Heavy Weather

Admiral Robert FitzRoy was one of the first to attempt a scientific weather forecast. It was he who introduced the first daily weather forecasts published in The Times in 1860. He began his career in the navy and was famous for choosing Charles Darwin as a companion during the voyage on the Beagle. As a sailor, FitzRoy had always been aware of the importance of forecasting the weather. Once he had completed his famous journey, he took up the newly created post of Head of Meteorology at the Board of Trade (the Met Office) and began to collate the information necessary to predict the weather. Using the newly invented electric telegraph, FitzRoy managed to receive data quickly enough to make a forecast viable.

FitzRoy's name was associated with several different types of barometers, though whether he could be called the inventor of all of them is questionable. One version of the barometer of which he was responsible for the designing and distribution, was used by sailors prior to sailing. FitzRoy advocated placing a barometer at every port so that seamen could read them before embarking on their journeys. Decisions on whether to sail or not were able to be made based on the level of the mercury within the instrument, saving many lives. The FitzRoy barometers were enormously popular, both because of their ease of use and their association with the highly respected Admiral FitzRoy. This interest continued into the twentieth century.

Some of the components added onto the FitzRoy Barometers included bottle tubes, storm glasses, thermometers and FitzRoy’s instructions for interpreting the results.

The storm glass, which had been sold in London since the eighteenth century, was another instrument which indicated a change in weather conditions. The exact chemicals used in the original glasses may have had a different recipe from those created today, but its basic components were camphor dissolved in alcohol and other chemicals. Crystals were then formed. The type of crystal produced indicated a certain type of weather to follow. For example, a clear liquid meant a fine forecast, crystals at the bottom of the tube meant frost in winter, and muddy liquid meant rain.

Another famous characteristic of the FitzRoy barometers were FitzRoy’s 'special remarks’, which gave advice on predicting the weather. For example:

'When rising: In winter the rise of the barometer presages frost. In wet weather if the mercury rises high and remains so, expect continued fine weather in a day or two. In wet weather if the mercury rises suddenly very high, fine weather will not last long.'

The Science Museum's collections include a domestic Admiral FitzRoy barometer and an example of a FitzRoy storm barometer with wet and dry bulb thermometers. Both of these are on display in the meteorology galleries. The domestic barometer has a more ornate case than that of the storm type. Many cases were even more elaborate, reflecting the tastes of the time; such as the ornate gothic-style cases.

The FitzRoy barometers continue to be popular today. Because their production continued into the twentieth century and reproductions are still being made, they are relatively accessible to those who wish to try to predict the weather according to FitzRoy’s rules.

Unfortunately Admiral Robert FitzRoy never felt completely satisfied by his achievements. Though he had saved many lives by his advances in forecasting the weather, he had a conflict with his conscience and his religious beliefs. This he never resolved in life and at the age of sixty he committed suicide by cutting his throat.

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