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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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Early Colonial Weather Reporting

Traditionally, meteorologists were concerned with establishing long-term weather patterns at particular locations. When observations from different places were brought together, nothing more was envisaged than simple comparisons and the establishment of generalizations of 'weather rules' such as 'a cold summer is commonly a wet one'.[11] Space was treated as merely 'a collection of locales',[12] each independent of the other so far as its weather was concerned. The nineteenth century, however, saw the emergence of an alternative approach—inspired by Alexander von Humboldt's dream of a world-encompassing science pursuing 'the accurate, measured study of a widespread but interconnected real phenomena in order to find a definite law and a dynamical cause'[13]—that viewed weather in terms of the behaviour of large-scale systems of moving air. From the 1830s American meteorologists began mapping the paths that storms had taken.[14] As telegraph networks expanded, the hope arose in Europe and North America that by means of telegraphed reports, storms could be tracked not just retrospectively but as they occurred, enabling warnings to be issued to places lying in the path they appeared to be taking. During the middle decades of the century, co-ordinated networks of meteorological observers were established in a number of countries. The first storm warnings were issued by C.H.D. Buys Ballot, director of the newly founded Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, in 1860, with the British and French following his example shortly afterwards.[15]

Co-ordinated observing networks were likewise established in several of the Australian colonies during the 1850s, whereas previously meteorological work had been confined to observations at single stations.[16] In Victoria a group of observing stations, coordinated from June 1855 by Robert Brough Smyth at the Department of Lands, built on a less formal system initiated a couple of years earlier by the Registrar General, W. H. Archer.[17] Smyth's ambitions outran the resources at his command but were characteristic of meteorology in his day. He envisaged collating long runs of observations taken simultaneously at a large number of stations to arrive at a general understanding of the Australian climate:

numerous simultaneous observations must be made for a lengthened period— the results carefully collated and analysed—and a chart prepared, embracing the principal features of the country as far as they are explored, on which the information afforded by the various observations could be plotted.[18]

To advance Smyth's scheme, Victoria's Surveyor General, Captain Andrew Clarke, was persuaded to write to the neighbouring colonies, urging the establishment of meteorological observatories in various parts of the country.[19] This may have sparked developments in South Australia and New South Wales soon afterwards.

People in Bright Sparcs - Archer, William Henry; Clarke, Andrew (Captain); Smyth, Robert Brough

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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.

© Online Edition Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre and Bureau of Meteorology 2001
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