Australia: Ingenious attempt to blast drought

By James Shrimpton

The drought gripping southeast Australia recalls many desperate efforts to bring rain to the sun-parched countryside.

In past droughts, clouds have been seeded, indigenous rain dances organised and prayers offered in churches - praying for rain has been taken up by Prime Minister John Howard as a solution to the present crisis - but these had no immediate effect.

Then, as now, farmlands remained baked dry, crops were ruined and livestock lost until, in its own good time, the rain finally arrived.

Perhaps the most bizarre solutions attempted came in 1902 from a meteorologist, Clement L. Wragg, in drought-stricken Charleville and the surrounding cattle and sheep country, 760km west of Brisbane.

Wragg, a colourful character, was a self-styled "boss weather prophet".

On a visit to Italy the previous year, he had noted the use of long-barrelled Stiger Vortex guns which were fired vertically into the sky to blast hailstorms away from vineyards. He suggested using a battery of the guns to fire shells at clouds over the Charleville area, causing a vortex (an artificial whirlwind) which would force the clouds to release rain.

The local council, ready to try anything, approved the project and public donations helped finance construction of 13 of the rain-making guns.

By September 26, 1902 - under a suitably cloudy sky - six of the guns, with tapered barrels up to 3m long, were installed around the town. At noon, the mayor ordered "open fire" and 10 shots were triggered from each gun in quick succession, aimed at passing clouds.

A few drops of rain fell, followed two hours later by a light shower. It was hardly drought-breaking stuff, but encouraging.

Late that afternoon, Wragg's team tried again. Not only was there no rain, but two of the guns blew up.

The experiment was abandoned amid disappointment and derision for Wragg, who, not long after, moved to New Zealand where he established and ran an observatory.

But the story ended happily for the drought-stricken farmers of the Charleville region when soaking rains fell a few weeks after Wragg left.

The vortex experiment is remembered in Charleville with a memorial displaying two of the guns in a park just off the Mitchell Highway. Plaques at the memorial tell the Wragg story, with one describing him as "equal parts genius, eccentric and larrikin".

The memorial is among Charleville's tourist attractions, which include the Cosmos Observatory, a Royal Flying Doctor Service base and School of the Air for Outback children, and an interesting museum on the district's history.

The other 11 guns made for the experiment were broken up for scrap.

In case you were wondering, the first vortex gun was designed as a war weapon by an Austrian scientist, Dr Zimmermeyer, at an experimental institute at Lofer in the Tyrol region of west Austria.

It comprised a large-calibre mortar barrel sunk in the ground. The shells contained coal-dust and a slow-burning explosive, and were supposed to create a vortex to make enemy planes lose control and crash.

The gun was never used in practice, but the design was adapted later for meteorological experiments.

* James Shrimpton visited southwest Queensland as a guest of Tourism Queensland.


Checklist

Charleville

Getting there
Charleville is 760km west of Brisbane. The Westerner train runs twice weekly overnight between Brisbane and Charleville, and Qantas flies daily via Roma.

Attractions
The vortex experiment memorial is just south of the downtown area in a corner of the Graham Andrews Parklands, just off the Mitchell Highway. The tourist information centre is nearby.

Further information
Tourist information on the town is at www.queenslandholidays.com.au/destinations/outback/places-to-visit/charleville/.

The local museum has a website at www.charlevillehistorichouse.com

Charleville is the headquarters of the Murweh Shire Council which provides local information at www.murweh.qld.gov.au/.

- AAP

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