Meteorological Observations at Sea (1853)

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IRON: An illustrated weekly journal for iron and steel

VOL. 59



Sholto Percy



Matthew Fontaine Maury wmm 02.jpg

The Brussels Conference(1853) appointed to investigate the above subject, and to form plans for collecting and collating facts having reference to it, has published the following Report. The matter is at the present exciting great interest among maritime men, and is certain to effect important changes in the intercourse of the commercial nations. It is very gratifying to find that the meritorious exertions of Lieutenant Maury, of the United States’ Navy — so long restricted by the supineness of sea-captains and others who possessed the power of assisting his inquiries—have at last succeeded in attracting the attention and securing the co-operation of the United States, British, and most other Governments. We publish the Report at length, in order to convey to our readers the fullest information obtainable upon so considerable a topic:

“ In pursuance of instructions issued by the Governments respectively named below, the officers whose names are hereto annexed assembled at Brussels for the purpose of holding a conference on the subject of establishing a uniform system of meteorological observations at sea, and of concurring in a general plan of observation on the winds and currents of the ocean, with a view to the improvement of navigation, and to the acquirement of a more correct knowledge of the laws which govern those elements. The meeting was convened at the instigation of the American Government, consequent upon a proposition which it had made to the British Government, in reply to a desire which had been conveyed to the United States that it would join in a uniform system of meteorological observations on land, after a plan which had been prepared by Captain James, of the Royal Engineers, and submitted to the Government by Sir J. Burgoyne, Inspector-General of Fortifications. The papers connected with this correspondence were presented to the House of Lords on the 21st of February last, and have been further explained in the minutes of the conference. And it is here merely necessary to observe, that some difficulties having presented themselves to the immediate execution of the plan proposed by the British Government, the United States availed themselves of the opportunity afforded by this correspondence of bringing under the notice of the British Government a plan which had been submitted by Lieutenant Maury, of the United States’ navy, for a more widely-extended field of research than that which had been proposed; a plan which, while it would forward the object entertained by Great Britain, would, at the same time, materially contribute to the improvement of navigation and to the benefit of commerce.

“An improvement of the ordinary sea route between distant countries had long engaged the attention of commercial men, and both individuals and nations had profited by the advances which this science had made through a more correct knowledge of prevailing winds and currents of the ocean. But experience had shown that this science, if it did not now stand fast, was at least greatly impeded by the want of a more extended co-operation in the acquirement of those facts which were necessary to lead to a correct knowledge of the laws which govern the circulation of the atmosphere and control the currents of the ocean; and that the subject could not receive ample justice, nor even such a measure of it as was commensurate with the importance of its results, until all nations should concur in one general effort for its perfection. But, could that happy event be brought about—could the observations be as extensive as desired, and receive that full discussion to which they were entitled, the navigator would learn with certainty how to count up the winds and currents in his track, and to turn to the best advantage the experience of his predecessors.

“Meteorological observations, to a certain extent, had long been made at sea, and Lieutenant Maury had turned to useful account such as had from time to time fallen into his hands; but these observations, although many of them good in themselves, were but isolated facts, which were deprived of much of their value from the absence of observations with which they could be compared, and, above all, from the want of a constant and uniform system of record, and from the rudeness of the instruments with which they had been made.

“ The moment, then, appeared to him to have arrived when nations might be induced to co-operate in a general system of meteorological research. To use his own words, he was of opinion that ‘the navies of all maritime nations should co-operate, and make these observations in such a manner and with such means and implements, that the system might be uniform, and the observations made on board all other public ships, in whatever part of the world; and, moreover, as it is desirable, as it is desirable to enlist the voluntary co-operation of the commercial marine, as well as that of the military of all nations, in this system of research, it becomes not only proper, but polite, that the forms of the abstract log to be used, the description of the instruments to be employed, the things to be observed, with the manipulation of the instruments, and the methods and modes of observation, should the joint work of the principal parties concerned.’

“ These sentiments being concurred in by the Government of the United States, the correspondence between the Governments was continued, and finally each nation was invited to send an officer to hold a conference at Brussels on a given day. And that the system of proposed observation of proposed observation and of combined action might become immediately available, and be extended to its widest possible field of operation, it was determined to adapt the standard of the observations to be made to the capabilities of the instruments now in general use in the respective naval services, but with the precaution of having all these instruments brought under the surveillance of parties duly appointed to examine them and determine their errors; as this alone would render the observations comparable with each other through the medium of their respective standards.

“ The conference opened its proceedings at Brussels on the 23rd of August, 1853, in the residence of M. Piercot, the Minister of the Interior, to whom the thanks of the conference are especially due.

“ M. Quetelet was unanimously elected president.

Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet

“ Before entering upon all discussion, it was the desire of all members of the conference that it should be clearly understood that in taking part in the proceedings of the meeting they did not in any degree consider themselves as committing their respective Governments to any particular course of action, having no authority whatever to pledge their country in any way to the proceedings. The object of the meeting having been explained by Lieutenant Maury, the conference expressed its thanks to that officer for the enlightened zeal and earnestness he had displayed in the important and useful work which forms the subject of the deliberations of the Conference.

“ In concerting a plan of uniform observation, in which all nations might be engaged, the most obvious difficulty which arose was from the variety of scales in use in different countries. It in much to be desired that this inconvenience should be removed; but it was a subject upon which the Conference, after mature deliberation, determined not to recommend any modification, but to leave to each nation to continue its scales and standards as heretofore, except with regard to the thermometers, which it was agreed should, in addition to the scale in use in any particular service, have that of the centigrade placed upon it, in order to accustom observers in all services to its use, with a view to its final and general adoption.

“ The advantages of concert of action between the meteorologist on land, and the navigator at sea, were so obvious, that looking forward to the establishment of a universal system of meteorological observation upon both elements, it was thought that the consideration of scales could with greater propriety be left for that or some such occasion.

“ As to the instruments to be recommended, the conference determined to add as few as possible to such as were in common use in vessels of war; but, regarding accuracy of observation as of paramount importance, the conference felt it to be a matter of duty to recommend the adoption of accurate instruments, of barometers and thermometers especially that have been carefully compared with recognized standards, and have had their errors accurately determined; and that such instruments only should be used on board every man-of-war co-operating in this system, as well as on board any merchantmen, as far as it may be practicable.

“ The imperfection of instruments in use at sea is notorious. The barometer having hitherto been used principally as a monitor to the mariner—to warn him, by its fluctuations, of the changes in prospect—its absolute indication of pressure has been but little regarded; and makers seldom, if ever, determined the real errors of these instruments; or, if known, still more rarely ever furnished the corrections with the instruments themselves.

“ That an instrument so rude and so abundant in error as is the marine barometer generally in use should, in this age of invention and improvement, be found on board any ship, will doubtless be regarded hereafter with surprise; and it will be wondered how an instrument so important to meteorology, and so useful to navigation, should be permitted to remain so defective that meteorologists, in their investigations concerning the laws of atmospheric pressure, are compelled in great measure to omit all reference to the observations which have been taken with them at sea. The fact will, it is believed, afford a commentary upon the marine barometers now in use which no reasoning or explanation can render more striking.

“ It was the opinion of the conference that it would not be impossible, considering the spirit of invention and improvement that is now abroad in the world, to contrive a marine barometer, which might be sold at a moderate price, that would fulfill all the conditions necessary to make it a good and reliable instrument; and a resolution was passed to that effect, in order to call the attention of the public to the importance of an invention which would furnish the navigator with a marine barometer that at all times, and in all weathers at sea, would afford the means of absolute and accurate determinations.

“ The Conference is also of opinion that an anemometer, or an instrument that will enable the navigator to measure the force, velocity, and direction of the wind at sea, is another desideratum. The Conference was of opinion, that the mercurial barometer was the most proper to be used at sea for meteorological purposes, and that the aneroid should not be substituted for it.

“ With regard to thermometers, the Conference does not hesitate to say, that observations made with those instruments, the errors of which are not known, are of little value; and it is therefore recommended, as a matter well worth the attention of co-operators in this system of research, whether some plan may not be adopted in different countries for supplying navigators, as well in merchantmen as in men-of-war, with thermometers, the errors of which have been accurately determined.

“ For the purposes of meteorology various adaptations of the thermometer have been recommended, such as those which refer to hygrometry and solar radiation; and, accordingly, a space will be found in the columns for temperature by thermometers with dry, wet, and coloured bulbs. With these exceptions, the only instrument, in addition to those generally used at sea, for which the Conference has thought proper to recommend a column, is that for specific gravity: the cost of this instrument is too insignificant to be mentioned.

“ The reasons for recommending the use at sea of the wet, the white, and black bulb thermometers are obvious; but with regard to the thermometer with a bulb, the colour of sea-water, and the introduction on board ship of a regular series of observations upon the specific gravity of sea-water, it may be proper to remark that, as the whole system of ocean currents and of the circulation of sea-water depends in some degree upon the relative specific gravities of the water in various parts of the ocean, it was judged desirable to introduce columns for this element, and to recommend that observations should be carefully made with regard to it, both at and below the surface.

" With respect to the thermometer having a bulb of the colour of sea-water, it is unnecessary to say more in favour of its use on board ship than that the object is to ascertain whether or no such observations will throw any light upon the psychrometry of the sea, or upon any of the various interesting phenomena connected with the radiation from the surface of the ocean.

