Matthew Henry[1]
Massey University


On 10-11 September 1928, the Southern Cross crewed by Charles Kingsford Smith, Charles TP Ulm, HA Lichfield and TH McWilliam successfully crossed the Tasman Sea. In doing so the flight profoundly altered the geographies of connection between New Zealand and Australia. Prior to the flight the only means of connection across the Tasman Sea was by ship or via the trans-Tasman telegraph cable that had been laid in 1876. This paper examines the efforts by meteorologists in New Zealand and Australia to orchestrate existing shipping and telegraphic networks in order to produce the Tasman as a meteorologically knowable ‘airspace’ within which aircraft such as the Southern Cross could begin to reliably circulate.


At 9.20 a.m. on 11 September 1928, the Southern Cross crewed by Charles Kingsford Smith, Charles TP Ulm, HA Lichfield and TH McWilliam touched down at Sockburn aerodrome near Christchurch. Amidst the ecstatic reaction that followed, the editor of Auckland’s New Zealand Herald (NZH) stressed the attention to detail that had characterised the flights of the Southern Cross, writing that, “There has been no stupid trusting to luck…The whole world may well applaud them for their courage, their endurance and their skill, and add a meed of praise for their refusal to take hazards blindly”.[2] A quiet measure of appreciation for some of the help that the aviators received in preparing for the flight arrived a few days later in a letter addressed to Edward Kidson, Government Meteorologist within the recently established Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). In this letter the co-commanders of the Southern Cross praised Kidson for the extra work that he had put in to provide special weather forecasts for the successful flight, and they promised once they arrived back in Australia to prepare a report detailing the weather conditions they had experienced on their flight.[3]

Kidson’s role in providing weather forecasts for the Southern Cross flight represented part of a long cycle of work carried out by him and others in order to create a Tasman ‘airspace’ that scientists found knowable and predictable. This involved the knitting together of diverse communications technologies, instrumentalities, institutional spaces, and priorities. In this work Kidson and his colleagues were actively engaged in the production of new forms of scientific territory; places, however, that helped constitute new geographies of connection.[4] In these new places we can begin to see the glimmerings of what Paul Edwards has called the ‘infrastructural globalism’ within which things such as the weather emerged as objects of knowledge and as realms of human action. Such geographies were never characterised by a smoothly unfolding regularity, but as Miles Ogborn has argued, by a contingent, messy hybridity.[5]

In charting the assemblage of trans-Tasman ‘airspace’ and in particular the role of meteorological scientists within that process, the paper traces the production of a form of territoriality that intersected with, but was not contained by, the nation-state. It highlights the intricate piecing together of the informational and material infrastructure (or at least one small aspect of it) with which we know and act in the world, but whose implications are largely taken-for-granted. Moreover, it examines the complex territorialisation of that infrastructure in ways that challenge what John Agnew has called the ‘methodological nationalism’ which continues to position the nation-state as the privileged container of our understandings of the world.[6]

The construction of airspace

In her recent book, Liz Millward explores the production of a gendered British Imperial ‘airspace’ following the end of World War One (WW1).[7] While the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘airspace’ as a physical container consisting of the ‘space in the air directly above an area of the earth’s surface’, in contrast Millard’s definition of ‘airspace’ highlights the socio-political construction of ‘airspace’ by referring to the shifting assemblage of material and imaginative objects and relationships that enabled the sky to be transformed into a controllable and governable, geopolitical and economic resource. The construction of ‘airspace’, Millward notes, required the orchestration of “tickets, petrol, gasoline and benzol mixtures, contracts, aircraft manufacturers, women making aeroplane wings, legislative controls, national prestige, engines, ground crew, aerodromes, Imperial Airways, colonial airlines, the Royal Air Force (RAF), and aircrew training and licensing”.[8] It also required knowledge of the weather, and the means of disseminating that knowledge.

However, the air was, and remains, a fluid actor in the constitution of ‘airspace’. It is at once the canvas, the atmosphere or the sky, upon which ‘airspace’ is drawn, but as weather it is also able to deform the technoscientific relationships upon whose durability ‘airspace’ depends. Despite longstanding efforts to both know and control the weather, it remains outside direct control and only partially knowable. Here then a powerful and enduring theme in early twentieth century meteorology was a relentless drive to accumulate more information about weather patterns and the dynamics of the upper atmosphere.[9] From the middle of the nineteenth century, this drive increasingly led to efforts to connect up the different sources of meteorological information that were being collected by individual observers and increasingly, national, weather bureaus.[10]

