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Table of Contents

The Case of Meteorology, 1876-1908


Early Colonial Weather Reporting

The Impact of the Telegraph

Beginnings of Intercolonial Co-operation

The Intercolonial Meteorological Conferences

The Role of Clement Wragge

Towards a Commonwealth Bureau of Meteorology





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Beginnings of Intercolonial Co-operation (continued)

With the additional data from Victoria, Russell went ahead with his scheme for publishing daily weather maps, the first appearing in the Sydney Morning Herald on 5 February 1877. Curves were sketched in 'showing the probable position of the isobars', the number of reporting stations being stated to be too small for these to be drawn with any certainty. Symbols represented wind strength and direction, the state of the sea (moderate, heavy, or very heavy) and the general state of the weather at various locations, while maximum and minimum temperatures and rainfall at the reporting stations were tabulated separately. Ellery and Todd had likewise envisaged issuing maps,[53] but in the event they continued to issue daily 'Weather Bulletins' in verbal form, comprising a summary of local and telegraphed reports and a synopsis. Not for four years did Ellery follow Russell's lead, his first map appearing in the Melbourne newspapers on 26 September 1881. Todd, despite pressure from the Adelaide newspapers, appears not to have issued daily weather maps until later still.[54]

At first, the discussion accompanying Russell's maps merely summarized the past events recorded on them. He, Todd and Ellery were all keen, however, because of the economic benefits, to initiate a local forecasting service as soon as possible. They had been impressed by both the American practice of issuing not just occasional storm warnings but general forecasts of 'probabilities' of the weather a day or two ahead, and the claimed success rate of over 80 per cent.[55] Yet they were acutely conscious of the dangers involved in making forecasts on too fragile an observational base, and were anxious first to extend and strengthen the observing network upon which they could draw. Todd's hesitations were typical:

With N.Z. to the East and King George Sound to the West we should soon be in a position to introduce a system of forecast having good pretensions to accuracy. It would not however be well to commence any system of forecast till we have attained a reasonable degree of certainty—as one failure is thought more of than a long series of successful predictions and there are always plenty of spiteful people ready to pounce upon any discrepancy impale it on their fork and hold it up to public ridicule.[56]

Ellery, too, adopted a cautious approach, assuring his Board of Visitors that 'it is not intended to attempt much in the way of forecasting except in cases of the most marked movement or approach of violent storms along our coast'.[57] Not until 1881 were the first forecasts issued, and even then they were expressed in very broad terms. Ellery's first forecast, published with the first weather map to be issued from the Melbourne Observatory, simply stated: 'PROSPECTIVE.—Generally fine weather in Victoria.'[58] Russell and Todd were even more cautious. Russell did not issue his first true forecast until early 1888, when he predicted for New South Wales 'Fine weather, with more or less clouds; on the coast moderate winds from east to north; inland northerly winds and calms with warm weather'. Todd's first forecast appeared in September 1888, two days after an editorial on the recent intercolonial meteorological conference.[59]

People in Bright Sparcs - Ellery, Robert Lewis John; Russell, Henry Chamberlain; Todd, Charles

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Home, R. W. and Livingston, K. T. 1994 'Science and Technology in the Story of Australian Federation: The Case of Meteorology, 1876-1908', Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 10, no. 2, December 1994, pp. 109-27.

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