History of Observing

This is a look back at how Observations all began. Starting as a product of enthusiastic amateurs recording for their own use, and developing into the professional and standardised practice that meteorology is today.

Earliest weather observations

The first regular meteorological measurements in England were made in the seventeenth century by enthusiastic amateurs. There was no uniformity in the types of instruments used nor in the way they were exposed to the weather. Thermometers were often mounted in sunless unheated rooms or out of doors on north facing walls. However, there were enough stations with sufficiently long records using reasonably reliable instruments for Manley to undertake an analysis of temperature from 1659 to the present day. His analysis of Central England Temperature (CET) is the longest instrumental temperature record in the world and is a yardstick for all studies of long term variations in the climate.

Old observation entry

Establishment of the Met Office and its role

In 1854 the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade, the public body which in later years was to become the Met Office, was established to develop methods of forecasting weather with the principal aim of improving the safety of ships and their crews at sea. Observations were then the starting point of any forecast, as is still the case today. Observations therefore became the first priority of this new government department under its first head, Captain FizRoy, who had previously commanded HMS Beagle on its world tour with Charles Darwin as passenger. By 1880 the newly named Meteorological Office operated seven observatories where hourly observations of pressure, air temperature, dew point, wind and rainfall were made from "curves obtained from self recording instruments". It also operated 63 climate stations reporting once or twice a day and 30 telegraphic reporting stations reporting three times a day, except on Sundays. It is assumed that the reduced observing schedule on Sundays was to allow the observers to attend church. In addition, telegraphic reports were received from 23 overseas stations, marking the beginning of international collaboration.

Symons and rainfall network

An early employee of the newly created Meteorological Department was George Symons. He showed an early interest in the measurement of rainfall and spent much of his spare time organising the collection of rain gauge data and analysing the results. His passion for the subject led him to leave his paid government job to spend all his time improving and expanding the rainfall network, often at his own expense. He edited Symon's Meteorological Magazine, which provided opportunity for amateur observers to discuss many aspects of meteorological observing, and British Rainfall, a publication that summarised rainfall data from all British rainfall stations. He also undertook carefully designed studies of rain gauge performance and was in all respects a true pioneer of observing.

old image rainfall gauge intercomparison of rain gauges undertaken by Symons in 1858 (from Stow 1871 as reported by Goodison et al, 1998).

Observer's Handbook

The specification of instruments and observing methods is essential for making reliable and accurate meteorological measurements. Early publications on these topics included Sir H James's Instructions for taking Meteorological Observations and Dr Scott's Instructions in the use of Meteorological Instruments. In 1909 these were superseded by the Observer's Handbook, a publication that was continually updated after than date as observing techniques improved.

Development of the observing networks

The number of observing stations expanded rapidly during World War II, as the demand for forecasts increased, particularly for aircraft operations. After the war a network of radiosonde stations was established over land areas of the UK. In collaboration with other countries, a network of weather ships was operated over the Atlantic giving advanced warning of weather systems that would dominate the weather in the following days. With regular radiosonde profiles available two or four times a day, a full three dimensional picture of the atmosphere was beginning to emerge. This provided the basis for forecasting techniques that were to develop in the following decades.

Radar

Although some primitive work on radio location had been carried out in the United Kingdom as early as 1904, it was not until the mid 1930s before any serious development of radar was instigated. In 1935, Robert Watson-Watt, a meteorologist by training, patented the first practical radar system. His aim was to provide warnings of thunderstorms to airmen, but with war approaching its main application became the detection of enemy aircraft.

When the first weather echoes were detected and recognised is not certain, but during the war they were regarded as a nuisance rather than of meteorological value. Nevertheless, before the end of the war the Met Office had established a radar research station at East Hill, some 30 miles north of London, and by the early 1950s had begun investigations into the accuracy of precipitation forecasts based on the movement of radar echoes. Since then advances in data processing, communications and display technology have enabled the full potential of meteorological radar to be exploited.

Satellites

  • The history of meteorological satellites is described here.

Last updated: 14 October 2015

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