A fascinating replica of an instrument called Storm Glass appeared in a recent holiday catalog. It is based on an instrument developed for forecasting weather and used by Vice Admiral Robert Fitzroy, the captain of the H.M.S. Beagle while Charles Darwin was on board. Fitzroy was one of the first weather forecasters and became the first head of what would later become England's Meteorological office. The French apparently made similar instruments before Fitzroy in the late 1700s. You can see from the pictures and text that it would take a bit of interpretative skill to know what the storm glass state represented. The science behind the storm glass is a bit odd since what causes the crystals to form/precipitate in the glass evidently is still a bit of a scientific mystery–electricity, temperature, atmospheric pressure, quantum tunneling? Quantum tunneling reminds one of the many charged particles and even gamma rays that can be emitted by powerful thunderstorms…

If you would like to make your own storm glass, check out this link.

Here is some continuing recent research on storm glass:

"Pattern formation of crystals in storm glass," Journal of Crystal Growth, Volume 310, Issue 10, 1 May 2008, Pages 2668-2672 Yasuko Tanaka, Koichi Hagano, Tomoyasu Kuno, Kazushige Nagashima


“Storm glass” is a sealed glass tube containing a camphor–ethanol solution with aqueous NH4Cl and KNO3 solution. In 19th century England, the pattern and quantity of the crystals formed were observed and interpreted as a weather forecasting tool. In the present study, the pattern formation of the crystals in the storm glass solution was investigated by focusing on one parameter, such as the applied temperature. The growth patterns of the crystals in the storm glass solution were controlled using a directional growth apparatus and observed in situ as a function of the growth rate. Crystals grown in camphor ethanol solution were also observed for comparison. In addition, a replica of the storm glass attached to a temperature control system was constructed in order to examine the effect of the history of temperature variations on the crystals. X-ray diffraction patterns of the crystals were obtained to clarify the species of the crystals in the storm glass.

This story reminds me of the difficulties of making scientific predictions when there are tons of variables…

John and Mary Gribbins' book, FitzRoy: The Remarkable Story of Darwin's Captain and the Invention of the Weather Forecasting plays up that Admiral Fitzroy and Francis Galton did not get along very well. There is a sense of tension between proponents of qualitative and quantitative data that is quite interesting.

Discussing Galton's view of the early British Meteorological Office they say:

As for the compilation of statistics from ships at sea that had been the raison de e'tre of the Office, Galton felt that FitzRoy had stopped collecting data much too soon, with at least three times as many observations required before the database would be of much use.

And this from Katherine Anderson's book, Predicting the Weather: Victorians and the Science of Meteorology :

Reviewing his 1866 report on meteorology for the Treasury inquiry in 1877, Galton thrice underscored the section that noted, "A clear understanding of the degree of Precision to be aimed at, lies at the root of all estimates of past and future work."A summary of Anderson's book notes:Victorian Britain, with its maritime economy and strong links between government and scientific enterprises, founded an office to collect meteorological statistics in 1854 in an effort to foster a modern science of the weather. But as the office turned to prediction rather than data collection, the fragile science became a public spectacle, with its forecasts open to daily scrutiny in the newspapers. And meteorology came to assume a pivotal role in debates about the responsibility of scientists and the authority of science.

Admiral FitzRoy's book, The Weather Book: A Manual of Practical Meteorology can be found in its entirety here.

As noted in his biography, FitzRoy committed suicide by slitting his throat at age 60. 





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