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Recently, I was lucky enough to visit the mighty Victoria Falls. As I stood at the falls’ edge drenched in spray, I spotted double rainbows formed by sunlight being refracted through the water droplets. One of the first people to explain how rainbows form was the Persian mathematician Kamal al-Din al-Farisi, who was born around 1260. Using a glass sphere filled with water to represent a raindrop, he showed that sunlight is bent as it enters the drop, reflects off […]

You might wonder what this watercolour is doing in our Making the Modern World gallery. The chalky cliffs, thatched cottage and country children make a pleasant enough pastoral scene, but what does it have to do with science? The clue is in the sky, which represents ‘Cumulus breaking up; cirrus and cirrocumulus above’. These were the new names for the clouds, created by the meteorologist Luke Howard. Howard was a commercial chemist who rose to fame after lecturing “On the Modification […]

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.      To some, astrological almanacs simply betrayed the credulity of the British public. However […]

One of the most curious meteorology objects I’ve discovered recently is the weather glass. It was first described in 1558 by the Italian scholar Giambattista della Porta.     Della Porta’s apparatus was essentially the same as the air thermoscope, which I wrote about a recently. The alternative design shown below was in use from the 1600s. As the air in the vessel expands and contracts water moves up and down the spout, indicating changing atmospheric conditions.  Before air pressure was understood, the instrument was sometimes […]

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”.  Every morning at 9am hundreds of observers across the country (by 1900 there were 3,408 stations […]

How did you enjoy the hottest day of the year so far on Sunday? It got me thinking about what else we have in the collection relating to temperature.   For simplicity, I like this modern reconstruction of an apparatus which Philo of Byzantium devised back in 200 – 100 BC to indicate temperature change. A hollow, lead globe is attached to a tube, which is bent over into a container of water. You can probably guess what happens when the globe is warmed… Philo explained:   I […]

The recent sunny spells have got me thinking about some of my favourite objects in the meteorology collection – sunshine recorders. John Francis Campbell (1821-1885), of the Hebridean island of Islay, designed the apparatus pictured above. You may be able to figure out how it works just from looking at it… The idea is that the glass ball acts as a lens, focusing the sun’s rays onto an area within the wooden cup and scorching it. As the sun travels from east to […]