Weather Prediction in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries
A Canadian Perspective
by John D. Reid
Almanacs based on psuedo-science, fraud; and weather folklore; prevailed in weather prediction in the early years. Scientific forecasts relied on local observations, including barometer trends.
Understanding the movement of storm systems, developed during the first part of the19th century, was harnessed by national weather services during the second half. Forecasts gradually improved, but weather-related disasters continued to take thousands of lives in a single event as the forecasts, and forecast delivery system, were insufficiently reliable. Some people clung to astronomical techniques achieving occasional successes where the still imperfect science failed. The dynamical basis for weather prediction was developed in the early 20th century.
Latest Additions
Importance of meteorological services during WW1 in   the UK, added (22/01/03).
Commentary on 6 October 2002 Saxby Event updated (01/10/02)

R. H. Scott on the work of the UK Meteorological Office in 1869, added (6/08/02)
The Saxby Gale - situation in the New Zealand., from 12 Oct 1869, Hawke's Bay Herald, added (31/07/02) 
1910: Practical Daily Work of the Toronto Observatory (21/07/02)
The Saxby Gale - situation in the U.K., from 7 Oct 1869, The Times, more added (20/06/02) 
Weather History Links

British Perspective
US Perspective

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1800: Moore's popular weather almanac, Vox stellarum, sells 400,000 copies in the UK.
1802: Howard's classification of cloud types
1803: Herschell's Weather Table first appears, European Magazine, vol ix, p24
1804: Volney's "View of the Climate and Soil of the United States

1805: Personal meteorological journal kept  by Vice-Admiral Horatio, Viscount Nelson; Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, from Tuesday 14 May until Sunday 20 Oct., the eve of the Battle of Trafalgar.
1806: Beaufort first develops his wind scale.
1809: Foster uses pilot balloons to monitor winds aloft.
1813: Martinique hurricane: >3,000 killed
1816: The year without a summer.
1823: Poisson develops the equations for the dry adiabatic process.

1823: The London Meteorological Society founded, soon to become inactive.

Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico hurricane: about 1,300 killed
1825: August develops the psychrometer.

1826: Raphael's almanac first appears.
1828: Dove suggests "south winds ... flow upwards on the resisting cold air as on a mountain"
1829: Tornado at Guelph

1831: Barbados to Louisiana hurricane: > 1,500 killed
1831: Zadkiel's almanac first appears.
1831: Redfield publishes "Atlantic Storms" and "Hurricanes and Storms of the United States and West Indies," in the American Journal of Science.

1835: Espy develops a flawed theory of the moist adiabatic process.

1836: The London Meteorological Society revived under W. H. White as Secretary.

1838: Murphy's Almanac predicts 20 January as coldest day of the year in UK.  It is coldest day of the century.
1838: Reid publishes "An Attempt to Develop the Law of Storms."
1838: Morse invents the telegraph
1839: Circulation of Moore's almanac peaks at 560,000
1839: Toronto meteorological observations commence.
1841: Loomis recognizes the vertical displacement of warm air by cold as a primary cause of mid-latitude precipitation. He draws the first weather map series showing the continuity of "fronts".

1843: Espy in the USA establishes a system of weather reports in the war department, which later developed into the signal service system.
1844: Death of John Dalton, who kept a weather diary for more than 50 years.
1845: Doxat publishes "The Meteorological Ephemeris" explaining weather variations as the result of the effects of the sun, moon and planets on the degree of electricity in the atmosphere.
1848: First publication of telegraphic weather observations by Glaisher in England.
1848: First edition of Piddington's "The Sailor's Horn-Book for the Law of Storms."
1849: The Smithsonian Institution establishes an extensive observation network in the USA with observations sent by telegraph.

