A. A. Milne

Thoughts on thermometers

Our thermometer went down to 11 degrees the other night. The excitement was intense. It was, of course, the first person down to breakfast who rushed into the garden and made the discovery, and as each of us appeared he was greeted with the news.

“I say, do you know there were twenty-one degrees of frost last night?”

“Really? By Jove!”

We were all very happy and talkative at breakfast—an event rare enough to be chronicled. It was not that we particularly wanted a frost, but that we felt that, if it was going to freeze, it might as well do it properly—so as to show other nations that England was still to be reckoned with. And there was also the feeling that if the thermometer could get down to 11 degrees it might some day get down to zero; and then perhaps the Thames would be frozen over again at Westminster, and the papers would be full of strange news, and—generally speaking—life would be a little different from the ordinary. In a word, there would be a chance of something “happening”—which, I take it, is why one buys a thermometer and watches it so carefully.

Of course, every nice thermometer has a device for registering the maximum and minimum temperatures, which can only be set with a magnet. This gives you an opportunity of using a magnet in ordinary life, an opportunity which occurs all too seldom. Indeed, I can think of no other occasion on which it plays any important part in one’s affairs. It would be interesting to know if the sale of magnets exceeds the sale of thermometers, and if so, why?—and it would also be interesting to know why magnets are always painted red, as if they were dangerous, or belonged to the Government, or—but this is a question into which it is impossible to go now. My present theme is thermometers.

Our thermometer (which went down to 11 degrees the other night) is not one of your common mercury ones; it is filled with a pink fluid which I am told is alcohol, though I have never tried. It hangs in the kitchen garden. This gives you an excuse in summer for going into the kitchen garden and leaning against the fruit trees. “Let’s go and look at the thermometer” you say to your guest from London, and just for the moment he thinks that the amusements of the country are not very dramatic. But after a day or two he learns that what you really mean is, “Let’s go and see if any fruit has blown down in the night.” And he takes care to lean against the right tree. An elaborate subterfuge, but necessary if your gardener is at all strict.

But whether your thermometer hangs in the kitchen garden or at the back of the shrubbery, you must recognize one thing about it, namely, that it is an open-air plant. There are people who keep thermometers shut up indoors, which is both cruel and unnecessary. When you complain that the library is a little chilly—as surely you are entitled to—they look at the thermometer nailed to the Henry Fielding shelf and say, “Oh no; I don’t think so. It’s sixty-five.” As if anybody wanted a thermometer to know if a room were cold or not. These people insult thermometers and their guests further by placing one of the former in the bathroom soap-dish, in order that the latter may discover whether it is a hot or cold bath which they are having. All decent people know that a hot bath is one which you can just bear to get into, and that a cold bath is one which you cannot bear to think of getting into, but have to for honour’s sake. They do not want to be told how many degrees Fahrenheit it is.

The undersized temperature-taker which the doctor puts under your tongue before telling you to keep warm and take plenty of milk puddings is properly despised by every true thermometer- lover. Any record which it makes is too personal for a breakfast- table topic, and moreover it is a thermometer which affords no scope for the magnet. Altogether it is a contemptible thing. An occasional devotee will bite it in two before returning it to its owner, but this is rather a strong line to take. It is perhaps best to avoid it altogether by not being ill.

A thermometer must always be treated with care, for the mercury once spilt can only be replaced with great difficulty. It is considered to be one of the most awkward things to pick up after dinner, and only a very steady hand will be successful. Some people with a gift for handling mercury or alcohol make their own thermometers; but even when you have got the stuff into the tube, it is always a question where to put the little figures. So much depends upon them.

Now I must tell you the one hereditary failing of the thermometer. I had meant to hide it from you, but I see that you are determined to have it. It is this: you cannot go up to it and tap it. At least you can, but you don’t get that feeling of satisfaction from it which the tapping of a barometer gives you. Of course you can always put a hot thumb on the bulb and watch the mercury run up; this is satisfying for a short time, but it is not the same thing as tapping. And I am wrong to say “always,” for in some thermometers—indeed, in ours, alas!—the bulb is wired in, so that no falsifying thumb can get to work. However, this has its compensations, for if no hot thumb can make our thermometer untrue to itself, neither can any cold thumb. And so when I tell you again that our thermometer did go down to 11 degrees the other night, you have no excuse for not believing that our twenty-one degrees of frost was a genuine affair. In fact, you will appreciate our excitement at breakfast.

(1920)

MLA Citation

Milne, A. A.. “Thoughts on thermometers.” 1920. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 13 Apr 2007. 16 Oct 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/milne/thoughts_on_thermometers/>.

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