Back in December, I wrote about Benjamin Franklin and how he began his illustrious career by writing a comedy almanac. Today I want to tell you about Patrick Murphy, who also won fame and fortune by publishing an almanac. His fame though, was rather more short lived. Late in 1837, he published ‘The Weather Almanac – on Scientific Principles, showing the State of the Weather for Every Day of the Year of 1838.’ He also styled himself: ‘P. Murphy Esq MNS. The MNS stood for ‘member of no society’. Predicting the weather in Britain, more than around five days ahead, is a tricky business even in the twenty-first century and Patrick Murphy reckoned he could forecast the weather for the whole of 1838. It was a bit of a gamble, but he got lucky early on. His entry for January 20th predicted: “Fair, and probably the lowest degree of Winter temperature.” It’s a bit vague and likely an educated guess. The lowest temperatures of the winter generally occur around this time of year. But the temperature in London on January 20th 1838 was remarkably cold. At sunrise it was -4° F, which is -20° C. It was the coldest anyone could remember for a generation. The Thames froze over for the first time in years. Everyone thought Murphy was some sort of genius. For years afterwards, everyone referred to the winter of 1837-38 as ‘Murphy’s Winter’. People clamoured for copies of his almanac. They mobbed his publishers. Demand was so high that it had to be reprinted many times. It ran to forty-five editions. Patrick Murphy made a personal fortune of £3,000 on the strength of that one prediction. Sadly, he lost it all almost immediately when he invested the money in corn.
Murphy already had quite a successful history in the field of meteorology before he published his almanac. He had written a couple of treatises on the subject. He had accurately predicted a storm in 1836, well in advance of the event and also in the autumn of 1846, a gale which caused a lot of damage along the Welsh and Irish coasts and Liverpool. ‘The Monthly Review’ seemed to have high hopes for his publication, even before January 20th. It was hopeful that his methods would prove better than the old wives tales and general nonsense that was usually churned out about red sky at night and cows lying down in fields. Though there was a warning that: “to no person in the universe can the consequence of accuracy or failure in the predictions be half so serious as to the author of them.”
Murphy believed that his methods were based on sound scientific reasoning, but unfortunately, he believed that he could forecast the weather by studying the electrical, magnetic and gravitational effects of the planets. His predictions for the rest of the year were not quite so good. Someone who went to the trouble of comparing his predictions with the actual weather concluded that he was, at least, partially right on 168 days, but on the other 197 days he had got it completely wrong. Poor Murphy became the butt of a lot of jokes, all his serious studies have been forgotten. Another almanac published a picture of a barometer that measured public gullibility in pounds rather than the air pressure. There was even a short play, in which Patrick Murphy BTN (Baked Tatey Merchant), a vendor of baked potatoes, is mistaken for the famous forecaster when he makes a casual remark about the weather.
Although Patrick Murphy continued to publish weather almanacs until his death in 1847, he never really regained his credibility. But he did at least prove that there is a remarkable amount of interest, and a great deal of profit to be made, from forecasting the weather in our unpredictable climate.