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To Dr. Perkins.
Water-spouts and Whirlwinds compared.-Read at the Royal Society, June 24, 1753.
Philadelphia, Feb. 4, 1753. I ought to have written to you long since, in answer to yours of October 16, concerning the water-spout; but business partly, and partly a desire of procuring farther information by inquiry among my seafaring acquaintance, induced me to postpone writing, from time to time, till I am almost ashamed to resume the subject, not knowing but you may have forgot what has been said upon it.
Nothing certainly can be more improving to a searcher into nature than objections judiciously made to his opinion, taken up, perhaps, too hastily: for such objections oblige him to restudy the point, consider every circumstance carefully, compare facts, make experiments, weigh arguments, and be slow in drawing conclusions. And hence a sure advantage results; for he either confirms a truth before too slightly supported, or discovers an error, and receives instruction from the objector.
In this view I consider the objections and remarks you sent me, and thank you for them sincerely; but, how much soever my inclinations lead me to philosophical inquiries, I am so engaged in business, public and private, that those more pleasing pursuits are frequently interrupted, and the chain of thought necessary to be closely continued in such disquisitions is so broken and disjointed, that it is with difficulty I satisfy myself in any of them; and I am now not much nearer a conclusion in this matter of the spout than when I first read your letter.
Yet, hoping we may, in time, sift out the truth between us, I will send you my present thoughts, with some observations on your reasons on the accounts in the Transactions, and on other relations I have met with. Perhaps, while I am writing, some
new light may strike me, for I shall now be obliged to consider the subject with a little more attention.
I agree with you, that, by means of a vacuum in a whirlwind, water cannot be supposed to rise in large masses to the region of the clouds; for the pressure of the surrounding atmosphere could not force it up in a continued body or column to a much greater height than thirty feet. But if there really is a vacuum in the centre, or near the axis of whirlwinds, then, I think, water may rise in such vacuum to that height, or to a less height, as the vacuum may be less perfect.
I had not read Stuart's account, in the Transac tions, for many years before the receipt of your letter, and had quite forgot it; but now, on viewing his draughts and considering his descriptions, I think they seem to favour my hypothesis; for he describes and draws columns of water of various heights, terminating abruptly at the top, exactly as water would do when forced up by the pressure of the atmosphere into an exhausted tube.
I, must, however, no longer call it my hypothesis, since I find Stuart had the same thought, though somewhat obscurely expressed, where he says " he imagines this phenomenon may be solved by suction (improperly so called) or rather pulsion, as in the application of a cupping-glass to the flesh, the air being first voided by the kindled flax."
In my paper, I supposed a whirlwind and a spout to be the same thing, and to proceed from the same cause; the only difference between them being that the one passes over the land, the other over water. I find also in the Transactions, that M. de la Pryme was of the same opinion; for he there describes two spouts, as he calls them, which were seen at different times, at Hatfield, in Yorkshire, whose appearances in the air were the same with those of the spouts at sea, and effects the same with those of real whirlwinds.
Whirlwinds have generally a progressive as well as a circular motion; so had what is called the spout at Topsham, as described in the Philosophical Transactions, which also appears, by its effects described, to have been a real whirlwind. Waterspouts have, also, a progressive motion; this is sometimes greater and sometimes less; in some violent, in others barely perceivable. The whirlwind at Warrington continued long in Acrement Close.
Whirlwinds generally arise after calms and great heats the same is observed of water-spouts, which are, therefore, most frequent in the warm latitudes. The spout that happened in cold weather, in the Downs, described by Mr. Gordon in the Transactions, was, for that reason, thought extraordinary; but he remarks withal, that the weather, though cold when the spout appeared, was soon after much colder as we find it commonly less warm after a whirlwind.
You agree that the wind blows every way towards a whirlwind from a large space round. An intelligent whaleman of Nantucket informed me that three of their vessels, which were out in search of whales, happening to be becalmed, lay in sight of each other, at about a league distance, if I remember right, nearly forming a triangle: after some time, a water-spout appeared near the middle of the triangle, when a brisk breeze of wind sprung up, and every vessel made sail; and then it appeared to them all, by the setting of the sails and the course each vessel stood, that the spout was to the leeward of every one of them; and they all declared it to have been so when they happened afterward in company, and came to confer about it. So that in this particular, likewise, whirlwinds and waterspouts agree.
But if that which appears a water-spout at sea does sometimes, in its progressive motion, meet
with and pass over land, and there produce all the phenomena and effects of a whirlwind, it should thence seem still more evident that a whirlwind and a spout are the same. I send you, herewith, a letter from an ingenious physician of my acquaintance, which gives one instance of this, that fell within his observation.
A fluid, moving from all points horizontally towards a centre, must, at that centre, either ascend or descend. Water being in a tub, if a hole be opened in the middle of the bottom, will flow from all sides to the centre, and there descend in a whirl. But air flowing on and near the surface of land or water, from all sides towards a centre, must at that centre ascend, the land or water hindering its de
If these concentring currents of air be in the upper region, they may, indeed, descend in the spout or whirlwind; but then, when the united current reached the earth or water, it would spread, and, probably, blow every way from the centre. There may be whirlwinds of both kinds, but from the commonly observed effects I suspect the rising one to be the most common: when the upper air descends, it is, perhaps, in a greater body, extending wider, as in our thunder-gusts, and without much whirling; and, when air descends in a spout or whirlwind, I should rather expect it would press the roof of a house inward, or force in the tiles, shingles, or thatch, force a boat down into the water, or a piece of timber into the earth, than that it would lift them up and carry them away.
It has so happened that I have not met with any accounts of spouts that certainly descended; I suspect they are not frequent. Please to communicate those you mention. The apparent dropping of a pipe from the clouds towards the earth or sea, I will endeavour to explain hereafter.
The augmentation of the cloud, which, as I am
informed, is generally, if not always the case, during a spout, seems to show an ascent rather than a descent of the matter of which such cloud is composed; for a descending spout, one would expect, should diminish a cloud. I own, however, that cold air, descending, may, by condensing the vapours in a lower region, form and increase clouds; which, I think, is generally the case in our common thunder-gusts, and, therefore, do not lay great stress on this argument.
Whirlwinds and spouts are not always, though most commonly, in the daytime. The terrible whirlwind which damaged a great part of Rome, June 11, 1749, happened in the night of that day. The same was supposed to have been first a spout, for it is said to be beyond doubt that it gathered in the neighbouring sea, as it could be tracked from Ostia to Rome. I find this in Père Boschovich's account of it, as abridged in the Monthly Review for December, 1750.
In that account, the whirlwind is said to have ap peared as a very black, long, and lofty cloud, discoverable, notwithstanding the darkness of the night, by its continually lightning or emitting flashes on all sides, pushing along with a surprising swiftness, and within three or four feet of the ground. Its general effects on houses were stripping off the roofs, blowing away chimneys, breaking doors and windows, forcing up the floors, and unpaving the rooms (some of these effects seem to agree well with a supposed vacuum in the centre of the whirlwind), and the very rafters of the houses were broken and dispersed, and even hurled against houses at a considerable distance, &c..
It seems, by an expression of Père Boschovich's, as if the wind blew from all sides towards the whirlwind; for, having carefully observed its effects, he concludes of all whirlwinds, "that their motion is circular, and their action attractive."