April 28, 2015, by Lucy

Franco-British collaboration, the Royal Society and Measuring Storms

Care for the Future – LABEX

Last week Georgina and I represented the Weather Extremes team at the 2nd AHRC Care for the Future and LABEX joint workshop. More information on the partnership can be found in my post on the first workshop. This time the meeting was held at the Royal Society in London, and discussions were organised around the themes of ‘Uses of the Past’ and ‘Research and Heritage’. We were able to learn more about many of the projects funded under the two schemes and to think about possible connections with our own. Georgina gave a short talk on our project and coverage on social media led to us acquiring some notable new twitter followers, including the American Pigeon Museum! Ideas of ‘home’ and particularly care for the home helped to connect our research with the other papers in our session by Adam Stock and Bridget Bennett, who used film and fiction as their research sources.

The other presentations gave us plenty to think about and some of the common themes emerging from the workshop seemed particularly pertinent to our work on the weather extremes project, such as the changing boundaries between amateur and professional history, the status and place of oral history, and the role of ‘time’ in our research. The closing discussions also raised important questions relating to the use and reuse of our research data and resources, and the opportunities provided by technological innovations.

A Franco-British Collaboration from the past: The Brontometer

Before the meeting I took the opportunity to do a little bit of work in the Royal Society Library and Archives. Many of the documents that I selected to look at were accounts of storms sent in to the Royal Society from observers around the country but a couple of items were rather different as they related to the invention of a meteorological instrument known as a Brontometer that was used to record the phenomena of thunderstorms. You can see a picture on the Science and Society Picture Library website.

Inside the Society’s letter books are 2 references to the Brontometer. Both are letters from Herbert Rix (Assistant Secretary, Royal Society) to George Symons (Meteorologist, founder of the British Rainfall Organisation and Fellow of the Royal Society):

March 13, 1890

Dear Mr Symons,

The enclosed refers to the “Pyrenees” research; £50 granted last year.

The Men’s Soiree is fixed for May 14th, and we shall be glad to have your Brontometer on view,

Yours faithfully,

H. Rix

Asst Sec RS (NLB/4/212)

July 21, 1890

Dear Sir,

I am directed to inform you that at the last meeting of Council your application for a grant from the Donation Fund was reconsidered, and it was agreed that a sum of £100 should be granted from that fund in aid of the expenses connected with the construction of your brontometer. The cheque will be at your service as soon as I can get the treasurers signature.

I am yours truly

Herbert Rix

Asst Sec RS (NLB/4/605)

A little bit of research online soon revealed the Brontometer to be the product of a Franco-British partnership, between George Symons and the instrument makers M.M. Richard Frères of Paris. Before the two letters were written Symons had published a paper titled ‘On barometric oscillations during thunderstorms, and on the brontometer, an instrument designed to facilitate their study’ in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.  In the paper Symons explores the relationship between that barometric pressure and thunderstorms, and also gives some details of the nature of the research collaboration:

… the author decided upon what the instrument was to so, and upon the scales required, but he left the whole constructional details to M.M. Richard, and considers the result a great credit to the firm. As the primary object of the instrument is the study of the phenomena of thunderstorms, it has, for brevity, been termed a Brontometer, or Thunderstorm-measurer.

The Brontometer (from the Greek for thunder, the meaning of Brontosaurus being ‘thunder lizard’) was provided with endless paper to record marks from seven different pens, measuring time (base line), wind velocity, rainfall intensity, lightning strikes, thunder, hail intensity, and atmospheric pressure. The Brontometer itself would measure time and pressure, whilst wind velocity and rainfall data would be fed from other meteorological instruments and the record triggered by sending electrical currents from the external instruments to the Brontometer which would be kept inside the house. It would be down to the observer to press the necessary keys to note lightning, thunder and hail, and the exact times of the commencement and termination of rain.

An account of the ‘The Royal Society Conversazione’ in The Engineer, June 20 1890 confirms that the Brontometer was displayed, although gives no indication of how it was received by those present:

The Engineer, June 20 1890

The Engineer, June 20 1890

This small story has rather nice connections to Sandra Kemp’s current work on South Kensington soirees (a collaboration between the V&A and the Royal Society) that she presented at the 1st Care for the Future-LABEX workshop.

At the International Meteorological Conference which took place at Innsbruck in September, 1905, delegates expressed the opinion that autographic thunderstorm recorders (Brontometers) were still in the experimental stage, and it consequently could not recommend the general adoption of these instruments at observatories. A few years later William Marriott, Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society acquired the Brontometer that Symons had commissioned and, when he could, tried it out from his home in West Norwood, London.  He published his thoughts in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society in July 1908. He writes: ‘I have not had many opportunities of using the Brontometer, as I am often away at the critical time and thunderstorms do not come on to order, but such records as have been obtained have been of great interest. The thunderstorm which occurred on June 4, 1908, was not only a very severe one, but it afforded almost exceptional opportunities for obtaining records on the Brontometer of the various phenomena accompanying the storm.’

During the June 4 storm Marriott recorded 98 flashes of lightning between 6.11 and 6.39 in the evening, after this time the lightning flashes did not stop but he ran out of ink!

Royal Storms

On Wednesday evening we were treated to an evening tour of the King’s and Queen’s State apartments of Kensington Palace and, following dinner conversations with the Curators, are now eager to investigate more of the history of the Historic Royal Palaces and parks and gardens in the archives, as it relates to extreme weather events. I’ll conclude this post with a snippet from a published text:

1703 storm

Part of the Palace of St James’ was blown down, and a Woman killed by the Fall of a Chimney. Her MAJESTY was alarmed, and got up, with his Highness the PRINCE, and all the Maids of Honour, who escaped a signal Danger; for, in the Room where they were, a Stack of Chimenys fell, within few minutes after they had left the same… The Duke of Buckingham’s House suffered some Damage, and some of his Walls are thrown down in St James’ Park; about 70 Trees were blown down, amongst which the four great Elms, that reared their lofty Heads near the Canal; they were very large, and high, and supposed to be planted by Cardinal Woolsey, when he built Whitehall.

An Exact Relation of the Late Dreadful Tempest (1704).

 Overall the workshop has given us lots more avenues to pursue in the coming months!

Kensington Palace

Kensington Palace

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