If ‘the weather’ was problematic because of its ability to deform the technoscientific relationships that constituted the emerging networks of civil aviation, then it was particularly problematic vis-à-vis the territorialisation of airspace that was institutionalised following the end of First World War (WW1). The production of ‘airspace’ as a particular territoralisation was deeply enmeshed in the discourses of ‘airmindedness’ which emerged around WW1. ‘Airmindedness’ had a number of dimensions.[11] The exultation of power, speed and freedom which often accompanied aircraft and aviators found its corollaries in other technoscientific artefacts such as the railways and power stations that Graham and Mavin argue helped constitute the ‘technological sublime’ as a characteristic feature of the modern imagination.[12] Understood in this sense the aircraft seemed to offer a means of escaping the ravaged, disordered world that followed the end of WW1. Such sentiments found homes in diverse political movements: from the Italian futurists such as Filippo Marinetti who saw air power as the route to national rejuvenation; through to the proponents of a global internationalism for whom the aircraft and aviation represented the means of transcending nationalist squabbles. Following the end of WW1 these various positions were expressed in debates about the relationship of aviation to the state which were conducted between proponents of a ‘free sky’ in which national borders would have no place and those who advocated for the extension of state sovereignty into the realm of aviation. In 1919, the Paris Convention Relating to the Regulation of Aerial Navigation crystallised these debates by effectively extending the state’s borders vertically and according to each state sovereign rights over the sky as defined by its territorial borders. Airspace became legally congruous with state space. The state territorialisation of airspace was at odds, however, with both the effort to promote international networks of meteorological information exchange through the International Meteorological Organisation (IMO), and the very fluidity of the weather itself as weather patterns circulated without heed to the terrestrial territorialisation of the sky following the 1919 Paris Convention. Aviation meteorology, then, as an essential part of the fabrication of airspace was shaped by a constitutive tension between its legal framing within the boundaries of state sovereignty and the fluid character of its core actor which made effective knowledge of it almost inevitably international in scope.

Airmindedness and meteorology in New Zealand

In New Zealand the political framing of ‘airmindedness’ and ‘airspace’ can be seen articulated in the debates around the Aviation Bill in 1918. At one level, the Bill simply sought to regulate the licensing of pilots, but as the Attorney-General, Sir Francis Bell recognised, “I merely regard this as the beginning of legislation…The world will become changed through this new process of travel”, while for Henry Wigram aviation would require much work in the laying out of the “highways of aerial navigation.”[13] In an echo of his pre-WW1 comments in which he had highlighted the dangers to New Zealand of Germany’s Zeppelin programme, Wigram imagined aviation in terms of its ability to help defend New Zealand since, “the late adventures of the war have shown that the power of the air is materially increasing –and increasing rapidly.”[14] Wigram’s view of the future utility of air power was taken up by other commentators. Samuel, for example, suggested the establishment of a fleet of aircraft and submarines to replace an extensive naval fleet.[15]

The intersection of aviation, security and meteorology in the creation of New Zealand ‘airspace’ was highlighted after the war by the Government Meteorologist, DC Bates, in his report on the London Imperial Meteorology Conference which had been held in September 1919.[16] Based on his observations in Europe, aviation, asserted Bates, would become increasingly central to the defence of New Zealand. He noted that, “though I am not very sanguine about the immediate prospects of commercial or civil aviation…I firmly believe that something will have to be done, and that it is necessary to encourage it and have it in the background as a support to the defence of this Dominion.”[17] Given this context, the Director concluded that, “For the development of aviation the prime necessity is the extension of the meteorological service.”[18] However, its extension, he feared, would be beyond the capacity of a service which he argued was both understaffed and underequipped as it already stood.

Bates repeated his concerns regarding the relationship between meteorology and aviation in New Zealand when he was asked to comment on a proposed Empire mail service. Addressing his superiors in the Marine Department, he argued that “I have warned the Secretary of the Post Office that until great improvements in the meteorological service of the Dominion, it would, in my opinion, be very dangerous to institute regular services in this country.”[19] Specific worries about aviation meteorology were framed within wider concerns about the inattention and inadequacy given to meteorology by the government. On this latter point he fumed that, “The Government does not realise the importance of the climate and weather forecasting to this country. While launching on tremendous schemes for electrification, agriculture etc it has neglected the main item with regard rainfall, temperatures, wind etc.”[20] The consequence of such neglect was such that the current workload could not be met, “in a way that would be satisfactory to the honour of the country” and that moreover, “we are dependent entirely upon Post Office officials in a manner obtained in England between fifty and sixty years ago, and is now regarded as most obsolete and unreliable.”[21] Viewed through Bates’ eyes, aviation represented what Mitchell Dean has termed a ‘salient’, an emerging sphere of socio-technical activity which problematises existing assemblages of knowledge and practice.[22] For Bates, the demands for meteorological forecasts to support an emerging aviation industry threatened to significantly overwhelm the capacity of the existing system of information collecting and forecasting which had been developed in the preceding decades. As Bates acknowledged, the meteorological system was already inadequate for normal forecasting and could not meet the demands of a nascent aviation industry. Bates’ concerns also illustrated a slippage between the confident incorporation of aviation into the boundaries of state sovereignty at the 1919 Paris Conference, and the rather more difficult creation of durable technoscientific relationships that could ensure the predictability and controllability of ‘airspace’.

Bates’ complaints about a lack of attention to the importance of meteorology can be placed within wider disciplinary and intellectual shifts in scientific practice and organisation.[23] Ruth Barton, among others, has examined the intricate processes of professionalization that reshaped scientific practice, organisation and subjectivities from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.[24] Processes which saw the forging of new relationships between scientists and states, between scientists and paid employment, and between the newly solidifying disciplines that were dividing up and patrolling the field of intellectual labour. In this context the emerging discipline of meteorology faced a number of challenges. Intellectually, it needed to define itself, and be recognised as a ‘rigorous’ scientific discipline distinct from the weather watchers who tended to focus on the odd and extraordinary and from the rich tradition of weather prognosticators and their myriad explanations regarding the relationship between weather, climate and human activity.[25] Organisationally, meteorology because of its vast informational requirements needed state patronage in order to work at both a national and international level.[26] Framed by these challenges Bates’ worries about state indifference to meteorology are understandable as they represented a threat not only to his immediate work, but also to the status of the very discipline. These concerns led Bates, for example, to involve himself in a variety of rainmaking and frost prevention schemes whose purpose was in part to demonstrate the rigour of professional meteorology vis-à-vis amateur weather making.[27] In hitching meteorology to aviation, both Bates and his successors were reframing the discipline as an essential element in a field of activity that was becoming the paradigmatic expression of technoscientific rationality, and of indeed modernity.

