In 1854, John Ball, newly elected to Parliament, stood in the House of Commons to suggest that, just a few years hence, it might be possible to predict London’s weather 24 hours in advance.
He was drowned out by laughter.
Not much more than a century and a half ago, the notion of forecasting the weather sounded preposterous. So let me tell you a story.
Because you’re reading this blog, you probably make your living by communicating. As communicators, we don’t always enjoy the same prestige as scientists, inventors, and the other “movers and shakers” in our world. We might be tempted to think that they’re the ones with the ideas; we only communicate about their ideas. Yet the story of how weather forecasting became reality is a story of communication.
(Most of this material, including the account of John Ball’s day in Parliament, comes from Peter Moore’s The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future, an enjoyable if unhurried account of how the science of meteorology, and forecasting in particular, came to be. You can read my review in Goodreads.)
Agreeing on what to call things
Weather forecasting, of course, depends on the ability to collect observations from a variety of locations. Before the early 19th century, though, there was no convention for describing wind speed. One ship’s captain might record “moderate breeze” and another “squally.” Only when Sir Francis Beaufort developed a 14-stage scale —
0 – calm
1 – faint breeze just not a calm
and so on, up to 13 – storm
— could wind-speed observations be considered reliable.
Clouds, too, were problematic. Every observer, it seemed, had their own ways of describing them — some whimsical (castles in the air) and some painfully prosaic. Beaufort’s contemporary, Luke Howard, gave us the system we’re familiar with today: cirrus, cumulus, stratus, and so forth.
Those 19th-century pioneers laid the groundwork by developing taxonomies that gave meaning to the observations.
Transmitting the data
Forecasting, however, had to wait until one more communication breakthrough: Samuel Morse’s electric telegraph.
With the telegraph, a far-flung network of weather stations could take regular observations and transmit the data to a single place, where a meteorologist pieced it together to discern approaching conditions. The resulting forecast could then be transmitted to newspapers, mariners, and others — again by telegraph.
In 1854 the idea still seemed fantastical. By the mid 1860s, forecasting was fast becoming commonplace.
All because of communication: the taxonomies of people like Beaufort and Howard, and the data transmission enabled by Morse’s telegraph.
Communication. If that’s what you do, you should be proud.