Nothing seems more natural than to talk – or joke –
about the weather, in part because so much of what we do and are depends on this, Nature’s most capricious side, but also because it most eludes our attempts to gain control over Nature. For millennia man had to take recourse to the experiences (or beliefs) expressed in the kind of weather lore used as introduction. By the 19th century, Physics and Chemistry had progressed enough to allow a more serious approach to the vexing question of tomorrow’s weather, with Sir William Napier Shaw (1854-1945) playing a leading role in the history of modern British weather forecasting.
Incidentally, he was born in the same year – 162 years ago today – when under the Board of Trade a first experimental government department was set up in London that should look into the possibility of forecasting the weather with some degree of reliability in order to improve the safety of ships and their crews. While this Meteorology Department developed for the first time a more scientific approach to weather forecasting under the leadership of navel captain Robert FitzRoy (former commanding officer of the HMS Beagle on which Darwin voyaged during his years of research), Shaw grew up in the large nonconformist household of a goldsmith and jeweller in Birmingham. At Cambridge (Emmanuel College) he studied Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, and spent some time at the universities of Freiburg and Berlin, before working at the Cavendish Laboratory and giving lectures in experimental Physics at Cambridge.
Meanwhile, the Meteorology Department had been reorganised to become, in 1877, the Meteorology Office, endowed with an annual grant and directed by a Council of scientists who wanted to further research in this little known subfield of Physics, as it was then categorised. Shaw was contacted as a researcher and eventually published his first report on hygrometric methods (measuring air moisture under different conditions) in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1888). This and other works brought him to the attention of both the Royal Society (which made him a Fellow in 1891) and the Meteorological Council, where he assumed a leading role from 1900 onward. A gifted organiser, he modernised the Met Office (its short form) bringing in men and women with primarily a scientific background; priority was given to research, up-to-date equipment, and international relationships with other meteorological institutions to exchange and compile data, compose charts and maps, and improve analysis and graphical data representations. In 1909, he introduced the air pressure unit millibar, which was internationally adopted in 1929, and in 1915 he developed the tephigram, a diagram of temperature changes.
The service of his Met Office began to be appreciated from 1909, when ships could receive data via wireless telegraphy, and later during World War I, when his staff was dispatched to the front lines, where their contributions, made more precise with a rapidly improving equipment, soon were counted on to make strategical decisions. Details can be read here. There is a very informative brochure about the Met Office’s contribution during both World Wars.
From 1920-24, Sir W. Napier Shaw (knighted in 1915) was the first Professor of Meteorology in the UK, teaching at the Imperial College of London. Throughout his life, Shaw received many honorary titles and national and international distinctions. Some of his numerous publications can be accessed now online, for example his Manual of Meteorology, vol. 1; vol. 2; vol. 3; and vol. 4.
You may find the following links interesting:
- Excerpts from Frederik Nebeker’s Calculating the Weather: Meteorology in the 20th Century. 29 ff
- An appreciation by C. Fitzhugh Talman, an American colleague (19.08.1911)
- An obituary from the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (1946)
- E. Crewe’s article about the early Met Office
- The end of Met Office’s London service by Roger Hunt
- About Met Office and associated services on its official site.