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Man v Cloud

A skinny, intense-looking man with sunken cheeks and a jutting chin, Albert Stiger was, in the closing years of the nineteenth century, the mayor of what was then the Austrian town of Windisch-Feistritz (it’s now in eastern Slovenia and known as Slovenska Bistrica). As well as sounding agreeably like a sneeze, Windisch-Feistritz was at the heart of Austrian wine country and Stiger was himself a grape producer. However, a series of fierce hailstorms during the 1890s had badly damaged several harvests across the region and, as mayor and someone whose livelihood depended upon the grape harvest, Stiger watched the stinging frozen droplets battering his carefully tended vines. He realised he had to do something.

There had always been a widely held belief in the region – and beyond – that loud noises could dissipate storms. As long as there had been gunpowder, Austrian farmers had been taking potshots at the sky whenever a cumulonimbus hove into view. Church bells were rung before and during storms, and bells were even produced with words from Friedrich Schiller’s ‘Song of the Bell’ engraved on them: vivos voco, mortuos plango, fulgura frango (“I call the living, I mourn the dead, I break the lightning”). So many bell ringers were being killed by lightning striking the bells and fizzing down the wet ropes that in 1750 Archduchess Maria Theresa outlawed the -practice.

These folk memories stirred somewhere in the back of Stiger’s mind and he came up with the brainwave of constructing a series of massive cannons to fire at the sky whenever the air suddenly calmed, which he took as a sign of impending hail. This wasn’t just bowing to superstition, there was a scientific rationale of sorts: Stiger believed that if he fired particles of shot into the clouds they would attract condensation and fall to earth as harmless rain before they could freeze and shower the vineyards with hail.

In the early summer of 1896 he placed half a dozen cannons made from a series of mortar-like tubes on the hillside and waited. Sure enough, on 4th June he sensed the temperature drop and the air grow still, an unmistakable sign of a potential hailstorm. On his signal the mortars let go with a thunderous volley of artillery that echoed around the hills. The clouds still massed overhead, their bases tinged with the dirty brown of impending release. Stiger and the townspeople looked anxiously at the sky and waited.

“As long as there had been gunpowder, Austrian farmers had been taking potshots at the sky”

Within a minute or two they felt the first drops on their upturned faces before the ground hissed and the leaves flickered – with rain. People rushed to Stiger with their congratulations, which the mayor acknowledged with a grim smile, stopping short of joining in the general whooping and hollering, although having seen his stern-looking photograph I’d say that Stiger hadn’t done much in the way of whooping and hollering in his lifetime anyway. At this early stage of the cannon experiment he was hopeful that his idea had worked, but couldn’t be sure. Then over the next few hours news arrived that other towns and villages in the region were reporting hailstorms: Windisch-Feistritz seemed to be the only place to have had good, old-fashioned, harmless rain.

Feeling vindicated, Stiger took to battering the skies with heavy artillery with terrific enthusiasm. That summer alone saw the cannons unleashed on 40 occasions, and the town and its environs experienced no hail at all for the entire season. Stiger began to expand his operation and his half-dozen mortars soon developed into huge metal cones 30 feet high, widening from a narrow shaft at the base to a gaping blunderbuss of an opening at the top, looking for all the world like a row of giant gramophone horns. Word of Stiger’s success spread, to the extent that the Austrian government sent him consignments of disused funnels from old railway engines free of charge.

Within a year the local hillsides were dotted with specially constructed cabins half a mile apart, from whose roofs extended the barrels of what were becoming known as hail cannons or Stiger guns.

For the best part of a decade the hail-cannon craze swept across Continental Europe in a deafening wave of exploding ordnance and startled birdlife. In 1899 Italy was boasting of 2,000 hail cannons unleashing merry hell at the heavens, and by the time the calendar had flipped over into the twentieth century there were in excess of 10,000 hail cannons in more than 20 countries. Insurance companies offered lower premiums to wine producers close to the guns and there was even a “hail prevention expo” in Lyon in 1901, at which cannon enthusiasts could ooh and ahh at a range of designs. Meanwhile, back in Windisch-Feistritz, the spiritual home of anti-precipitation artillery, 200 cannons were pointing at the heavens by 1902, with the same number reported just across the Italian border
in Castelfranco-Veneto.

Which is when things started to unravel. Just as it started to seem as if Europe had actually declared war on the sky, not to mention the number of injuries and even deaths caused by the old principle of what goes up must come down, people started actually to examine the results of the massive Stiger cannonade, an exercise that revealed no indication that the hail cannons were having any effect whatsoever on the prevention of hailstorms. In fact, the Windisch-Feistritz district had one of the worst records for hailstorms anywhere in central Europe, despite the huge quantities of ordnance being twanged at the unsuspecting clouds. From 1902 to 1904 there was a series of severe hailstorms in both Windisch-Feistritz and Castelfranco-Veneto, which meant that within a year or two the craze for hail cannons had died out nearly everywhere. The desire to believe that man had at last found a way of controlling at least one aspect of the weather had combined with the happenstance of two or three years of fewer hailstorms to create an illusion of victory. Add in the opportunity for men to build big guns that made a hell of a lot of noise and it’s no wonder the enthusiasm for hail cannons swept across the continent, until a few spoilsport scientists pointed out that the whole project made not the slightest difference.

“In Windisch-Feistritz, the spiritual home of anti-precipitation artillery, 200 cannons were pointing at the heavens by 1902”

Stiger died not long afterwards and it appeared that the idea went with him. Every now and again the hail cannons make a comeback. There was a spate of them in the US during the 1950s and 1960s, and even today a few farmers there deploy them. They are apparently cheaper than taking out hail -insurance. It’s not just farmers, though: in 2005 a Nissan car plant in Mississippi was the target of local residents’ ire when they started firing off a hail cannon every six seconds whenever there looked to be the faintest possibility of a hailstorm -brewing somewhere in the vicinity. I suppose if I had 12,000 brand-new cars with immaculate paintwork sitting out in the open I’d probably take any precaution going too, but every six seconds? It must have been like living next door to the Somme.

When even a major multinational company starts firing guns at the heavens it proves that we really do want to believe we can control – or at least influence – the weather.

Charlie Connelly is the author of ‘Bring Me Sunshine’ published by Little, Brown. To order a copy for the special price of £10.99 (RRP £12.99) please call 01832 737525 and quote offer reference “SlowNews 162”.

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