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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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Beginnings of Intercolonial Co-operation

In Australia, the new, telegraph-based approach to meteorology was taken up at this time by the directors of the principal colonial observatories—Todd, Ellery and Russell. All three took to publishing daily summaries of the 'weather telegrams' received at their observatories, including some observations obtained from their colleagues in the other colonies. They also exchanged information about instrumentation. For example, as early as 1864 Todd, after a visit to Melbourne, wrote to Ellery confirming that he intended replicating Neumayer's arrangement of ground thermometers buried at various depths, and that he was trying out the 'ozone' detector papers given him in Melbourne. 'Hope you get our weather reports regularly', he added, 'they are always sent. We receive yours very regularly, and I publish them in the Register daily.'[42]

When Ellery visited Europe in 1875-6, he sought information about 'the various British, American and European systems of Weather Telegrams'.[43] He returned to Australia convinced that the system that he and his colleagues had been using, based chiefly on monthly reports from the observing stations, needed overhauling: and in July 1876 he submitted detailed plans for this.[44] Ellery envisaged selected stations in Victoria, mainly along the coast, providing a comprehensive meteorological report by telegraph once a day, and at other times in cases of 'great disturbances'. Using a prearranged cipher based on one recently adopted in Europe, stations were to report readings of 'Barometers (reduced), Dry and Wet bulb thermometers, direction and force of Wind, Weather, Rainfall in previous 24 hours, Max. and Min. thermometers and Sea disturbance'. The other colonies, including New Zealand 'and eventually Western Australia', were to be invited to co-operate, because 'no system of Weather Telegraphy can be of any but mere local interest unless the area embraced by the observatories on which they depend is comparatively extensive'. Each colony should make arrangements to ensure that the transmission of weather telegrams was given priority. The chief object was 'to be forewarned of approaching disturbances', and the emphasis on coastal stations confirms that this was envisaged primarily as contributing to the safety of the shipping on which colonial economic life was so dependent. Ellery did not foresee any difficulty in establishing such a system, asserting that it would 'meet all the most important public requirements in this direction without increasing to any extent the cost of the present one'.[45]

Russell had also been overseas, visiting England and the United States in 1875. On the way home, he told Ellery, 'I amused myself ... in devising a system by which to publish a weather chart at a small cost'.[46] Back in Sydney, he obtained government approval to issue a daily weather map, but did not go ahead with this for want of sufficient observational data, regularly supplied.[47] He responded enthusiastically to Ellery's initiative—'I am anxious to co-operate in this work and will do all in my power to forward it'—and offered constructive comments on some of the details of Ellery's proposal.[48] Todd, who had already in Ellery's absence been urging upon the latter's deputy, E. J. White, the desirability of securing uniformity in the methods of observation used in the different colonies,[49] also responded warmly. He promised Ellery his 'hearty co-operation' and—in contrast to Russell who wrote that 'I cannot spare the time and really do not see that we need to meet'[50]— welcomed the suggestion of a conference 'to secure uniformity and co-operation' between the various colonies: 'as there must shortly be a conference on postal and telegraph matters that would be a convenient time for the other subject to be fully discussed'.[51] In the event, no conference was held until 1879. Before that, several important matters were settled by correspondence. In particular, Russell and Todd insisted on the basic principle that intercolonial exchanges should be between the central observatories in each colony only, these being responsible for first consolidating the data from their own net works of observing stations. Regular telegraphic exchanges of observations, twice daily (except on Sundays), between Melbourne and Sydney began in January 1877, with Adelaide joining in a couple of months later.[52]

People in Bright Sparcs - Ellery, Robert Lewis John; Neumayer, Georg Balthazar; Russell, Henry Chamberlain; Todd, Charles; White, Edward John

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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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