If there is a common link between the author and the subject of this biography, it is surely perseverance.
The author, Ian James Frazer, has been working on Rain God for the better part of 25 years, and the sheer volume of information (587 footnotes alone) that he has amassed from press reports, archives, family records, interviews, letters and other correspondence, both in Australia and overseas, is staggering.
The subject, Clement Wragge, spent much of his life (1852-1922) setting up weather stations and gathering detailed observations from often remote and difficult locations such as the top of Britain's highest mountain, Ben Nevis in Scotland, and the top of Australia, Mt Kosciuszko.
Wragge (sometimes called by wags "Inclement" or "Wet" Wragge) made a name for himself in his native Britain in the 1880s as a forecaster and tireless weather observer. Later, in Australia, he was the first to give tropical storms proper names, a practice that was at first scoffed at by other meteorologists but caught on and has endured to the present day.
It was Wragge's experience at Ben Nevis that secured his reputation. After establishing a weather station on the mountain in 1881, he often trekked from Fort William to the top of the Ben, a 26km round trip, in a day, at times carrying equipment and taking seven sets of observations, in conditions that were often extreme.
In 2012, Frazer, then working as a journalist in North Queensland, took long service leave and flew to Britain to visit Wragge's haunts. During that year's Ben Nevis footrace to the top of the mountain, Frazer suffered mild hypothermia that gave him "a painful insight into Clement's Spartan trekking".
Wragge was a complex man: spiritualist; popular lecturer; early advocate of planting trees to prevent droughts; a scientist who believed that God was manifest everywhere in nature but that weather and climate could only be fully understood through rigorous observation and scientific methods.
"In April 1886, when [Queensland] Evangelical church leaders called for a day of prayer for drought-breaking rain," Frazer writes, "Wragge advised them in his weather column to 'Master the science of meteorology instead of nagging the Great Author of Evolution to suspend the laws of physics for human convenience'."
Wragge's years as Queensland's government meteorologist began during one of the most active periods of tropical cyclones in Australia's history. On January 22, 1887, scarcely three weeks after Wragge had started in his position, Brisbane recorded its highest-ever 24-hour rainfall tally of 465mm. That rain came from a tropical cyclone that Wragge had accurately forecast would hit the state's coast.
In contrast, Wragge's final years in Queensland coincided with one of Australia's most devastating dry spells, the Federation Drought. It was a time of drastic measures. In mid-August of 1902, Frazer writes, "a freight train trundled through Queensland's parched outback, carrying four kegs of blasting powder, four cases of gunpowder and six custom-made cannons." They had been ordered by the people of Charleville "to shoot at clouds that might break the drought".
As fanciful as that might seem today, Wragge believed, based on work by the Austrian experimenter Albert Steiger, that it could work. Indeed, Steiger's "vortex guns" had at times produced a gentle drizzle. But Charleville turned into a debacle. It's one of the most entertaining chapters in Rain God. "That no one was killed was probably due to good luck and the native caution of Charlevillians," Frazer writes.
In 1897, hoping to repeat his Ben Nevis success in Australia, Wragge established an observation station at the top of Mt Kosciuszko. He enlisted many volunteers for the project, including his son. From the beginning, it was beset by financial and logistical problems.
Frustrated by government bureaucracy and lack of funding, and by being overlooked to head Australia's first national weather bureau, Wragge left Australia in 1904, vowing never to return. But he did come back, and in September 1911, in an interview with The Sun, Sydney, he said: "My forecast for Australia? There is a probability that we will have some statesmen in the country someday."
In this first full-length biography of Wragge, Ian Frazer has made a significant contribution to the literature of weather and climate in Australia. Rain God will sit firmly on the shelf beside David Day's 100-year history of the Bureau of Meteorology, The Weather Watchers (2007), Lawrie Zion's The Weather Obsession (2017), and many others.
Rain God is a flight into the eye of the storm that was Clement Wragge's life. Any such ride will be bumpy at times, and a timeline of Wragge's life might have made the ride smoother. Still, the book will provide many insights into the evolving science of forecasting and the constant battle for funding from governments amid cries from farmers, mariners and the general public for more reliable weather forecasts.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.