The man with the weather eye

Towards the close of 1837 Patrick Murphy announced that January 20th would be the coldest day of the coming year. The day duly arrived and bitter cold confirmed the prediction. Booksellers were besieged by hordes of people demanding copies of Murphy’s Weather Almanac, which contained predictions for the whole year based on planetary and lunar influences. Murphy made his name as a weather prophet and a small fortune too, but he didn’t escape criticism.     

Caricature of Murphy entitled "The Man with the Weather Eye"

This satirical cartoon references a comic play, in which a learned gentleman mistakes a potato seller named Murphy for the famous meteorologist. The telescope, moon and stars are references to Murphy's astrometeorological theories. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

To some, astrological almanacs simply betrayed the credulity of the British public. However in the 19th century ‘scientific’ and ‘non-scientific’ understandings of weather were not clearly distinguished.  

Take Robert Fitzroy. Better known as the captain of HMS Beagle, the fellow of the Royal Society headed the newly formed Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade (later the Meteorological Office) from 1854. Fitzroy was no astrologist but he did speculate that the moon influenced atmospheric conditions. And many shared his hope that, with sufficient data, predicting the weather might one day become as reliable as predicting the motions of the heavens.   

Fitzroy’s Department had two aims: collecting ‘accurate and digested observations for the future use of men of science’ and, more practically, aiding navigation. Fitzroy supplied instruments and charts to ships’ Captains, who in return sent meteorological data back to London. He also loaned barometers to coastal villages to help fishermen plan their work safely.       

Detail of a Fitzroy storm barometer, c. 1880

Fitzroy storm barometer, c. 1880 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Using telegraphy, Fitzroy gathered daily reports from a growing network of British and European observers. From 1861 he used this data to produce the first ’forecasts’, which were printed in the newspapers. They were eagerly consumed. However, some members of the scientific establishment worried that they blurred the boundaries between elite and popular forms of knowledge making.   

In 1866, following Fitzroy’s death, an official report found that ”the truth of [Fitzroy's forecasts] is warranted neither by science nor by experience”. Like Murphy’s almanac, they caused the public “to confuse real knowledge with ill founded pretences” and threatened the reputation of “true science”.  Against considerable resistance, the service was cancelled and for a time weather prediction was left to the successors of Patrick Murphy and his fellow weather prophets.

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