University of Cambridge Museums

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From weather-wise to weather forecasting: meteorological instruments at the Whipple Museum

The Whipple Museum of the History of Science has an excellent collection of meteorological instruments about which I have been researching and writing articles for the Museum’s ‘Explore’ website. The nature of the atmosphere has intrigued natural philosophers since Aristotle; however, instruments that tested and measured atmospheric qualities, such as temperature, air pressure and humidity, were largely invented during the seventeenth century. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw many refinements of these early designs. In describing and contextualizing objects held in the Whipple collection, I hope that these articles will introduce meteorology to new audiences curious about the fascinating history of weather.

During my research, I was surprised to find that eighteenth-century studies of the atmosphere related to many of the topics I discussed in my PhD research on the history of geology. History of science is wonderful in this way: natural philosophers and natural historians were curious about many things and made connection between a diverse range of fields. During the eighteenth century, some natural philosophers believed that sulphuric and nitric vapours emitted from the earth caused fiery meteorological phenomena such as lightning, fireballs and aurora. Meteorologists who supported the ‘vapour theory’ stressed the importance of mineral and geological knowledge in their research. Several of the historical figures I encountered during my Whipple research were familiar from my doctoral dissertation. Regarding my own academic work, the history of meteorology has significantly expanded my ideas about studies of the earth.

Florentine thermometer

My favourite meteorological instrument held in the collection is the Florentine thermometer that dates from the 1660s, just thirty-or-so years after the thermometer was invented. The delicate glass phial was blown in Florence by a Master glass-blower who could reproduce the object with great accuracy. The Master glass-blower to the Medici family claimed that he could consistently reproduce a thermometer with a 50 degree scale; however, thermometers using larger scales such as 100 or 300 degrees were too challenging to guarantee a regular product. Standardized thermometry scales that used fixed points such as freezing or boiling had not yet been developed. As such, individual craftsman used their own scale, which did not necessarily agree with thermometers made by others. The glass-blower’s knowledge, mastery of material and ability to produce accurate thermometers is what drew me to this particular object.

While the Museum has instruments from the earliest period in the history of meteorology, objects of recent scientific research, such as the Skua rocketsonde, also feature in the collection. Between 1960 and 1980 the British Meteorological Office launched rockets fitted with radiosondes that would gather atmospheric data as they fell back to the earth. This technology and instrumentation had played a central role in understanding how weather operates at the high altitudes used by the aviation industry. Whether you enjoy ancient or modern science, the Whipple had interesting instruments for everyone!

Working with the Museum’s collections has been a wonderful experience. As I discovered during my research, there are so many fascinating objects at the Whipple that have untold stories. I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to study some of these artefacts and to share the history of meteorological instrumentation.

Allison Ksiazkiewicz, Whipple Museum of the History of Science

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This entry was posted on September 25, 2014 by in Behind the Scenes, News, Research and tagged , , , , .
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