Going Retro to Measure the Heat

DSC_0379Ian Duncan A 1930’s farm thermometer.

With predictions flying of record-setting temperatures this week, I wanted to test some thermometers. Not just any temperature gauges, though, I was looking for veterans which, if they had memories, would remember the sweltering June of 1933. With that goal in mind, I dropped in to Archangel Antiques on East Ninth Street (thank you Yelp). Inside, the little store was crammed with all manner of trinkets and a handsome collection of pocket watches.

“Bit of a weird one,” I told Michael Duggan, one of the store’s proprietors, “I’m looking for a thermometer from the 1930’s.”

Mr. Duggan screwed his face up slightly in an expression that suggested I might be out of luck. “That’s tough,” he said, before quickly rounding up three different instruments: one from the 1930’s, one from the 20’s and another from the 1870’s.

That last was beautiful. Enclosed in a case of tortoise shell and with a bone back plate, the bulb and column of the thermometer measured the temperature using real mercury. “People would travel with these to see how miserable they would be,” Mr. Duggan explained.

DSC_0387Ian Duncan Michael Duggan of Archangel Antiques.

The 1920’s model had a brass back plate — too expensive these days, Mr. Duggan noted — a mahogany base and hand painted details. It was marked with a “health zone”, which we were well outside yesterday. The 1930’s thermometer was the plainest of the bunch and used on a farm. Perhaps in a nod to the Depression then sweeping the country, it bore a reminder: “The future of farming is what we make of it.”

“This is what everyone used until the digital age,” Mr. Duggan explained, referring to the thermometers. “Now you can get the temperature on your cell phone.”

You can, indeed, so clutching the farm thermometer — the one I presumed I would be least likely to break — I headed outside to compare its results with my iPhone’s Weather.com app.

The thermometer was slower — the alcohol in thermometer bulb rose gradually to nearly 92 degrees. Even with New York’s congested 3G network I could pull up results on my phone pretty quickly. It showed 93 degrees.

Not a bad showing for an 80-year-old piece of equipment, but unfortunately not a record setting temperature, either. In the end, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Atlantic City all broke or equalled June 8 highs.

For his part, Mr. Duggan, who said he has lived in the East Village “forever,” cannot remember an early June this hot, pinpointing June 15 as the day things start to get seriously warm. “Let’s blame it on the volcano in Iceland,” he said.

Antique Thermometers at Archangel AntiquesIan Duncan A collection of antique thermometers on the counter at Archangel Antiques.