Light social history about rainmaking in the arid American West.
Anyone who’s seen 110 Degrees in the Shade is already familiar with the story of Charles Hatfield. In the early 20th century, settlers west of the Mississippi were desperate for more water. Hatfield was the most famous of the dozens of scientists and charlatans who insisted they could create rain. He wasn’t, suggests Jenkins (Colonel Cody and the Flying Cathedral, 2000, etc.), a total fraud. His musing about rainmaking began in his mother’s kitchen, as he observed the interaction between steam and water vapor from a pot and a stove. Couldn’t he engineer some chemical version of steam, and bring down rain from the clouds? However unsound his science, Hatfield had early successes making rain in southern California in 1904. He gained fans (including not a few infatuated ladies) and financial backers, but he also earned enemies who thought his promises were hogwash; Willis More, head of the U.S. Weather Bureau, lambasted Hatfield at every opportunity. In 1915, San Diego, which badly needed rain, secured Hatfield’s services. After Hatfield’s machinations, the city definitely got rain—the worst storm in the history of the region, a storm that almost destroyed it. The “landscape,” writes Jenkins, who spends almost 100 pages detailing the inundation, was “liquidized.” (The author seems fond of alliteration: we also read about a “delta of debris” and a “fortnight of frustration.”) The storm simply made Hatfield more controversial and more famous. Newspapers ate him up with a spoon. But as dams came to the West, the demand for rainmakers, even legendary Charlie, declined. By the late 1930s, Hatfield was making his living selling sewing machines and real estate. Did he actually cause all that rain in San Diego? Maybe, and maybe not, says Jenkins: “We can never know.”
An entertaining study of a quirky historical episode.