At a meeting of the Académie des Sciences de Paris a few years ago, after a talk on the history and development of the science of measurement, metrology, an aged member of the Académie rose to his feet and said ‘Professor Kovalevsky, I greatly enjoyed your talk but there was one question you did not address; this was: when can we expect accurate five-day weather forecasts?’ Much to his credit, Jean Kovalevsky, an astronomer, gave with no hesitation a short exposé of the problem of forecasting the behaviour of complex systems. Viewed in historical terms it was perhaps not wholly inappropriate for an astronomer to be asked about weather forecasting. In ancient Babylonian times the weather was thought to be strongly influenced by celestial phenomena, so its study was considered to be part of astronomy. The Greeks made and recorded observations of the weather and its effects on plants and animals as well as of the appearance of the sky. Aristotle's Meteorologica was very influential and continued to dominate meteorological thought right up to the time of Roger Bacon (ca. 1214–1292?). Metrology—often confused with meteorology—from the time of the ancient Greeks right up to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries relied on simple artefacts of length, volume and weight, none of which were of much help in the study of the weather. The basic instruments necessary for atmospheric observations were the hygrometer invented by Nicholas de Cusa in about 1450, modified by Leonardo da Vinci in 1485, then the thermometer generally attributed to Galileo in the 1590s and the mercury barometer of Torricelli in 1643.
The first stable and reproducible alcohol-in-glass thermometers were made by an artisan of the Grand Duke of Tuscany in the 1660s, at about the time of the foundation of the Royal Society. Sir Robert Southwell, later to become President of the Royal Society, returned from a Grand Tour with a Florentine thermometer. Robert Hooke modified the design a little and devised a scale, which he published in Micrographia in 1664, based on changes in volume of the coloured spirit he used as thermometric fluid. His thermometer became known as the standard of Gresham College and was used by the Society until 1709 as the standard for the first systematic meteorological records in England. In his journal, Hooke noted temperatures at various times from March 1672 until April 1673. John Locke made similar measurements from December 1669 to January 1675, and on the days when they both gave the temperature the differences never exceeded the equivalent of 4 °C and on average agreed to within 1½ °C. This was before the birth of Fahrenheit, Réaumur and Celsius and only some 10 years after the first sealed spirit thermometers had been brought to England. The Royal Society subsequently strongly encouraged the systematic taking of meteorological data, and this soon began to happen in many European countries as well.
In his book on the history of the Meteorological Office, Malcolm Walker takes the reader through the fascinating story of the quest to understand the origins and processes of the weather so as to be able to make reliable forecasts. As in so many other areas of science, including metrology, the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) took early initiatives to establish systematic meteorological observations. In particular it gave significant financial support to Sir John Herschel and William Birt, Herschel's mathematical assistant, in their campaign to establish some central government office to collect data and coordinate observations. In 1847 Birt wrote to the President of the Royal Society with such a proposal. Both he and Herschel's arguments went unheeded, but soon afterwards the British Colonial Office was persuaded to set up a network of observing stations worldwide throughout the Empire. Contacts were then made with the American government with a view to coordinating the British and American observations. The result was a conference held in Brussels that resulted in a code of observational practice at sea. The British government sent delegates with orders to agree to nothing that would commit to any expenditure, but nevertheless decided shortly afterwards to establish a new department of government charged with collecting and collating meteorological observations made at sea by merchant and Royal Navy ships. In announcing the creation of the new department in the House of Commons, with a vote of £3000 for the first year of operation, it was said that ‘it is anticipated that within a few years, notwithstanding the variable climate of this country, we might know in this metropolis the condition of the weather 24 hours beforehand’. Hansard notes that this optimism was greeted with laughter in the House. The first Director of the new department was a Captain Robert Fitzroy RN, Captain of HMS Beagle during the famous voyage of Charles Darwin and later to become a Fellow of the Royal Society. He took up his duties on 1 August 1854 with a staff of four at 1 and 2 Parliament Street, which thus became the first home of the Meteorological (Met) Office. He had the essential prerequisite for such a post, namely a considerable knowledge of the winds and weather at sea gained from his experience in the Royal Navy.
Robert Fitzroy's tenure as Director was not without controversy. Soon after taking office he became convinced that it was possible to forecast the arrival of storms at sea and thus give warnings to coastal shipping. Malcolm Walker recounts the saga of Fitzroy trying to get permission to make and publish such storm warnings, as he called them. Starting in February 1861, storm warnings were hoisted by means of the famous cones and cylinders at certain coastal stations and undoubtedly saved many lives at sea. There was nevertheless much criticism in Parliament, the press and even the BAAS as to the accuracy of Fitzroy's forecasts. The fierce criticism, largely unjustified, undermined Fitzroy's health to the extent that he took his own life in April 1865. The storm warnings nevertheless continued until December 1866, when the department was ordered to cease. Further controversy resulted from their cessation, and the storm warnings were reinstated in January 1868 and have continued ever since.
Weather forecasting by its very nature is a highly public activity; success or failure can sometimes be strikingly obvious, and of course the failures are publicized in the press and Parliament today just as much as they were in Fitzroy's time. Walker's book includes many of the human dramas arising from the increasingly wide applications of scientific weather forecasting. Among those stories recounted from the two world wars, the most famous is that of Group Captain James Stagg's forecast which determined the feasibility of the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944.
As a maritime nation, Great Britain has always needed to take care of its shipping, not only in the seas nearby but worldwide; nowadays satellites and other modern technology are used. Who is not familiar with the iconic words of the shipping forecast, still broadcast on the BBC 298 khz long wave ‘issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency for inshore and coastal waters at 05.00 hours GMT … Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger or Fitzroy, Bailey, South East Iceland [who was Bailey?] … ’ and then ‘northwest by west, 5, 12 miles, 1013 falling slowly’? This is today only a small part of the wide range of services offered by the Met Office, which continues to be a science-based organization and is one of the most highly respected parts of the international meteorological community. Metrology also continues to be an essential part of its activity; the output from its computers can only be as good as the models they use and the accuracy of the vast amount of data that goes into them.
In parallel with the story of the advances in meteorological science, from hand-drawn synoptic charts to multi-million-pound supercomputers, Walker tells the story of the growth of the Met Office from its small beginnings to the present major institution employing some 2000 people. As might be expected, the organization has not been immune from the interdepartmental battles over who should control it and who should pay for it. Malcolm Walker's account of the individuals, the science and the events that make up the history of the Met Office provides fascinating reading.
- © 2012 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society.