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February 16, 2015
By Alexander Lucas


In the last few weeks we have seen a number of extreme weather records. Record low temperatures hit a number of cities, like Cleveland, in mid-February 2015. This same month, Boston and surrounding areas have been hit by the snowiest month on record, only two weeks in. Over the 2014-15 winter, Boston has already piled up over 95 inches of snow.

The one silver lining to these weather events is that they have largely been predicted well in advance of the storms hitting. This allows people to prepare, gather supplies and save lives.

Planning for extreme and daily weather events is something we often take for granted.  Turn on your phone, open the weather app and get current temperatures and 36-hour forecasts. And as much as we like to point out when forecasts are off, we still remain glued to them to make sure we don't schedule a cookout during a rainstorm or plan a trip to the beach during record cold.

How did this weather forecasting start and what technology allows us to know that it is minus 7 degrees and snowing with a 5 MPH northerly wind, before we look outside? 

Ancient basis

aristotle meteorologica

People have tried to predict the weather for thousands of years with mixed success. The Babylonians, Greeks and Chinese all had methods to predict and describe weather patterns. The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote Meteorologica around 340 B.C. which became an essential text in studying weather for nearly 2,000 years, despite the fact that much of the information was incorrect. 

Weather prediction at this point was based merely on pattern recognition since vital measuring devices had not yet been invented. 

Renaissance inventions

Three vital inventions appeared during the Renaissance that would provide the scientific basis for recording weather phenomena.

In the mid-15th century, Cardinal Nicholas de Cusa invented the hygrometer, which allowed for the measurement of humidity in the air. He found that when he hung wool outside and moisture condensed that it weighed more than when moisture did not.

barometer

Galileo Galilei discovered that liquids and gases expanded and contracted with changes in temperature. By the end of the 16th century, Galileo had invented the first thermometer to measure these changes.

About 50 years later, in 1643, fellow Italian Evangelista Toricelia invented the barometer, which allowed for the measurement of atmospheric pressure.

The advent of these three devices allowed for the detailed recording of weather details. These inventions would also allow for many of the details of Aristotle's Meteorologica to be disproven. Yet while current weather could now be better explained, there was no way to forecast weather. It would take a different type of technology to allow for forecasting.

Birth of forecasting

telegraph key

The major break to forecasting wasn't from scientific measurement, but from communications technology. The telegraph, invented in the 1830s, allowed for extremely quick transmission of information from hundreds of miles away.

In the U.S. the spread of telegraph offices made weather forecasting more feasible. In 1849 the Smithsonian Institution began supplying these offices with weather measuring equipment, beginning with 150 volunteers. By 1860, 500 stations were sending in daily weather reports by way of the telegraph.

In August 1961, the first daily weather forecasts in the world were published in the U.K. paper The Times, though these would only last for five years. The first weather map was published in 1875 in the same paper, though the map was for the previous day's weather.

What about the 20th century?

The telegraph was only the beginning for weather forecasting, but that can wait for another post. The next time we visit weather technology, I will delve into the use of Doppler radar and radiosondes in giving us the most accurate weather forecasting available.

In the meantime, check out some of the other Tech Throwback posts on televised sports and the Turing Test.

A self-styled storyteller, Alexander Lucas loves to share his vast knowledge of tech, innovation and design trivia. TEKsystems’ resident video designer is also an avid history buff and writes about technology innovation through time.

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