Meteorology and trans-Tasman flights

Despite his fears, Bates was soon asked to provide help for budding trans-Tasman aviators. In July 1921 he received a letter from his colleague HG Hunt, Commonwealth Meteorologist in the Australian Government’s Department of Home and Territories asking for his support for Lieutenant FS Briggs’ proposed flight from Hobart to Bluff. The New Zealand Meteorological Office, suggested Hunt, could help the flight by regularly supplying the Meteorological Bureau in Australia with, “such information and anticipations regarding the conditions over and approaching the southern end of the South Island as the additional sources at your command would enable you to give.”[28] Such ‘anticipations’ would be supplied in addition to the ongoing meteorological information that was already regularly passing across the Tasman Sea. Hunt’s request provides is with a glimpse into the relationship that already existed between the respective New Zealand and Australian meteorological services insofar as weather information collected in both countries had been flowing across the Tasman via the telegraph cable that had been first laid in 1876.[29] Simultaneously, however, Hunt’s use of the phrase ‘anticipations’ provided a telling recognition of the limitations of the weather information available to both services.

Systematically organised weather reports had been circulating across the Tasman since 1885, made possible by a longstanding arrangement between the respective country’s post departments and telegraphy companies. Between 1885 and 1902 weather cables across the Tasman had been transmitted via the Eastern Extension Company free of change, but these services were transferred to the Pacific Cable Board when its trans-Pacific cable began operation. These trans-Tasman connections echoed the efforts of the IMO to encourage the international exchange of information. Indeed on the foundation of the IMO the United States (US) and Swiss delegates supported the principle that existing informational networks needed to be extended into a global system of observations. As part of this effort, the US Army Signal Office started publishing the Bulletin of International Meteorological Observations Taken Simultaneously which contained synoptic maps based on the collation of national meteorological information.[30] In 1905, the French meteorologist Leon Teissrenc proposed, and the IMO supported, a telegraph-based weather network (Reseau Mondial) which would collect, calculate and distribute pressure, temperature and rainfall information from weather stations within each ten degree latitude/longitude quadrangle. Ultimately the Reseau Mondial would come to encompass about 500 stations, but the reality of coordinating the system pointed to the intricate difficulties that accompanied the extension of such networks. Problems such as the lack of standardisation in instruments and observing practices, a lack of geographic reach in both observations and communications infrastructure and the voluntary nature of the scientific relationships at the core of the network made the coordination of meteorological information patchy. Moreover, limitations in the capacity of the global telegraph network meant that Teissrenc’s vision of instantaneous information collection and distribution was impossible to implement.[31] Indeed, the network’s first data set collected in 1911 was not published until 1917.

Within the more limited, and to some extent more controllable, scope of the Tasman Sea, the telegraphic arrangements between the New Zealand and Australian meteorological agencies did enable meteorologists to begin constructing a more predictable ‘weatherscape’, particularly given the prevailing westerly origin of much of New Zealand’s weather patterns.[32] The compression of space-time, and the expectations of simultaneity produced by the use of the telegraphic organisations introduced new demands into the network. For example, during WW1 Bates was repeatedly critical of the censors in both Australia and New Zealand for delaying weather cables, delays which he argued were dangerous because they stopped the prompt formulation of forecasts and storm warnings.[33] Writing in early 1927, Bates reflected on continuing problems in the transmission of the Australian weather cables, pointing out to his superiors that, “delays occur through the stress of business, especially at times when they are most wanted: for example at Christmas and Easter etc. Land delays frequently occur between Auckland and Wellington on account of ‘faults’ or the Murry system not tuning up properly.”[34] Faults in the ‘Murry system’ and the limited capacity of the telegraphic network highlighted the delicacy of the technoscientific relationships required to enable weather cables, and indeed any telegraphic cables, to circulate. Bates, however, was not shy in supplementing his technoscientific accounts of delay with accounts that stressed the commercial and bureaucratic origins of delay. “Delays are dangerous” he argued, “and the principle of the whole of the morning forecast being subject to the exigencies of the Pacific Company’s business is simply unthinkable.” In continuing to complain about the irregularity of the emerging network, Bates stressed the importance of knowing the weather as an integral feature of national interest that needed to be considered beyond ‘partial considerations’.[35]

Alongside the technical and bureaucratic problems dogging the swift and stable transmission of meteorological information across the Tasman there was the informational void that was the Tasman itself, a particular problem for the production of a secure, trans-Tasman airspace. The utility of marine observations for meteorologists had long been recognised. By the 1860s naval weather logs were being collected and circulated despite a lack of standardisation that hampered their usefulness.[36] In his report on the Imperial Meteorological Conference in 1919 Bates highlighted, as one of most important issues arising out of the conference, the need to extend maritime forecasts and the concomitant need to equip ships with meteorological instruments. Bates’ concerns about instrumentation reflected one of the problems that had emerged prior to WW1 when the promise offered by the increased use of wireless sets on ships had been tempered by the non-standardisation of ships’ meteorological instruments and observation procedures.[37] On the flip side, however, while observations from ships might be unreliable they at least offered a glimpse into a hitherto hidden place. On the flip side while observations originating from ships were problematic the New Zealand Meteorological Office through the Post and Telegraph Department, had since 1912 been forwarding forecasts to vessels within the 600 mile range of the Wellington Radio Station’s transmitter.[38]

