The Weather Men

Monday 27 June 2011 was the hottest day of the year in Cambridge (and we know it’s true because it was on the BBC News: man on banks of Cam at the back of Darwin College (former family home of Sir George Darwin), shots of various young girls in short skirts giggling in punts).

The Meteorological Office (which provides the data used by the BBC in its forecasts) was established in 1854 inside the Board of Trade. Its purpose was to supply a service to mariners, and its first director was none other than Admiral Robert FitzRoy, formerly of the Beagle, who had retired from active service in 1850 but was asked to take on this post because of his interest in and long experience of weather observations. (Update from April 2012: We have just reissued his Weather Book: A Manual of Practical Meteorology (1863).) Convinced that falling barometric pressure was an indicator of storms, he had barometers set up at ports around the coast, so that both navy vessels and small boats would be aware of impending bad weather. After the wreck of the steamer Royal Charter in a storm off Anglesey in October 1859 (459 lives were lost, and Charles Dickens wrote movingly about the disaster, and the quiet heroism of the vicar of the small parish in which the bodies were washed ashore, in The Uncommercial Traveller), FitzRoy arranged for weather reports from the coastal stations to be telegraphed to his office, from where they could be collated, and storm warnings sent to the Admiralty, Lloyd’s (then as now the leading marine insurance company) and naval ports; he also devised a system of semaphore signals to ships at sea, giving details of the predicted wind speeds of storms. (FitzRoy always took the view that ‘the term forecast is strictly applicable to an opinion’  – something that critics of the Met Office might agree with today.) Almost unbelievably, the Board of Trade decided that by producing the potentially life-saving forecasts, FitzRoy was exceeding his remit: he was instructed to restrict himself to collecting data, and it is believed that depression at this setback was one of the factors which led to his suicide in 1865.

FitzRoy’s forecasts were also published in newspapers; but the first meteorological map showing weather – the prototype of the familiar images in the papers and on television today, but with yesterday’s actual rather than today’s predicted  – was produced by Francis Galton, and appeared in The Times on 1 April 1875: not the most auspicious date. The sea around Britain on 31 March had been smooth, and the weather in the south of England was 45 degrees F (7.2 C) and ‘dull’. Galton was a grandson of Erasmus Darwin, and a cousin of Charles: he is best remember today for his research on heredity (a Darwin family obsession), and it is unfortunate that his biostatistical work – and the term ‘eugenics’, which he coined in 1883 – were picked up in the twentieth century and put to the most ghastly purposes. However, he also travelled in the Middle East and Africa, grew sweet peas to investigate their inheritance patterns (sounds vaguely familiar), and made and published observations on the weather, including what is now agreed to be the discovery of the anti-cyclone. (By the way, Sir George Darwin’s daughter, Gwen Raverat, recalls in her wonderful Period Piece having her fingerprints taken by Galton in an early statistic-gathering experiment, and having to spend the rest of the day in London with her hands covered in indelible printer’s ink.)

But before the Meteorological Office was called into being, there was the British (later Royal) Meteorological Society, founded in 1850 – a gathering of intelligent and enthusiastic ‘amateurs’ of weather, enlightened enough to enroll women as members from the start. Luke Howard, a professional pharmaceutical chemist, Quaker and cloud enthusiast, joined a month after the inaugural meeting. He was already well known as the man who had (in a paper produced in 1803, and reissued in 1865, now available in CLC) classified the clouds, using Latin terminology still employed today – cirrus, cumulus, stratus, nimbus; had depicted the different forms in delicate watercolour sketches; and incidentally had inspired the admiration of Goethe, who wrote a lyric poem in his honour. In 1818 and 1820 he published the two volumes of The Climate of London, based on his long-term weather observations and offering the first study of the possible effects of big conurbations on the ‘natural’ phenomena of weather.

Going back even earlier, we encounter the Shepherd of Banbury, whose ‘rules to judge of the changes of the weather’ were published by (among others) Joseph Taylor, in his Complete Weather Guide: a collection of practical observations for prognosticating the weather, drawn from plants, animals, inanimate bodies, and also by means of philosophical instruments; including the Shepherd of Banbury’s rules, explained on philosophical principles. With an appendix of miscellaneous observations on meteorology, a curious botanical clock, &c. &c. &c. in 1812, which we hope to reissue soon. [NOW!!!! September 2013] The Shepherd’s utterances (first published in the eighteenth century) come groaning with the weight of ancient wisdom – ‘Sudden rains never last long: but when the air grows thick by degrees, and the Sun, Moon, and Stars shine dimmer and dimmer, then it is like to rain six hours usually’ – and if you feel you could do just as well as the Met Office with a strand of seaweed nailed to your back door, this is the book for you.


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3 Responses to The Weather Men

  1. Pingback: Too Many Books, Too Little Time… | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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  3. Pingback: Old CLC’s Weather Almanack | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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