Some Irish Meteorologists and their Work

by Fred E. Dixon

(article published in "The Irish Meteorological Service - The First Fifty Years 1936-1986")
Meteorology as a modern science began with the invention of the barometer and the thermometer. The Irish-born Robert Boyle (1617—1691) was important in the development of both, and it was he who first used the word ‘barometer’ and invented the siphon type. Probably more important is Boyle’s Law, the first step in quantifying the changes in the atmosphere. One memorial to him is a statue on the facade of the Royal College of Science buildings in Merrion Street, Dublin


One of my favourite quotations is:
‘Let rash, gloomy and ungrateful mortals forebear to murmur at this climate, since it is evident that bounty of providence causeth the sun to shine upon us in far greater degree than we commonly imagine or deserve'.
That appears in John Rutty’s Natural history of the county of Dublin (1772). This book reprints the weather summaries from his earlier (1770) Weather and seasons and diseases in Dublin which had two main objectives — to disprove astrological influences, and to establish connections between weather and diseases. John Rutty (1697—1775) was an English-born Quaker physician and tutor to the children of William Penn. He settled in Ireland in 1724, but his weather summaries cover 1716 to 1766, using data from other diaries as well as his own. Another quotation from his works is

‘Beware of blaspheming in relation to the weather; a vulgar impious practice

Hugh Hamilton (1729—1805) was Professor of Natural Philosophy at ‘TCD and his Philosophical essays (1766) showed clear understanding of evaporation and condensation and cloud formation. He suspected that aurora was the result of electrical discharge. He was the first man to suggest adjusting the scale of a barometer to allow for the change of mercury level in the cistern.
James Archibald Hamilton (1747—1815) was first Director of Armagh Observatory and among the many men devising improvements to barometers, and it was in a letter to him that Hugh made the revolutionary suggestion of contracting the scale.

Richard Kirwan (1733—1812) was not only the greatest Irish meteorologist to date, but was eminent in chemistry, mineralogy and other sciences. He used Rutty’s data to derive regression equations for predicting seasonal weather with great success. Unfortunately the rhythms have changed and neither his equations nor attempts at modern ones have yielded good results. Many of his ideas, published in the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, anticipated 20th- century concepts, such as the air-mass idea, with air masses classified as polar, extra-tropical, intra-tropical, supra-terrene and supra-marine. He believed in a general circulation but thought that when air from the equator reached the poles it was combusted and this caused the Aurora! One of his handicaps was his fervent belief in phlogiston.


Richard Kirwan, 1733-1812 (from a drawing by Brocas in the Dublin Magazine for December, 1812)

Kirwan’s first meteorological publication was An estimate of temperature of different latitudes, London 1787, collecting data from 42 places, from Upland to the Falkland Islands, and Pekin to Philadelphia. He decried the diversity of temperature scales and advocated a scale of 250° from the freezing point of mercury to the boiling point of water,

Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort (1774—1857), born at Collon with French ancestry and most famed as hydrographer, was much influenced by his brother-in-law (later his father-in-law) Richard Lovell Edgeworth, whose interests included meteorology. The Beaufort scale of wind force, and Beaufort’s system of weather letters are both widely used.


Sir Francis Beaufort, 1774—1857 (The painting by S. Pearce in the National Portrait Gallery, London)

Thomas Romney Robinson (1792—1882), Director Armagh Observatory, married another of Edgeworth daughters and it was Edgeworth who suggested the design of the cup anemometer which Robinson perfected after years of experimenting. He was born in Dublin, entered when only 12, was Scholar at 14, B.A. at 16 and Fellow at 21.

Dr James Apjohn (1796—1886), born in Granard, was first Professor of Chemistry in the Royal College of Surgeons Dublin, where he began regular meteorological observations. Although his development of the wet-bulb equation was not the first, his treatment was the most thorough and his form e = esw— Ap(t—t’) is still used. It was not derived for meteorologists but to help the determination of the specific heats of gases.

Sir George Gabriel Stokes (1819—1905), born at Skreen, was most noted for his hydrodynamics and made other contributions to meteorology. He was a member of the Meteorological Council, for which he developed the theory of the constriction in barometer tubes. He also made Campbell’s sunshine recorder into the now familiar form, probably assisted by his father-in-law Robinson.

General Sir Edward Sabine (1788—1883), born in Dublin, was President of the Royal Society, arctic explorer, geophysicist, and largely responsible for the chain of observatories at Toronto, St Helena, Cape of Good Hope, India and Tasmania, for which the observers were trained at TCD.

Humphrey Lloyd (1800—1881), Dublin-born Provost of Trinity College, was more concerned with geomagnetism than meteorology. He established the special building (now at University College) on the Fellows’ Garden, first used as the training centre for the observers at Sabine’s chain of observatories. His contributions to meteorology included analysis of the diurnal temperature changes to decide the best combinations of hours if restricted to two, three or four measurements each day.

Yeates & Son originated about 1790 and from the 1830s to 1970s occupied the shop at the corner of Grafton Street and Nassau Street, Dublin, as opticians and makers of scientific instruments. (The optical end of their business still flourishes in the Grafton Arcade, off Grafton Street.) In 1876 they exhibited an electrical self-registering rain gauge which would record on a dial at any distance, and in 1882 they produced a distant-reading anemometer. Their most important contribution was their technique for manufacturing sheathed thermometers. The idea had been suggested by several, and in his Meteorological Magazine Symons stated that it was not possible to fuse a sheath leaving the bulb exposed. However A.M. Festing wrote from Aldborough Barracks, Dublin, reporting that he was using such thermometers made by the Yeates firm.

John Tyndall (1820—1895), born at Leighlin Bridge, was invited to apply for the chair of meteorology in Toronto but declined. His principal contribution to the subject was studying the dependence of scattering on wavelength, and hence explaining the blueness of the sky and of distant hills.

Robert Henry Scott (1833—1916), born in Dublin, was first Director of the Meteorological Office, and prominent in the foundation of the International Meteorological Organization. He wrote numerous papers and some good elementary text books. His library was presented to Valentia Observatory which he had founded.


 Robert Henry Scott (1833—1916), the founder of Valentia Observatory and first Director of the British Meteorological Office (Photo supplied by FE. Dixon)

John Joly (1857—1933) claimed to have Irish, French, German, Italian and Greek blood. He was Professor of Geology at TCD, and was a pioneer in colour photography. His principal meteorological innovation was a system of recording the principal elements at a distance from the instruments. He also invented a fractionating raingauge to separate the catch at different periods of a storm, to facilitate the determination of changes in the proportions of suspended matter.

Space does not permit discussion of 20th-century workers, but I am sure that when the Centenary volume is compiled that Mariano Doporto and Leo Wenzel Pollak will find a place.

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