“ In bringing to a conclusion the remarks upon instruments, the Conference considered it desirable, in order the better to establish uniformity and to secure comparability among the observations, to suggest, as a measure conducive thereto, that a set of the standard instruments used by each of the co-operating Governments, together with the instructions which might be given by such Governments for their use, should be interchanged.

“ The object of the Conference being to secure as far as possible uniformity of record, and such a disposition of the observations that they would admit of a ready comparison, a form of register was concerted and agreed upon. The first columns of this form will receive the data which the Government of the United States requires merchant vessels to supply, in order to entitle them to the privileges of co-operators in this system of research, and may therefore be considered as the minimum of what is expected of them. This condition, which it may be as well to state here, requires that at least the position of the vessel and the set of the current, the height of the barometer, the temperature of the air and water, should each be determined once a day, the force and direction of the wind three times a day, and the observed variation of the needle occasionally.

“ Every abstract log kept by a merchant vessel should contain at least what is here recommended. Anything more would enhance its value, and make it more acceptable. The remaining columns are intended principally for men-of-war to fill up, in addition to those above-mentioned; but it is believed that there are many officers in the mercantile navy also who are competent to this undertaking, and who will, it is hoped, be found willing to distinguish themselves in this joint action for the mutual benefit of the services.

“ In the compilation of this form, the Conference has had carefully in view the customs of the service and the additional amount of attention which these duties will require; and it is believed that the labour necessary for the purpose, at least to the extent specified in the instructions for filling up the columns, is only such as can be well performed under ordinary circumstances; and it has considered it a minimum, and looks with confidence to occasional enlarged contributions from zealous and intelligent labourers in the great cause of science.

“ The directions for filling up the columns, and for making certain observations, it will be seen by the minutes, were limited to such only as seemed necessary to the Conference to insure uniformity of observation. This subject received the benefit of much discussion before the meeting, and it was considered most advisable to confine the matter to hints, which it is hoped will be found sufficient, when embodied in the instructions which each nation will probably issue with the forms, to ensure that most desirable end—uniformity.

“ The Conference, having brought to a close its labours with respect to the facts to be collected and the means to be employed for that purpose, has now only to express a hope that whatever observations may be made will be turned to useful account when received, and not be suffered to lie dormant for the want of a department to discuss them; and that should any government, from its limited means, or from the paucity of the observations transmitted, not feel itself justified in providing for their separate discussion, it is hoped that it will transfer the documents, or copies of them, to some neighbouring power, which may be more abundantly provided, and willing to receive them.

“ It is with pleasure that the Conference has learnt that the Government of Sweden and Norway has notified its intention of co-operating in the work, and that the King has commanded the logs kept by his Swedish subjects to be transmitted to the Royal Academy of Science at Stockholm; and also that in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Portugal, measures have been taken to establish a department for the same purpose, and that the Admiralty of Great Britain has expressed its intention of giving instructions for meteorological observations to be made throughout the Royal Navy.

“ The Conference has avoided the expression of any opinion as to the places or countries in which it would be desirable to establish offices for the discussion of the logs; but it is confidently hoped that whatever may be done in this respect, there will be always a full and free interchange of materials, and a frequent and friendly intercourse between the departments; for it is evident that much of the success of the plan proposed will depend upon this interchange, and upon the frankness of the officers who in the several countries may conduct these establishments.

“ Lastly, the Conference feels that it would but inadequately discharge its duties did it close this Report without endeavouring to procure for these observations a consideration which would secure them from damage or loss in time of war, and invites that inviolate protection which science claims at the hands of every enlightened nation; and that as vessels on discovery or scientific research are, by consent, suffered to pass unmolested in time of war, we may claim for these documents a like exemption, and hope that observers, amid the excitement of war, and perhaps enemies in other respects, may in this continue their friendly assistance, and pursue their occupation, until at length every part of the ocean shall be brought within the domain of philosophic research, and a system of investigation shall be spread as a net over its surface, and it become rich in its benefit to commerce, navigation, and science, and productive of good to mankind.

“ The members of the Conference are unwilling to separate without calling the attention of their respective Governments to the important and valuable assistance which it has received from the Belgian Government. That the Conference has been enabled to draw its labours to so speedy and satisfactory a close, is in a great measure owing to the facilities and conveniences for meeting and deliberating which have been afforded by His Majesty’s Government.

“ Signed at Brussels, this 8th day of September, 1853.

“ Belgium -- QUETELET, President ; LAHURE
“ Denmark -- P. ROTHE
“ France -- DELAMARCHE
“ Great Britain -- F. W. BEECHEY, H. JAMES
“ Netherlands -- JANSEN.
“ Norway -- IHLEN.
“ Portugal -- DE MATTOS CORREA.
“ Russia -- GORKOVENKO.
“ Sweden -- PETTERSON.
“ United States -- MAURY. ”