In their song La argentinidad al palo (“Argentinianhood to the extreme”), the band Bersuit Vergarabat enumerate many Argentinian inventions: the ball pen, the dulce de leche, the colectivo, the fingerprint identification, the blood transfusion. Anyway, the real Argentinian origin of some of these creations is arguable. But we are pushing aside one of the most extraordinary inventions of this land: the rain-making machine.
Juan Baigorri Velar was born in 1891 in Concepción del Uruguay, Entre Ríos province. He studied at the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires and he got his Geophysical Engineer’s from the University of Milan. A normal guy. Well, I do not know how much “normal”: ¿how many geophysical engineers from Univeristy of Milan do you know? Me, only him.
Once he became an engineer, our friend passed through several continents working for oil companies, analyzing soils and helping to search for precious black gold. In order to make his work easier, Baigorri had built his own precision instruments in Italy, with a lot of things that I did not understand but included the words “radioactive” and “electromagnetic”. That tells you something. These instruments allowed him to detect the presence of minerals and the conditions of the soils.
In 1926, while working in Bolivia searching for minerals using a device of his invention, Baigorri observed something curious. When heconnected the mechanism and put it into operation, there were light rains. “Boy, this is bad luck,” he said, “I will try again later.” It rained again. And again. He started to think this was not a coincidence and he considered that the light rains could had been originated by those electromagnetic assets in his machine.
In 1929 he returned to Argentina called by Enrique Mosconi to work at the then young YPF (Fiscal Oilfields, the State-owned oil company). He continued experimenting and decided to move from his house to the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Caballito, because it was very humid and he feared for the health of his instruments. Right, Baigorri was a full-blown scientist, so he traveled from end to end by tram on Rivadavia Avenue, carrying an altimeter that allowed him to detect the highest point in the city, at the height of Araujo street, in the Villa Luro neighbourhood. Well, it was not very accurate because as we know today, the highest point in the city of Buenos Aires is in Devoto neighbourhood, on the corner of Beiró and Chivilcoy, about four kilometers north.
He settled with his wife and teenage son in a house on the corner of Araujo and Ramón Falcón, in Villa Luro, and in the attic he set up a laboratory where he continued his research.
The result of all this was a device, a box the size of a 14-inch television that the journalism of the time called “pluviogen”. Yes, a good marketing department was still missing.
I will quote the content of the box: “An electric battery, a combination of radioactive metals fortified by the addition of chemical substances and two negative and positive pole antennas.” But he never clarified which substances, or which metals, or how they were related to each other. Too mysterious, huh? And, according to his own testimony, he watered with his device several weekends in 1938: “The rains in July were mine,” he assured the newspaper Crítica, playing the important man.
In 1938, after perfecting the invention, Baigorri felt it was time to push it up a little bit. He did what any of us would have done in his place: he sought sponsorship from the railways. He went to the offices of the Argentine Central Railway, today part of the Mitre Line, and asked the manager, Mr. Mac Rae, to provide him logistical support and attest to the effectiveness of his device. “Listen, Mac Rae,” he said, “provide me logistical support and attest to the effectiveness of my device.”
Mac Rae must have laughed to himself but gave Baigorri a challenge. He told him to make it rain in Santiago del Estero province, where it had not rained for about three years. Baigorri went there with a witness from the company, who attested that with his device he had caused a small downpour in the town of Pinto, 250 kilometers southeast of the capital. It was impressive enough, but Baigorri went for more and settled in the city of Santiago del Estero. After 55 hours of operation of his device, he generated a huge storm that lasted eleven hours and caused 60 millimeters rain.
That is when word about this guy and his rain-making machine started to spread. Interviews, dinners… Mirtha Legrand, largely famous hostess of lunches on TV had not started her programme yet, but if it existed, he would have gone, for sure. Obviously, enemies also appeared, people who we would call haters nowadays. Alfredo Galmarini, head of the Meteorology Direction, said that Baigorri was a chanta, just a very lucky liar. The engineer counterattacked and the newspapers published his challenge: “In response to the censorship of my procedure, I will give a rain to Buenos Aires on the 3rd of January, 1939.” Oh, and to raise the bet and provoke his opponent, he sent him a gift umbrella.
He turned on his machine on the 30th of December, to be prepared, and people were scared because it began to cloud in Villa Luro. A crowd gathered in front of Baigorri’s house to ask him to loosen up a bit, not to spoil the New Year’s Eve celebration. In fact, he had to regulate the device but he told them not to worry, that it was going to rain only between the 2nd and 3rd of January. Nothing happened on the night of the 31st, and everyone could celebrate in peace.
On the morning of the 2nd, the city returned to work. And nothing. Blue sky with just a little cloud there. No wind. Little by little, the march began. More and more clouds, getting blacker and blacker, closer and closer, until… Boom! Electrical storm and an enormous downpour in Buenos Aires. Crítica, the sensationalist newspaper of those years, published on the cover of its evening edition: “As Baigorri predicted, it rained today.”
After that, he became a celebrity. The kids gathered in the corner of their house and sang songs about Baigorri and his super power. After that, he traveled to Carhué, a city that was experiencing a drought that had emptied Epecuén Lake. As if it were a mere formality, he generated two electrical storms that overflowed the lake.
By then, many people had already asked him about how his invention worked. Even an American investor wanted to buy the patent, but he flatly refused. After these months of notoriety, his fifteen minutes of fame were over and he returned to his work in the oil world.
He returned to the scene at the end of 1951, when the Peronist government summoned him to end a drought in Caucete, just outside the city of San Juan. Later, he did the same in Córdoba province, where it caused an 81-millimeter rain that left the San Roque dam with a level greater than 35 meters. His last feat was to spread rain throughout the territory of La Pampa province. After that, the government lost its interest, because Baigorri systematically refused to reveal the workings of his invention and said that he was the only one who could handle it.
This led to him being ostracized. He stopped appearing in public and nobody has ever heard from him or his invention again. He destroyed the plans and secluded himself in his house in Villa Luro. Until he was completely forgotten, people used to stop to look every time it rained to see if it was Baigorri’s work. They say that the machine was thrown in a workshop, surrounded by scrap metal. Finally, Juan Baigorri Velar died in the autumn of 1972. When he was buried in the Chacarita cemetery, guess what? Of course: it rained.