Bates followed up his 1919 conference report with further correspondence on his ideas for maritime reports and standardised instrumentation. In the case of the former, he laid out the advantage of using ship based observations, writing, “Ships travelling between New Zealand and Australia, home boats, and the islands of the Pacific” he noted, “could furnish us with valuable scientific information with regard to barometric changes and the subsequent movement of atmospheric disturbances.”[39] At the moment such information was generally sent to either the British or United States meteorological authorities, but Bates argued that neither of these authorities could be expected to deal with New Zealand’s specific meteorological problems and that consequently, “it is our duty to utilize the information now taken by shipmasters and wasted on log records.”[40] In the first instance this duty meant making more use of the observations recorded in ships’ logs either by copying such records or requiring captains to produce special meteorological reports. Not surprisingly the use of wireless would significantly aid the circulation of ships’ reports, but only if, “they could be depended upon.”[41] Bates’ letter ended with the plea that such work could only be successfully achieved through an extension of the Meteorological Office’s staff and its funding.[42] In separate correspondence Bates reminded the government that the compulsory equipping of ships with meteorological instruments had been agreed to by the delegates at the IMO in Paris. It appeared that such measures had already been taken by ships sailing under Dutch authority, but that, “there seemed to be no uniformity in regard to British ships.”[43] To help remedy this problem he suggested that statutory provisions be included in the next Shipping Bill requiring ships to carry meteorological equipment and to record observations. Bates’ suggestions were not taken up quickly. Speaking before Wellington’s Rotary Club in early 1924, he noted the importance of weather reports from ships at sea, but added that, “Only a quarter of the information was received from ships which should be received”.[44] As a way of increasing that proportion, Bates thought that some form of ‘return’ needed to be made to those ships. While he was not specific about what form that ‘return’ should take, implicitly at least he seems to have recognised that taking and transmitting weather observations imposed a cost on ship owners that needed to be reimbursed.

Bates’ fears about the lack of uniformity in ship-based weather reporting extended beyond a quantitative concern with the number of ships providing reports, although one of his legacies was the knitting together of a progressively more extensive network of land and ship based reporting stations. He also expressed concern about the quality of information being recorded. Thus, Bates put forward to Ernest Marsden a series of points that the latter needed to discuss with his colleagues in the Australian Government’s Central Meteorological Bureau including: the standardisation of recording and instrumentation, and the relationship between the respective meteorological bureaus and the emerging radio companies.[45] In response to Marsden’s questioning, AG Ackroyd spelt out the Central Meteorological Bureau’s approach to marine meteorology. This involved equipping ships with instruments from the Bureau, and incorporating ships within a system of reporting and acknowledgement. Ackroyd also pointed out, however, that the number of ships that could be thus equipped far exceeded the Bureau’s resources. Consequently, the provision of meteorological equipment was, “perhaps the most urgent immediate requirement of marine meteorological activity in Australian waters.”[46] Nonetheless given the existing network of ships reporting meteorological observations, Ackroyd recommended that New Zealand’s needs could be simply met by arranging for the receipt of those radio messages which ships were already preparing for the Australian authorities.[47] To this end, the Australian Bureau was prepared, “to inform the New Zealand Meteorological Bureau of the nature and condition of equipment in use of any vessel already forwarding reports to this Office, and would be prepared to notify the New Zealand Office of any defective records discovered in or by means of the meteorological records received by mail.”[48]

While Ackroyd, notwithstanding the issue of instrumental reliability, pointed to the continuing usefulness of marine meteorology for weather forecasting Edward Kidson, Assistant Director at the Central Meteorological Bureau articulated a more fundamental challenge.[49] Kidson dismissed the reports from ships as being, “irregular and frequently somewhat unreliable.”[50] Of more use, he contended, would be the extension of the geographical scope of the weather information being sent to New Zealand to include land based stations along Australia’s eastern and southern coast as well as stations in Western Australia. He also suggested broadening the types of weather information being transmitted to include the intensity, movement and location of pressure systems as well as the more generally recorded pressure, wind, temperature and weather information.

Kidson’s discounting of ship based observations vis-à-vis land stations can be interpreted within the light of the efforts to create national weather systems, efforts which dominated the activities of state meteorological agencies from the late nineteenth and century onwards. Such networks required constant work in order to maintain the chains of veracity (calibration, standardisation and regularity) that meteorologists required in order to produce synoptic forecasts: chains which even within national networks, let alone outside those systems, frequently broke down. One only has to look at the inspection work of Bates contained in the archival files in order to appreciate the magnitude of the task that land stations alone presented meteorologists. Bates agreed with Kidson about the value of New Zealand receiving more information from an extended network of Australian land stations, although he continued to press for more marine reporting.[51] In particular, Bates was keen to get twice daily reports from both Sydney and Hobart, and a daily report from Melbourne summarising weather reports from Perth, Adelaide, Alice Springs, New Caledonia and Brisbane. He also expressed his hope that the Australia government would quickly establish a weather station at Lord Howe Island in the North Tasman.

