On the 5th April 1815, the Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora erupted, causing a cacophony that was heard more than 800 miles away. The eruption, one hundred times more violent than that of Mount St Helens in 1980 or Vesuvius in 79 AD, was one of the most devastating volcanic eruptions on Earth in thousands of years. The immediate effects were colossal, with a death toll of almost 90,000 from the pyroclastic flows, the tsunami that hit nearby coasts, and the thick ash that blanketed Southeast Asia’s farmland. The captain of a British ship 300 miles away recorded that ashes were falling in showers, like snow. It would be weeks before the news of the eruption reached Europe or America, but the event would have a more significant global effect than anyone could have predicted.
Tambora’s significance lies not just in its direct impact, but also in its impact on the rest of the world. Scientists estimate that between 30 and 40 cubic miles of ash were ejected from the eruption. The sulfur dioxide that was expelled from the volcano remained in the atmosphere, long after the ash fell back to earth. This caused global climate disruption. The development of the Indian monsoon was slowed for the following two years, devastating crop yields across the Indian subcontinent. The climate disruption gave rise to a new deadly strain of cholera that spread as far north as Moscow and as far south as Indonesia. In the summer of 1816, the Northern Hemisphere was plagued by weather disruption; the following spring, temperatures across Europe and the eastern US plunged below freezing. Yellow and brown snow fell across Italy and rainfall in the summer months was twice its normal level in Western and Central Europe. The tumultuous weather conditions in Europe are reflected in Byron’s poem ‘Darkness’, which was inspired by his experience of frequent electrical storms in Geneva in the summer of 1816. The change in the colour of the atmosphere can also be seen in landscape paintings of the period. Art historians have examined the colours of the sky in landscape paintings dating back 500 years and concluded that after catastrophic eruptions cause a change in the atmosphere the sky is painted with more pronounced use of reds and yellows. Turner’s famous fiery skies can thus be linked to the afterglows of the eruption of Tambora. The weather conditions also caused harvests to fail across Europe, leading to extensive famine. In Britain, the price of wheat soared, leading to widespread riots. The famine also led to outbreaks of typhus, killing 65,000 people in Ireland and Britain. Globally, the eruption killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Despite its devastating effects, the eruption brought about some surprising developments. Perhaps the most well-known of these was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley was staying in Lake Geneva, alongside other writers, including Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. The dramatic storms forced the group inside for the duration of their stay. It was during this period that Shelley began to write Frankenstein, a major development in science fiction. Scenes of the novel are directly inspired by the experience in Geneva, imagined against the backdrop of electrical storms. The eruption also brought about some significant technological developments. With the bad harvests, the price of oats had risen, making it harder to feed horses. Consequently, fewer people could afford to keep horses, leaving them without any mode of transportation. Karl von Drais was attempting to solve this problem when he invented the ‘wooden horse’ in 1817, which was a primitive form of the bicycle. Justus Liebig’s work on beef extract came from the same experience of starvation caused by the weather disruption. This later became the basis of Oxo’s beef bouillon cubes. One hundred years later, during World War One, over 100 million Oxo cubes were provided to the British armed forces.