150 years of the British Rainfall Organisation

On Saturday I went to a conference commemorating the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the British Rainfall Organisation (BRO), organised by the history group of the Royal Meteorological Society. Here’s what I discovered…

The British Rainfall Organisation demonstrates the importance of networks in meteorology. It was founded in 1860 by George James Symons to coordinate rainfall observations by volunteers “of both sexes, all ages, and all classes”. 

George James Symons

Symons was known as kind man, who was supportive of his volunteers and had a twinkle in his eye (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Every morning at 9am hundreds of observers across the country (by 1900 there were 3,408 stations in Symons’s network) scurried into their back garden to inspect their rain gauges. They sent their results back to Symons, who analysed them and published them in British Rainfall magazine. In 1919 the BRO was taken over by the Met Office (who now make some of their rainfall data available online). However, ‘amateur’ observers still make important contributions to meteorology today, and I met some of them at the conference.

Luke Howard's Rain Gauge, 1818

This particular rain guage, made in 1818, belonged to the famous meteorologist Luke Howard (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Site inspections and other quality control measures are an important aspect of managing any observation network. During a talk about the present-day rainfall network, I found out what this shiny instrument in our collection is for.  

Kiff mushroom rain gauge exposure meter

A common issue with rain gauges is how exposed they are to wind, with very sheltered and very open sites both leading to inaccuracies. During a site inspection, this instrument is placed on top of the gauge and the domed surface reflects all the nearby obstacles – fences, hedges, buildings, etc. The scale allows exposure to be measured.

Clever. But everyone knows what the most useful, mushroom-like, rain-related instrument really is… 

Toad buying an umbrella

This print, produced around 1845, satirised the fashion for umbrellas (Science Museum / Science and Society)

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