Notwithstanding Kidson’s dismissal of the use of ship based meteorological observations, Bates persevered in attempting to extend and regularise the information coming from that source. These efforts continued to be dogged by problems as illustrated by the trouble the SS Rimutaka faced in trying to send weather reports to the Meteorological Office. In this case, the problem was not the state of the ship’s instruments, nor the ship’s record. The issue had been that while the ship had been trying to send reports to Wellington, “the Wellington Radio Station would not accept them unless the ship was prepared to pay for them.”[52] Such problems indicated a shift in the policy of the radio companies, which, as Ackroyd had noted in his advice in late 1926, had been to send and receive meteorological messages free of charge. The upshot, argued Bates, was that the Meteorological Office continued to miss out on a wealth of information, and that it was a matter of urgent policy that, “an agreement be reached with the Post & Telegraph Department whereby all weather messages addressed to us by vessels in southern latitudes between 130[0W and 155[oE should be accepted and transmitted to us without charge to the ship.”[53]

The Tasman as a “weatherscape”

It is within the context of an emerging patchwork of weather reports, tentatively pieced together through the mobilisation of new technologies, and new ways of interpreting and representing those reports, that the Tasman Sea gradually became an increasingly knowable and visible weatherscape in the first decades of the twentieth century. Thus, by late 1920s the Australasian meteorologists were increasingly being asked to furnish reports for the prospective pioneer flights across the Tasman that were capturing the attention of the public and the government on both sides of the Tasman. In late 1927, New Zealand’s newly appointed Dominion Meteorologist, Edward Kidson, was requested to liaise with the Australian meteorological authorities to provide meteorological support for the planned trans-Tasman flight of the New Zealanders Captain George Hood and Lieutenant Robert Moncreiff. On the day of the planned flight Kidson sent a special weather report to the aviators in Sydney indicating that the pair could expect light to moderate South-easterly winds and good visibility over the Tasman Sea.[54] On 10 January 1928, Hood and Moncrieff took off from Sydney’s Richmond airfield in their Ryan B1 monoplane ‘Aotearoa’ at 2.44 a.m. with the expectation that they would land in Wellington at Trentham before darkness fell. They never arrived in Wellington. Various explanations for their disappearance were proposed including the theory that they had overflown New Zealand and ditched in the Pacific, or that they had crashed into the Rimutaka Ranges. Despite air and sea searches no trace of the aircraft was detected, and by 17 January the New Zealand Herald had declared the loss a ‘futile tragedy’.[55]

A couple of days after the Herald’s declaration, the Division Meteorologist in Sydney, Mr Mares, received a letter from Kidson regarding the disappearance of Hood and Moncreiff.[56] In it, Kidson anticipated some form of inquiry being held in New Zealand, and asked Mares to send him a copy of any information that had been given to the two aviators, either publically or confidentially, by the Commonwealth Meteorological Bureau. While he considered it unlikely that the meteorologists would be made responsible for the failure, he could not rule it out. In response, Mares explained that he had supplied Hood and Moncreiff with a succession of forecasts, ships’ observations and maps right up until their departure on the morning of 10 January, and while the weather was not expected to be ideal it was the best possible, and indeed, “such proved the case over a much longer period than was considered necessary for the flight.”[57] In hindsight, Kidson reflected that in his opinion the aviators, “were apprehensive of bad weather and lacked the experience which would have fitted them to meet it under the best conditions.” He again expressed the hope that the loss of Hood and Moncreiff would not lead to an inquiry because although there were those who sought to apportion blame and gain political advantage from such events, “The aviators knowingly took a sporting risk and luck was against them”. Nonetheless he advised Mares that both of them needed to be prepared to answer questions about their actions in supporting the flight. Kidson recognised that despite the disappearance of Hood and Moncreiff, further attempts to fly cross the Tasman Sea would be made. In this context he noted that, “I am very glad that the Australian Government is adopting an attitude that will ensure that any future flights will be undertaken under satisfactory conditions as regards equipment” both for the sake of the aviators involved, and because, “too great a responsibility is liable to be thrown upon the Meteorologist”. Here Kidson implicitly recognised the limitations of both the knowledge and the network that had been constructed about the sky above the Tasman.[58]

Concerns about risk can be also seen framing the preparations for Kingsford Smith and Ulm’s flight later that year. In mid-July Kingsford Smith’s navigator on the proposed flight, HA Litchfield, and EW Timeke, Acting Divisional Meteorologist in Sydney both approached Kidson for meteorological assistance.[59] Timeke suggested that Kidson adopt the system which he had used for the ill-fated Hood and Moncrieff flight earlier that year. This would involve the Sydney office sending special cables to Wellington containing any information above and beyond the regular meteorological cables. In return, Kidson would send Timeke information about conditions over New Zealand, the Tasman Sea, and the Pacific immediately preceding the departure of the flight. Kidson confirmed this arrangement with Timeke and Litchfield, pointing out to the latter that given a planned landing at Sockburn in Christchurch it would be advisable to fly over Cook Strait and Wellington rather than risk flying over the Southern Alps.[60] Currently, wrote Kidson, the Meteorological Office issued forecasts at noon and 6 p.m., but it could be arranged to send further forecasts from both Wellington and information from selected observers in places such as Farewell Spit, Stephen’s Island, Cape Campbell and Christchurch throughout the flight. Kidson also indicated that he planned to use a balloon to gather atmospheric information in Christchurch and that this information would be transmitted in code to the flyers over the Tasman.[61] Notwithstanding the orchestration of this information, Kidson made it clear to Timeke that he “would not express an opinion as to the advisability of starting or otherwise. The responsibility for taking the decision must rest with the aviator. The Meteorologist’s responsibility ends with the provision of all available information and forecast of probabilities and possibilities.”[62]

