Monday, July 28, 2014

The Eccentric and Tragic Life of Inventor and “Weather Prophet” Henry Clum

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator, and Sean Bailey, 18 News Meteorologist

Henry Clum was a genius.  Yet, as is often the case with such gifted people who are ahead of their time, Clum spent most of his life misunderstood, underappreciated, and reclusive.  However, we can now recognize his rightful place in scientific history: Clum was one of the first meteorologists.
Henrich Augustus Clum was born on August 17, 1821 in Columbia County, NY to Jacob and Elisabeth Schultes Clum.  Clum must have been a precocious child and young man because he was allegedly put in an insane asylum near Le Roy, NY during the 1830s for claiming that he could predict the weather (a radical notion at that time).  He was released after one week when the doctors declared him sane.
Clum was an inventor and mechanical scientist who had a wide array of interests.  In addition to his weather inventions, Clum also patented a portable commode that could double as a fashionable ottoman and he gave lectures about and was an expert on early blimp aviation.
Clum's Portable Commode, patented in 1878 in Elmira

Clum's Aerial Locomotive

Poster for one of Clum's lectures
He patented several barometers, including his most famous one, the aellograph.  Clum’s invention likely worked very similar to his other barometers. This machine measures the air pressure, in this case using mercury to determine whether the pressure is rising or falling. According to the National Weather Service, mercury is used since it is 14 times denser than water. This means that mercury does not need as long as of a tube or vessel to measure its reactions to fluctuations in the air pressure.  The first barometer was invented as early as 1643 by Evangelista Torricelli, an invention Clum expanded upon with his own scientific findings.

Clum and other scientists built upon the discovery that the stronger the air pressure, the more force was placed on the bottom of the tube. This then forced the mercury to rise. High pressure, which typically causes clearer skies, indicates sinking motion in the atmosphere and therefore pushes down harder. Anytime the mercury is above the mean sea level pressure (MSLP) of 29.92 inches of mercury, it indicates high pressure. When the mercury is below 29.92, air is pushing down less on the tube. This indicates areas of low pressure, and can show the potential for rising air motion. When the air has the ability to rise, it can condense and form clouds and even storms if the rising motion is strong enough. 
Patent for Clum's 1860 barometer

Face of Clum's 1860 barometer (see patent above) from CCHS collection
The aellograph, or “storm writer” was 10 feet tall, weighed nearly a ton, and allegedly had the ability to detect changes in atmospheric pressure as far away as the Rocky Mountains.  In Rochester, Clum was a founding member and trustee of the American Aelloscope Company, which in 1866 released a circular describing the machine and the science of weather prediction. 

Clum’s radical invention was not easy to sell as he struggled to convince people of its practical use.  Although an 1874 newspaper joked that Clum should now “make his everlasting fortune of intending bridal parties and women with new bonnets," he failed to actually strike it rich.  In fact, Clum was destitute for much of his life.  He did sell some of his machines, including one aelloscope to Queen Victoria of England after doing a demonstration in her court.  France’s Napoleon III and the Russian government each purchased one, too.   He was once offered $10,000 for his patent, which he refused, believing that it was worth no less than $100,000.  He made most of his income from the sales of his small barometers and the lectures that he gave across the country and Europe.    
Clum with his aellograph
Henry Clum likely came to Elmira during the 1860s.  He first lived on the northwest corner of Carroll and Lake Streets and then moved to the block of the Lyceum Opera House.  While in Elmira, Clum built a storm finder for the New York Tribune, which used the machine for 6 years.  He was in talks with Senator Charles Sumner to build a storm finding machine to sit atop of the US Capitol building, but the plan was called off after Sumner died.  The US government eventually did purchase one of Clum’s machines.  The machine needed to be taken apart and cleaned every year, and by the second year, the government thought that they could do it themselves without Clum’s assistance.  They succeeded in getting the machine apart, but could not put it back together.  Clum refused to help, claiming he didn’t take “second hand” jobs.
At this time, Clum’s personal life suffered about as much as professional life.  He married Elmiran Annie Snell, who was the war widow of Charles Harris.  The couple was happily married for five years and had a daughter when the presumed dead Harris came back to claim his wife.  Annie and their young daughter went to Buffalo with her first husband (who being the jerk that he was, left Annie again).  Though Clum and his wife never reunited, Clum continued to use his meager income to support Annie until her death in 1881.  He even had to go to Buffalo to bury her.
One of Clum’s only close friends was Matt Lockwood, the costumer for the Lyceum Theater (and another fascinating character who I am writing a future blog post about).  The two friends spent much time together, and Lockwood was allegedly one of the only other people who were able to understand and put together the aellograph. 
Matt Lockwood
On July 6, 1884, Clum was in Binghamton to give a lecture at the Fireman’s Hall.  While he was preparing his equipment, there was an explosion which caused iron shrapnel to strike Clum in the head and fatally wound him.  Although the windows of the hall were blown out and Clum was killed, the aellograph, which was on the stage, was remarkably unharmed.  When Clum’s friend Lockwood came to bring the body back to Elmira, he discovered that the people in Binghamton were planning to keep the machine.  Lockwood disagreed with this and he waited until the Hall’s janitor left and he stole it out of Binghamton.  It remained in his possession until he donated it to the Chemung County Historical Society.  At one point, the inner workings were stolen, and may have never been recovered (they are not part of CCHS’ collection).
Aellograph case in CCHS collection
His funeral was attended by his few friends and his daughter, Ettie.  Clum was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Matt Lockwood’s plot.  Despite his many achievements during his lifetime, Clum is another one of our historical figure who has been largely forgotten.  When he has been remembered, the accounts of his life have focused more on the melodrama of his biography rather than his scientific contributions.  While these personal hardships certainly were important points in his life, I prefer to remember Clum as an eccentric scientific genius rather than a figure like those in a Shakespearean tragedy.
Clum's gravestone in Woodlawn Cemetery


  1. always surprised to discover another famous person from Elmira....very interesting

  2. The level of detail in this engaging tale is just right. Thanks again.