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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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The Impact of the Telegraph (continued)

For Neumayer, then, the future of meteorology lay in the discovery of long-run regularities in weather patterns, analogous to those that operated in the case of terrestrial magnetism: indeed, Neumayer like many of his contemporaries was convinced there were links between the two.[33] Meterological regularities were likely to be much harder to identify, however, because they were liable to be masked by variations induced by local factors, most notably the local topography. The key to finding them lay in the presentation of data from individual observatories in a way that facilitated comparisons. Neumayer believed that his method of extracting five-day means had much to recommend it, both in leading to securely grounded generalizations and in providing a basis for scientific weather forecasting. More generally,
A clear understanding of the connexion of meteorological phenomena among themselves, and a distinct delineation of the frame, within which the meteorology of a country, or place, moves during so short a period as five days, are the primary conditions for a marked advance in our science, alike with regard to theoretical speculation and practical application.[34]

The kind of generalization Neumayer envisaged was well illustrated in a paper he presented to the Royal Society of London in 1867, based on his Melbourne data, announcing the discovery of a daily oscillation in barometric pressure that seemed to be linked to the motion of the moon—an atmospheric tide, in fact.[35]

For his country observing stations, Neumayer sought to have the meteorological observing assigned wherever possible to telegraph station managers. However, despite the scheme receiving the blessing of Samuel McGowan, Victoria's Superintendent of Telegraphs, difficulties persisted. Neumayer's stated rationale for using telegraph operators is revealing. 'I am ... of opinion', he wrote, 'that this will be the only mode to insure regularity in observation and registration, and rapidity of communication in cases of particular interest, where corresponding observations are required.'[36] It was thus primarily the regularity of the telegraph operator's duties that attracted Neumayer's eye, rather than his access to the telegraph. Neumayer clearly envisaged utilizing the telegraph only for urgent matters such as tracking major storms, not for the routine transmission of station reports; and in this he reflected standard views at the time.

Soon afterwards, attitudes changed dramatically. Rather than being seen as a convenience, the telegraph came to be regarded in Australia, as elsewhere, as the key to a veritable sea change in meteorology. By its use, data recorded at specified times at a number of stations could be at once transmitted to a central office so as to give a picture of the weather over the entire region covered by the observing stations, and of the way in which it changed over time. The telegraph became, in Todd's words,

to the meteorologist what the telescope is to the astronomer, in extending his field of view over large areas of the earth's surface, enabl[ing] the observer to mark and watch the birthplace of storms, track their course and rate of translation ... He was no longer confined to his own particular locality, laboriously compiling statistics and studying local prognostics; he could look far around him, see storms a thousand or more miles distant, and tell people with a considerable amount of confidence when they might be expected and what would be their force.[37]

To obtain full benefit from these possibilities, a method was needed to bring the telegraphed data under control. Here, the 'synoptic' weather map, on which were plotted simultaneous values reported by the network of observing stations of appropriate meteorological variables, came into its own. This provided meteorologists with a vivid means of displaying sets of synchronous data and also enabled them, from a sequence of such maps, to track storms and other weather systems passing across their observing regions.

People in Bright Sparcs - McGowan, Samuel Walker; Neumayer, Georg Balthazar; 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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