Kidson’s efforts, along with his predecessor Bates, to meet the expanding demands of the aviation pioneers in the years after WW1 eventually led to the creation of a dedicated aviation section within the Meteorological Office in late 1935. In addition to the central office in Wellington, specialist meteorologists were also attached to the major aerodromes in Auckland (Dr WF Macky), Wellington (Dr MAF Barnett) and Christchurch (JR Simmers). Collectively, argued Kidson, these men, “will be able to give accurate forecasts of the weather as much as five hours ahead for pilots” while at smaller aerodromes, “there will be other men who will take records which will be forwarded to headquarters in Wellington.”[63] In Wellington these flows of information would be collected, collated and forwarded to the forecasters at each of the aerodromes. Seen in relation to aviation, the Meteorological Office emerges as a hybrid organisation framed in one sense as a ‘centre of calculation’ to transform observations and flows of information into weather forecasts through the skills of individuals such as Kidson. Yet at the same time, both Kidson and Bates had explicitly articulated the limits of such ‘calculation’ arguing in the cases of Hood and Moncreiff, Kingsford Smith and Ulm that the final decision for the flights rested with the aviators themselves rather than with the meteorological expert. In this context rather than operating as a decision-making nexus, the meteorologists provided a clearing house for weather information which would enable others to calculate risk.[64]

The flight of the ‘Southern Cross’ was successful. All the relationships that were required to hold firm did hold firm. Within this network, the work of Kidson in Wellington and Timeke in Sydney enabled the atmosphere of the Tasman to be temporarily transformed into an airspace that was predictable enough for the purposes of Kingsford Smith and Ulm on one day in early September 1928. The bundle of relationships that enabled that flight to had required long years of networking from actors such as Bates and Kidson, Hares and Timeke. It involved enacting a diverse set of technoscientific intermediaries in such a way that ‘the weather’ could be translated into forms that could be transmitted from one place to another. It involved intellectual and technical work to ensure a degree of representational congruence between the play of forces in the atmosphere and ‘the weather’. It also required the orchestration of socio-political relationships within which knowing ‘the weather’ emerged as essential to securing national and imperial interests in the production of trans-Tasman ‘airspace’. The successful flight did not mean that the networks which had temporally held had suddenly solidified into a durable system of control over trans-Tasman aviation, or that those relationships extended beyond the Tasman itself. Planes continued to fly and to disappear. Indeed Kingsford Smith himself disappeared on a flight over Burma in 1935. Meteorology offered knowledge about a paradigmatically fluid set of relations, knowledge that deepened as the reach, and intensity, of informational flows increased. But as both Bates and Kidson suggested in their reflections on risk, meteorology never offered total predictability or control: rather it provided a glimpse mediated by the expertise of the meteorologist in a spatially and temporally unknown present and future. It provided a means of managing risk.


The trans-Tasman airspace that was produced by the flight of the Southern Cross was framed by a voluntary internationalism negotiated between the respective meteorologists operating within national meteorological systems. Beyond the Tasman ‘airspace’ the growth of new air routes within New Zealand and across the Pacific required the assembling of new ‘airspaces’, the production of new meteorological networks, and new meteorological knowledges to support those ‘airspaces’. Each of these new gradually assembled ‘airspaces’ had subtly different alignments of interests, materialities and knowledge. For example, by the mid-1930s the nascent trans-Tasman airspace was being joined by plans for a trans-Pacific route between San Francisco and Auckland. Following an agreement between the Labour government and Pan Pacific Airways in 1936, Kidson was asked to prepare a report on the meteorological needs of the new route. He pointed out that there already existed a network of stations centred on Suva and Apia in the Southwest Pacific which could form the basis of a meteorological service for civil aviation. Nonetheless, this network contained large gaps, which led Kidson to argue that the network needed both significant physical expansion and investment in the training of meteorological officers. Beyond this point, wider questions centred on the control of the network, an issue which had been absent from the assemblage of the trans-Tasman ‘airspace’. Here meteorology meshed with Pacific geopolitics.

For Kidson, the importance of meteorology for trans-Pacific transport was such that control of the meteorological network would invariably strengthen the hand of the power which held it, and thus,

With an organisation once established their position would, obviously, be a very strong one. The question is, therefore, raised as to whether or not these ground services are of such national significance that the New Zealand Government should retain control.[65]

Kidson provided his own answer to the question that he posed, arguing

The Meteorologist [Kidson] calls attention to the extreme importance of the existence and control of a meteorological service in the Southwestern Pacific for defence purposes in case of attack on New Zealand or Australia from the North, and urges that the Government should accept the responsibility.[66]

At one level, Kidson’s call directly echoed the ways in which aviation had been framed in terms of national security since Wigram’s comments in 1909 through to Bates’ report on the Imperial Meteorological Conference in 1919. Yet it also marks a significant shift from the production of a Tasman ‘airspace’ based on reciprocal, voluntary relationships between meteorologists on each side of the Tasman to a situation framed by a recognition of the infrastructural power that would accrue to those states able to shape the production of further ‘airspaces’ in the Pacific. Such a change need not be seen in evolutionary terms with one supplanting the other. Rather it reflects the existence of a variety of socio-political relationships marked by differences in power and degrees of prescription from which a multiplicity of ‘airspaces’could and would emerge.

