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.


The very next year after Dr. Wells's paper was published there appeared in France the third volume of the Memoires de Physique et de Chimie de la Societe d'Arcueil, and a new epoch in meteorology was inaugurated. The society in question was numerically an inconsequential band, listing only a dozen members; but every name was a famous one: Arago, Berard, Berthollet, Biot, Chaptal, De Candolle, Dulong, Gay-Lussac, Humboldt, Laplace, Poisson, and Thenard—rare spirits every one. Little danger that the memoirs of such a band would be relegated to the dusty shelves where most proceedings of societies belong—no milk-for-babes fare would be served to such a company.

The particular paper which here interests us closes this third and last volume of memoirs. It is entitled "Des Lignes Isothermes et de la Distribution de la Chaleursurle Globe." The author is Alexander Humboldt. Needless to say, the topic is handled in a masterly manner. The distribution of heat on the surface of the globe, on the mountain-sides, in the interior of the earth; the causes that regulate such distribution; the climatic results—these are the topics discussed. But what gives epochal character to the paper is the introduction of those isothermal lines circling the earth in irregular course, joining together places having the same mean annual temperature, and thus laying the foundation for a science of comparative climatology.

It is true the attempt to study climates comparatively was not new. Mairan had attempted it in those papers in which he developed his bizarre ideas as to central emanations of heat. Euler had brought his profound mathematical genius to bear on the topic, evolving the "extraordinary conclusion that under the equator at midnight the cold ought to be more rigorous than at the poles in winter." And in particular Richard Kirwan, the English chemist, had combined the mathematical and the empirical methods and calculated temperatures for all latitudes. But Humboldt differs from all these predecessors in that he grasps the idea that the basis of all such computations should be not theory, but fact. He drew his isothermal lines not where some occult calculation would locate them on an ideal globe, but where practical tests with the thermometer locate them on our globe as it is. London, for example, lies in the same latitude as the southern extremity of Hudson Bay; but the isotherm of London, as Humboldt outlines it, passes through Cincinnati.

Of course such deviations of climatic conditions between places in the same latitude had long been known. As Humboldt himself observes, the earliest settlers of America were astonished to find themselves subjected to rigors of climate for which their European experience had not at all prepared them. Moreover, sagacious travellers, in particular Cook's companion on his second voyage, young George Forster, had noted as a general principle that the western borders of continents in temperate regions are always warmer than corresponding latitudes of their eastern borders; and of course the general truth of temperatures being milder in the vicinity of the sea than in the interior of continents had long been familiar. But Humboldt's isothermal lines for the first time gave tangibility to these ideas, and made practicable a truly scientific study of comparative climatology.

In studying these lines, particularly as elaborated by further observations, it became clear that they are by no means haphazard in arrangement, but are dependent upon geographical conditions which in most cases are not difficult to determine. Humboldt himself pointed out very clearly the main causes that tend to produce deviations from the average—or, as Dove later on called it, the normal—temperature of any given latitude. For example, the mean annual temperature of a region (referring mainly to the northern hemisphere) is raised by the proximity of a western coast; by a divided configuration of the continent into peninsulas; by the existence of open seas to the north or of radiating continental surfaces to the south; by mountain ranges to shield from cold winds; by the infrequency of swamps to become congealed; by the absence of woods in a dry, sandy soil; and by the serenity of sky in the summer months and the vicinity of an ocean current bringing water which is of a higher temperature than that of the surrounding sea.

Conditions opposite to these tend, of course, correspondingly to lower the temperature. In a word, Humboldt says the climatic distribution of heat depends on the relative distribution of land and sea, and on the "hypsometrical configuration of the continents"; and he urges that "great meteorological phenomena cannot be comprehended when considered independently of geognostic relations"—a truth which, like most other general principles, seems simple enough once it is pointed out.