9 May 2017


Gordon Tripp. The Weathermen: Their Story. The Book Guild Ltd, 2017.

The author's interest in the weather and in the meteorologists who advanced the study of it was first inspired by his mother's interest in the subject. When he joined the Royal Air Force as a navigator he became seriously interested as he realised that the weather was "literally a matter of life and death".
After a brief review of ancient ideas about weather, which included astrology and tended to ignore the gradual increase in scientific observations and ideas, we are informed that "the process for recording weather data in a more systematic and scientific way can be seen to start around the beginning of the second millennium".

In the early years of the gradual development of meteorology as a science its study depended on estimates, but the gradual introduction of instruments for measuring and recording the weather made it possible to keep accurate records and to introduce mathematical methods for making forecasts. The early inventors of these instruments included Galileo (1564-1642), who although best known for his telescopes, also invented a thermometer. Daniel Fahrenheit (1686-1736) made thermometers for which he devised the scale which was given his name. Toricelli (1608-1647) was credited with the invention of the mercury barometer.

For only 143 pages this book conveys a surprisingly large amount of relevant historical and technical information. There is also plenty of information about the major characters involved in the development of the science of meteorology.

Perhaps most notable of these was Admiral FitzRoy (1804-1864), who is perhaps most usually remembered as the man who, as captain of HMS Beagle, enabled Charles Darwin to make his scientific observations and develop his theory of evolution. We are told that FitzRoy, being a fundamentalist Christian, who interpreted the Bible literally, was greatly upset by the publication of The Origin of Species because "for him, the book was the most awful blasphemy for it was seen as striking at the very roots of Christianity".

In the 19th century the increasing amount of shipping was making it ever more important to obtain weather reports and forecasts. One obvious problem was that forecasts were often inaccurate, because of lack of information and accurate scientific theories about the development of weather systems. Shipowners were enraged when they kept their vessels in port to avoid storms which never materialised.

There were also occasions when disaster struck because of failure to predict a storm. One notable example occurred in 1859 with the loss of the steam clipper Royal Charter on which 400 of those on board died. 342 other ships were lost in this storm. FitzRoy showed that the storm could easily have been forecast because of exceptional pressure and temperature differences recorded beween his northerly and southerly weather stations.

Disasters also occurred because of the actions of irresponsible shipowners who sent unseaworthy vessels to sea in bad weather. Even a disaster in 1871 in which 28 colliers were wrecked with the loss of over 80 lives only stiffened the resistance to change among owners, many of whom were MPs: "It was not until 1876 that the Merchant Shipping Act was finally passed."

I highly recommend this book to all who are interested in weather, and the history of shipping. -- John Harney

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