Kidson’s foray into Pacific geopolitics pointed to the continuing tension between the state territorialisation of airspace provided for by the 1919 Paris Convention and the realities of meteorological work, and indeed aviation more generally which required the assemblage of intricate ‘geographies of connection’ that reached across state borders, and in doing helped constitute new hybrid places outside but not beyond the state. It also reflected a recognition that the emergence of such ‘geographies of connection’ provided a significant source of infrastructural power for those able to shape and control them. Beyond these concerns the processes of assemblage and the territories that were created in the Tasman and later in the Pacific should alert us to the need to continue thinking beyond the national geographies and histories which are familiar and to consider the importance of those places, constituted by but outside the territorialisation of state space, to the development of what are paradigmatic elements of the modern world.


This article has been peer reviewed.

[1] Address all communications to: Matthew Henry, Geography Programme, Massey University, Private Bag 11 222, Palmerston North, New Zealand. E-mail: [email protected]

[2] New Zealand Herald, 12 September 1928.

[3] Kingsford Smith and Ulm to Kidson, 17 September 1928, Archives New Zealand (ANZ), ABLO 8/9/5/1. These observations were later published in: Edward Kidson, ‘Meteorological Conditions During the First Flight Across the Tasman Sea’, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, 55, (1929), pp. 53-4.

[4] David Livingstone. Putting Science in its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge.(Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 2003).

[5] Miles Ogborn, Spaces of Modernity: London’s Geographies, 1680-1780, (New York, The Guilford Press, New York, 1998).

[6] John Agnew, ‘The Territorial Trap: The Geographical Assumptions of International Relations Theory’, Review of International Political Economy, 1 (1994), pp. 53-80.

[7] Liz Millward, Women in British Imperial Airspace, 1922-1937, (Montreal & Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008).

[8] Millward, Women in British Imperial Airspace, p. 85.

[9] Paul Edwards, ‘Meteorology as infrastructural globalism’, Osiris 21 (2006), pp. 229-50.

[10] For a discussion of these efforts to create ‘national weather’, as well as professionalise the aims, objects and actors of meteorology see: Kristine Harper, ‘Meteorology’s Struggle for Professional Recognition in the USA’, Annals of Science, 63 (2006), pp.179-199; Simon Naylor, ‘Nationalizing Provincial Weather: Meteorology in Nineteenth-Century Cornwall’, British Journal for the History of Science, 39 (2006), pp.407-432.

[11] Here I follow Rose’s definition of territorialisation which stressed the combination of imagination, discipline, and bio-politics in the creation of governable places defined by regimes of inclusion and exclusion. See: Nicholas Rose, Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[12] Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition, (London, Routledge, 1999).

[13] ‘Aviation Bill’. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates (henceforth, NZPD), 183 (1918), pp. 717-20, the quotes come from p.717. Wigram Airforce Base near Christchurch (formally Sockburn Aerodrome) was established in 1923, and was named in Henry Wigram’s honour.

[14] NZPD, ‘Aviation Bill’, p. 717.

[15] NZPD, ‘Aviation Bill’, p.719.

[16] DC Bates, Dominion Meteorological Office to Secretary, Marine Department, 20 January 1920, ANZ MET 1 8/8 Pt 1.

[17] Bates to Secretary, Marine Department, 20 January 1920, ANZ MET 1 8/8 Pt 1, p. 5.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Bates to Secretary, Marine Department, 13 February 1920, ANZ MET 1 8/8 Pt 1.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., p.2.

[22] Mitchell Dean, ‘Putting the technological into government’, History of the Human Sciences, 9 (1996), pp. 47-68.

[23] For an overview in the New Zealand context see: Erik Olssen, ‘Towards a New Society’, in Geoffrey Rice (ed.), The Oxford History of New Zealand, 2nd Edition (Auckland, Oxford University Press, 1992), pp.254-284.

[24] Ruth Barton, ‘Men of Science’: Language, Identity and Professionalization in the Mid-Victorian Scientific Community, History of Science, 41 (2003), pp.73-119; Steven Shapin, The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation, (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2008),

[25] Kristine, Harper, ‘Meteorology’s struggle for professional recognition in the USA’, Annals of Science, 63 (2006), pp.179-199. For a broader perspective on the demarcation of legitimate and ill-legitimate science see: Thomas Gieryn, Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line, (Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1999). For a specifically New Zealand focused discussion of some of these issues see: Michael Belgrave, ‘Medicine and the Rise of the Health Professions in New Zealand, 1860-1939’, Linda Bryder (ed.), A Healthy Country: Essays on the Social History of Medicine in New Zealand, (Wellington, Bridget Williams Books, 1991), pp. 7-24; Ross Galbreath, ‘DSIR: making science work for New Zealand: themes from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, 1926-1992’, (Wellington, Victoria University Press in association with the Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1998); Galbreath, Scholars & Gentlemen Both: G.M. & Allen Thomson in New Zealand Science & Education, (Wellington, The Royal Society of New Zealand, 2002).

