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19th Century Weather Forecasting

August 17, 2017

Today we have many tools to predict the weather as we can scientifically measure the temperature, air pressure and windspeed. However, before these tools and technologies, the weather was predicted by the appearance of clouds or the behaviour of animals. As these predictions became more sophisticated and the need for weather forecasting was introduced, inventions like the telegraph proved itself to be useful in unexpected ways.

Weather Tales

  • Cows laying down before bad weather
  • Toads abandoning their ponds due to shifts under the earth before a quake
  • Birds flying closer to the ground to avoid the air pressure brought on by storms

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Communications Technology

In the 1830s and 40s the telegraph was invented and used for long-distance communication by transmitting electrical signals over a wire. The first uses of the telegraph was for Morse code, invented by Samuel Morse, which transmitted complex messages across telegraph lines laid across the Atlantic Ocean from the US to Europe.

Electric Telegraph
Future developments for the telegraph were made possible by the invention of the battery in 1800 and the connection between electricity and magnetism in 1820. The electric telegraph system needed a key, battery, wire and a line of poles between stations for the wire and a receiver. Later developments included better insulation for the telegraph wires and a Quadruplex system that allowed multiple messages to be transmitted on the same wire.

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Early Weather Forecasts

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The word ‘forecast’ was invented by Admiral Robert FitzRoy in the mid 1800s and he defined it as such: "the term forecast is strictly applicable to such an opinion as is the result of scientific combination and calculation." As a sailor, he was profoundly affected by the loss of life in ship wrecks and after another disaster in 1859 he was given the authority to issue storm warnings. He became the head of the Meteorological Department, created by the British government and now known as the Met Office. To accomplish that, he used a newer technology at the time, known as the electric telegraph, to create weather charts based on the data he collected from ships. While analysing the atmospheric data for the storm warnings, he decided to send his predictions to the newspapers.
Image Source: Birth of Weather Forecast

In the 1860’s his forecasts could predict the weather for two days ahead of time. In 1861 FitzRoy’s predictions were published in The Times and following successful forecasts, became popular for predicting the weather for sporting events such as The Derby. However, he was faced with criticism from the scientific community, those upset over a wrong forecast and politicians who claimed the cost of telegraphing back and forth was too expensive.

forecast.jpgImage Source: Birth of Weather Forecast

By the end of 19th century there were many new technologies developed and the telegraph became obsolete. Weather prediction has become way more accurate over the last 180 years and so has the method for reporting it from the telegraph to the modern-day Internet.

Sasha Goble, Brand & Communications Manager

Written by Sasha Goble, Brand & Communications Manager

Technical Copywriter