After Dawes

by Jennifer Hamilton on March 28, 2013, no comments

William Dawes is the namesake of this blog and a figure inspiring our thinking during the residency in The Rocks. Dawes is not a well-known colonial figure, even though Dawes Point is the most prominent headland under the southern side of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. There will be more on Dawes himself in the coming posts, but one of the ways this project is in some respects ‘after Dawes’ is because I am inspired by his troubled attempts to systematise, record and understand difficult subjects and, by extension, I am interested in his willingness to risk misrecognition in the process.

Dawes struggled to record the indigenous Sydney language in the early 1790s because he could not systematise Eora in the same way as English. The two language systems did not neatly align. According to Ross Gibson, Dawes’s lack of understanding and his initial misrecognition of the language as somehow similar lead him to realise that the Eora had a radically different way of understanding and perceiving the world. Gibson’s 26 Views of a Starburst World, which both Tessa and myself are reading in the lead up to the residency, grapples with how Dawes had to break away from trying to systematise the local language in a conventional and colonial sense. The local language exceeded the system he had for ordering it and he was forced to attempt to record a radically different way of viewing, naming and, by extension, relating to the world. In this task, however, Dawes was constantly risking misunderstanding. What Gibson clearly sees in Dawes is a sense of fearlessness in the face of the unknown and a desire to understand in spite of the risks.

Book A, Page 8 (From:

Dawes was also a weather watcher. He, like other esoteric and slightly obsessive men in the eighteenth century, kept journals recording the daily fluctuations of the weather in an attempt to find a pattern or predict a change, in order to know more about the phenomena that have such a great impact upon day-to-day life. As such, one of the things we will be doing in our Residency is watching the weather, not on our smart phones but with our eyes and with our own instruments. We will try to measure the fluctuations in the microclimate of 28 Harrington Street. The task of measuring the weather, like the task of recording an entirely new language, is tricky. They are not the same task by any means, but there is similar scope for misinterpretation, miscalculation and mistake.

Over half a century after Dawes’s attempt to record the language of Sydney and observe its weather, George Merryweather was in the business of building devices to predict storms. A scientific apparatus is technology for empirical measurement, it is a form of materialist grammar. In other words, as the language scholar systematises language with the rules of grammar, the meteorologist systematises the weather with the assistance of devices. Today we place a lot of faith in devices to assist us with understanding weather patterns, we assume the translation between the device and the observation to be true even if the prediction is not correct. So it is interesting to trouble this faith with a device that used leeches to predict tempests.


Katharine Anderson unearthed this device in her compelling book Predicting the Weather: Victorians and the Science of Meteorology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), and reflected upon it as “One of the oddest … instruments… built for the Great Exhibition of 1851″. The device “consisted of a circle of pint bottles, each containing a leech. When disturbed by atmospheric conditions, the leeches would crawl into the top of bottles, passing over a whale bone lever that would trigger a signal to the central dome. As Dr. Merryweather noted, the device could be connected easily to a central telegraph network. His account of the invention invited the reader to consider that with his ‘Whitby pygmy Temples’ he ‘could cause a little Leech, governed by its instinct, to ring Saint Paul’s great bell in London as a signal for an approaching storm.’ The dome of his ornamental instrument was a St. Paul’s in miniature” (172).

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