[26] Paul, Edwards, ‘Meteorology as infrastructural globalism’, Osiris, 21 (2006), pp.229-250. Naylor, ‘Nationalizing provincial weather: meteorology in nineteenth-century Cornwall, British’, Journal for the History of Science, 39 (2006), pp.407-432.

[27] James Beattie, ‘Rethinking Science, Religion and Nature in Environmental History: Drought in Early Twentieth-Century New Zealand’, Historical Social Research, 29 (2004), pp.82-103; John de Lisle, ‘The New Zealand Meterological Service -The Beginnings 1861-1927’, in M.E. Hoare and L.G. Bell (eds.), In Search of New Zealand’s Scientific Heritage (Wellington, Royal Society of New Zealand in conjunction with the Alexander Turnbull Library, 1984), pp.17-23.; John de Lisle, Sails to Satellites: A History of Meteorology in New Zealand, (Wellington, New Zealand Meteorological Service, 1986).

[28] Hunt to Bates, 21 July 1921, ANZ ABLO 8/9/5/1. Briggs was eventually banned from flying across the Tasman by aviation authorities in Australia because of their concerns about his equipment.

[29] Bates to Minister, Marine Department, 16 February 1915, ANZ MET 1 8/8/2.

[30] Edwards, Meteorology as infrastructural globalism, p. 232.

[31] Some indication of the problem of capacity has be garnered by the fact that when the trans-Pacific cable was established in 1902 by the Pacific Cable Board its regular operating speed was approximately 100 words a minute.

[32] It is interesting to note that while New Zealand was a consumer of Australian meteorological information the reverse was not commonly the case. In this sense the relationship was of more importance to New Zealand meteorologists than their Australian colleagues.

[33] Bates to Minister, Marine Department, 16 February 1915, ANZ MET 1 8/8/2.

[34] Bates to Permanent Secretary, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), 22 February 1927, ANZ MET 1 8/8/2.

[35] Bates to Permanent Secretary, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), 22 February 1927, ANZ MET 1 8/8/2, p.2.

[36] James Fleming, Historical Perspectives on Climate Change, (New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998).

[37] John de Lisle, Sails to Satellites: A History of Meteorology in New Zealand, (Wellington, New Zealand Meteorological Service, 1986).

[38] Patrick Day, The Radio Years: A History of Broadcasting in New Zealand, Volume One, (Auckland, Auckland University Press in association with the Broadcasting History Trust, 1994).

[39] Bates to Secretary, Marine Department, 1 March 1920, ANZ MET 1 8/8 Pt 1.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] The use of this trope of duty in order to leverage additional funding for the Meteorological Office was one that Bates frequently and not necessarily successfully utilised. Likewise his successor Edward Kidson used the rise of aviation as a lever to lobby for greater funding for the agency. In neither case did failure to secure extra monies prevent the men from supporting aviation meteorology.

[43] Bates to Secretary, Marine Department, 1 March 1920, ANZ MET 1 8/8 Pt 1.

[44] Dominion, 28 March 1924. In this address Bates reminded his audience of the recent visit of the British airship mission and the likely expansion of aviation services within the Dominion, and in this context he reiterated the need for expanded meteorological services to meet these new demands.

[45] Bates to Secretary, DSIR, 2 November 1926, ANZ MET 1 8/8/3.

[46] AG Ackroyd to Commonwealth Meteorologist, 22 November 1926, ANZ MET 1 8/8/3.

[47] The receipt of these reports not only required the standardisation of instrumentation, but also the use of common trans-Tasman codes through which weather information could be cheaply and reliably re-represented and transmitted.

[48] Ackroyd to Commonwealth Meteorologist, 22 November 1926, ANZ MET 1 8/8/3.

[49] Kidson was recruited as Dominion Meteorologist to the New Zealand Meteorological Office in 1927. A biographical sketch can be found in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (

[50] Kidson to Commonwealth Meteorologist, 23 November 1926, ANZ MET 1 8/8/3.

[51] Bates to Secretary, DSIR, 13 December 1926, ANZ MET 1 8/8/3.

[52] Bates to Secretary, DSIR, 23 December 1927, ANZ MET 1 8/8/3.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Evening Post, 10 January 1928.

[55] New Zealand Herald, 17 January 1928.

[56] Kidson to Mares, Divisional Meteorologist, Meteorological Bureau, Sydney, 19 January 1928, ANZ ABLO 8 9/5/1.

[57] Mares to Kidson, 25 January 1928, ANZ ABLO 8 9/5/1.

[58] Kidson to Mares, 30 January 1928, ANZ ABLO 8 9/5/1.

[59] Timeke to Kidson, 12 July 1928, ANZ ABLO 8 9/5/1.

[60] Kidson to Timeke, 17 July 1928, ANZ ABLO 8 9/5/1.

[61] Kidson to Litchfield, 17 July 1928, ANZ ABLO 8 9/5/1.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Evening Post, 9 December 1935.

[64] Felix Driver, Geography Militant, (Oxford, Blackwell, 2001).

[65] Kidson to Secretary, DSIR, 7 May 1936, ANZ, MET 1 8-10. Kidson’s broader concern was the growing presence of the United States in the Pacific.

[66] Ibid.