Centuries of development led to modern meteorology

Centuries of development led to modern meteorology
(Clockwise from left) A barometer from the 1700’s, an early thermometer, Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite experiment and an old telegraph all helped develop modern meteorology.

Ancient Greek philosophers coined the term meteorology, which means “the study of things up there,” almost 2,500 years ago. But it wasn’t until the scientific revolution about a thousand years later that mankind was able to study, understand and eventually predict weather activity.

Weather measuring instruments were one of the first scientific developments in meteorology. Galileo’s invention of the thermometer in the early 16th century inaugurated this era.

Later that century, meteorological knowledge increased with Evangelista Torricelli’s invention of the barometer. Blaise Pascal made a pivotal contribution to the science of meteorology when he carried a barometer up and down several flights of stairs to show that atmospheric pressure was linked to altitude.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, a group of scientists associated with England’s Royal Society combined measured observations with deductive reasoning. They discovered the physical laws that govern atmospheric motions.

Newton’s laws of motion

The most famous Society member was Isaac Newton. His theory of gravity and study of mathematical techniques that describe motions changed the scientific world. These laws of motion allowed for the development of mathematical equations that describe atmospheric motions.

In the 18th century, two of our country’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, contributed significantly to the science. They foresaw that measurements of present conditions and predictions of future weather were interconnected.

Kite in a storm

Franklin’s most famous foray into meteorology was his lightning experiment.  However, he was also an ardent weather observer. Noting that North American storms tend to move from west to east, he predicted that with the proper pressure and temperature observations, a storm’s course could be plotted.

Jefferson also realized the value of weather observation networks. His daily weather log spanned from 1776 to 1818, including observations of temperature, wind and rainfall. Jefferson established a network of observers in every county of Virginia.

In the early 19th century, meteorologists understood the value of combining weather observations with forecasting, but a major hurdle needed resolution. There was no quick way to transfer data from one location to another. In other words, bad weather would arrive before any data that might be used to forecast the event.

Weather report

That all changed with Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph in the mid-1800s. Combined with the data coding method he devised, it became possible to instantaneously send weather information from one station to another, or to a central receiving station.

Soon telegraphed weather data were being delivered to government agencies. This made it possible to generate weather maps and disseminate forecasts using the physics concepts developed during the Royal Society era.

Over the last 100-plus years, especially since the dawn of the computer age, the ability of meteorologists to forecast the weather has improved vastly. The Greeks would be proud of the early scientists who figured out what was going on “up there.”

Woody Whitlatch is a meteorologist retired from PG&E. Email your questions or comments to clayton_909@yahoo.com