repletion with water; whereas the whole external air is commonly, at night, nearly replete with moisture, and therefore readily precipitates dew on bodies only a little colder than itself.

"When the air of a room is warmer than the external atmosphere, the effect of an outside shutter on the temperature of the glass of the window will be directly opposite to what has just been stated; since it must prevent the radiation, into the atmosphere, of the heat of the chamber transmitted through the glass.

"2. Count Rumford appears to have rightly conjectured that the inhabitants of certain hot countries, who sleep at nights on the tops of their houses, are cooled during this exposure by the radiation of their heat to the sky; or, according to his manner of expression, by receiving frigorific rays from the heavens. Another fact of this kind seems to be the greater chill which we often experience upon passing at night from the cover of a house into the air than might have been expected from the cold of the external atmosphere. The cause, indeed, is said to be the quickness of transition from one situation to another. But if this were the whole reason, an equal chill would be felt in the day, when the difference, in point of heat, between the internal and external air was the same as at night, which is not the case. Besides, if I can trust my own observation, the feeling of cold from this cause is more remarkable in a clear than in a cloudy night, and in the country than in towns. The following appears to be the manner in which these things are chiefly to be explained:

"During the day our bodies while in the open air, although not immediately exposed to the sun's rays, are yet constantly deriving heat from them by means of the reflection of the atmosphere. This heat, though it produces little change on the temperature of the air which it traverses, affords us some compensation for the heat which we radiate to the heavens. At night, also, if the sky be overcast, some compensation will be made to us, both in the town and in the country, though in a less degree than during the day, as the clouds will remit towards the earth no inconsiderable quantity of heat. But on a clear night, in an open part of the country, nothing almost can be returned to us from above in place of the heat which we radiate upward. In towns, however, some compensation will be afforded even on the clearest nights for the heat which we lose in the open air by that which is radiated to us from the sun round buildings.

To our loss of heat by radiation at times that we derive little compensation from the radiation of other bodies is probably to be attributed a great part of the hurtful effects of the night air. Descartes says that these are not owing to dew, as was the common opinion of his contemporaries, but to the descent of certain noxious vapors which have been exhaled from the earth during the heat of the day, and are afterwards condensed by the cold of a serene night. The effects in question certainly cannot be occasioned by dew, since that fluid does not form upon a healthy human body in temperate climates; but they may, notwithstanding, arise from the same cause that produces dew on those substances which do not, like the human body, possess the power of generating heat for the supply of what they lose by radiation or any other means."[2]

 This explanation made it plain why dew forms on a clear night, when there are no clouds to reflect the radiant heat. Combined with Dalton's theory that vapor is an independent gas, limited in quantity in any given space by the temperature of that space, it solved the problem of the formation of clouds, rain, snow, and hoar-frost. Thus this paper of Wells's closed the epoch of speculation regarding this field of meteorology, as Hutton's paper of 1784 had opened it. The fact that the volume containing Hutton's paper contained also his epoch-making paper on geology finds curiously a duplication in the fact that Wells's volume contained also his essay on Albinism, in which the doctrine of natural selection was for the first time formulated, as Charles Darwin freely admitted after his own efforts had made the doctrine famous.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.