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British Storm Brings Up History’s First Work of Social Media

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The enormous winter storm Xaver currently battering northern Europe, coming only a month after another one, brings to mind another famous storm that hit England late in the fall — the unnamed blow that generated Daniel Defoe’s nonfiction masterpiece The Storm, considered by some the first work of modern journalism. It hit southern England just before midnight November 26 1703 — after two weeks of high winds that had filled every port with ships unable to sail into its teeth.

The storm hit with such force that “Bricks, Tiles, and Stones from the Tops of the Houses, flew with such force, and so thick in the streets, that no one thought fit to venture out, tho’ their Houses were near demolished within,” according to Defoe. So many tiles flew from roofs, in fact, that the next year the price of tile went up 450 percent.

The details are unimaginable. Lead sheathing of church roofs rolled up slanted eaves like parchment. Windvanes bent double. Chimneys and steeples crashed, and oaks and elms blew down in groups of hundreds. Sea spray blew with such force that up to 20 miles inland the twigs tasted of salt. The ships choking the harbors were largely destroyed, and sailors drowned by the thousands. The famous Eddystone Lighthouse, built upon stone foundations south of Devon, was simply blown away, along with its builder (who had rowed to the lighthouse to pass the night to demonstrate its safety to doubters). Some 400 windmills along the coast spun so rapidly that they caught fire and in the midst of the tempest burned down.

So: big storms off the north Atlantic not unprecedented. But I bring up Defoe’s wonderful book for two other reasons. First, in it (page 274, here) Defoe cites a listing of wind gradations (from “Stark calm” to “A tempest”) that was instrumental in the development of the magnificent Beaufort Scale of wind force, which I have written of before ceaselessly and is always worth reconsidering.

More, though, as much as Defoe’s book is revered as the foundation of modern journalism, what it is really is the first work of social media in history.

Defoe lived through the storm in London, and stunned by what he saw (and desperate to make some money — writers’ lives remaining little changed in three centuries), immediately placed an ad in the London Gazette, asking people all over England to relate their storm stories. He got several dozen, and the book consists of his own observations, a little history of the wind (scientists still wondered why it blew!), a history of other storms, and above all a breathless relation of the stories he received in response to his ad. You can think of it as a sort of Ur-Storify. And it’s worth noting that Defoe’s book was guaranteed to be every bit as accurate and truthful as today’s blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts for exactly the same reason: since “most of our Relators have not only given us their Names, and sign’d the Accounts they have sent, but have also given us Leave to hand their Names down to Posterity with the Record of the Relation they give, we would hope no Man will be so uncharitable to believe that Men would be forward to set their Names to a voluntary Untruth, and have themselves recorded to Posterity for having, without Motion, Hope, Reward, or any other reason, impos’d a Falsity upon the World, and dishonour’d our Relation with the useless Banter of an Untruth.”

So, then as now — obviously. Who would tell a public lie? Right?

Anyhow. Prayers for those suffering under the current storm, gratitude to Defoe (and Beaufort). And keep safe out there in the wind and the internet.

 

Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. David Cummings 5:15 pm 12/6/2013

    How quick-witted of Defoe.

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  2. 2. kinverlad 7:21 am 12/7/2013

    The reference to Beaufort’s wind force scale reminds me of a letter in The Times (London) several years ago, from a correspondent who thought it long overdue for Britain to have a similar way of measuring rain intensity. He proposed that Rain Force 1 would be, “It looks like its brightening.”

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