1st August 1861. Is it Going to Rain?
Welcome to August.
When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather.(1)
Weather observation from ancient times depended on sky-watching and astrology, the preserve of countrymen, clerics and rogues which in the Middle Ages brought forth a corpus of weather lore: red sky at night… etc.
Meteorology was part of Natural Philosophy and the preserve of amateurs often leisured clergymen and anything systematic had to await the 19thc with scientific institutions such as the Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford founded in 1815.
An attempt to forecast the weather came in 1848 in Charles Dickens’, Daily News.(2)
However disasters at sea culminating in the loss of the Royal Charles in 1859 saw vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy given permission to issue storm warnings, which aided by the new Electric Telegraph was described by the Daily News as: ‘far outstripping the swiftest tempest in celerity’.The system came into effect in February 1861.
FitzRoy gathered real-time data from coasts at his London office which he telegraphed to ports, so a drum could be hoisted in the harbours as a storm warning. Queen Victoria was known to consult Robert FitzRoy about the weather in The Solent before she crossed to Osborne House.
However he wasn’t given permission for land forecasting which didn’t stop his handwritten prognostication in The Times for Today in 1861 and the next two days. It began: ‘The temperature in London was to be 62f (16.7 c), clear with a south-west wind’.
There had been several short-lived ‘Met’ Societies in the early 19thc which saw in April 1850 the British Meteorological Society, later Royal, launched at Hartwell House, Bucks.
Their objective was, ‘the advancement and extension of meteorological science by determining the laws of climate and associated phenomena’.
By 1851 weather maps were being sold at the Great Exhibition for a penny and in 1854 The Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade, headed by FitzRoy was founded, later the Meteorological Office.
However FitzRoy who had done so much for meteorology came under increasing criticism for assuming to be able to forecast weather especially as his forecasts proved fallible and The Times which had once been sympathetic lost faith after readers’ complaints.
This as well as his faith being undermined by Darwin’s Theory must have lain heavily on his mind which probably causing his suicide. (3)
(1) ‘The Idler’ No. 11 (24 June 1758).
(2) Daily News. 31.8.1848 and The Times 1.4.1875 (first to publish a daily weather chart).
(3) FitzRoy was captain of the Beagle on which Darwin sailed.
BBC Magazine 30.4.2015. Peter Moore. Birth of Weather Forecasting.
Predicting the Weather. Katherine Anderson 2010.