1850: British Meteorological Society, forerunner of the Royal Meteorological Society, founded 3rd April.
1851: The Tempest Prognosticator
1851: Austrian Meteorological Service formed.
1853: International Maritime Conference convened in Brussels to coordinate observational methods and reporting.  Maury was instrumental in causing the meeting.
1854: Meteorological department of the Board of Trade established in the UK with FitzRoy as head.
1857: Buys Ballot's Law.
1858: The Barometer and Weather Guide published by the UK Board of Trade.
1859: Loomis on The Law of Storms.
1860: Workman begins his weather journal in Toronto.
1861: First government storm warning service in the UK.
1862: "The Weather Book" published by FitzRoy.
1863: Sir John Herschel states a full moon brings a serene and calm night, "a tendency of which we have assurred ourselves by long-continued and registered observation."

1863: Galton coins the term anti-cyclone

1864: Ganges delta cyclone: 40,000 - 70,000 drowned
1864: "Saxby's Weather System" published
1866 (Dec): UK Meteorological Office discontinues weather warnings, to be reinstated 6 months later under public pressure.
"The Saxby Gale", October 4th in Eastern North America.
1869: Publication of "Weather Lore" by Richard Inwards.
1869: R.H. Scott on the work of the UK Meteorological Office.
1870: The US Secretary of War establishes a weather service within the army Department of Signals.
1871: Canada's Meteorological Service founded with Kingston as first head.
1872: UK Meteorological Office restarts daily weather reports.
1873: First Meteorological Congress (Vienna) leading to formation of the International Meteorological Organization.
1874: A major Great Lakes storm on
November 22, 23.
1875: Vennor's accurate long-range forecast
1875: Establishment of the Indian Meteorological Department

1876: Ganges delta cyclone: >100,000 drowned
1876: Storm warnings and weather forecasts for Eastern Canada first issued.
1877: Transmission of weather maps by telegraph.
1880: Teachings of the Tempest-  editorial
Wiggins' storm fails to arrive.
1883: Great Lakes Gale - interview
1890: US Weather Bureau formed in the Department of Agriculture
1893: South Carolina - Georgia Hurricane: 1,000 - 2,500 killed. Old Boreas Runs Amuck.
1893: Assman develops first aerological sonde
1896: Improving Weather Forecasts
1897: Establishment of a meteorological service in Zimbabwe
1898: Bjerknes first lectures on his circulation theorem with atmospheric and oceanic applications.
1898: The Merritton Tornado

1899: Puerto Rico - Carolinas hurricane: >3,000 killed

1900: Galveston hurricane: 6,000 - 10,000 killed. More than 86 fatalities in Canada
1903: Bjerknes lectures on "A Rational Method for Weather Prediction"

1907: Stupart on forecast benefits.
1910: The Practical Daily Work of the Toronto Observatory
1911: Richardson starts his work on numerical weather prediction.

1913: Hell Hath no Fury like a Great Lakes Fall StormNewspaper account
1914: Start of the Great War. British War Office rejects the offer of meteorological help ... "the Army does not go into action with umbrellas"
1918: By the end of the war four state weather services existed in the UK, the Navy, Army, Air Force and the Meteorological Office.
1919: The Bergen School

1929: Sir Frederic Stupart retires after 57 years with the Canadian Meteorological Service, 34 years as Director.
1940s: The requirement to calculate ballistic trajectories, taking into account weather conditions, was the stimulus for the development of ENIAC, the first electronic computor.

At the start of the 19th century most people used the weather almanac, and folklore weather forecasting.


Many people recorded weather observations in their journals.


Almanac weather predictions were often based on astronomical theories. There was widespread belief in the influence of the moon on weather.





Science was developing an empirical understanding of the structure and movement of storms.













In the latter half of the century technology, notably the telegraph, was harnessed and weather warnings and forecasts issued nationally in several countries.




Observations were restricted to those that could be made from the surface. The surface weather map prevailed.






The old astronomical techniques were given a veneer of science under the guise of astro -meteorology.





Reliability problems limited the utility of science-based forecasts.






The development of techniques for sounding the three-dimensional structure of the atmosphere, and of the dynamical equations of fluid motion, came in the early 20th century.



An Overlooked 20th Century Meteorologist

James E. McDonald (1920 - 1971) a US university professor, was the first to clearly lay out and quantify the link between ozone layer depletion, increase in ultraviolet radiation and skin cancer.   The link is to a paper published in the Congressional Record, Vol 117, No 39, S3484 - 3488, March 19, 1971, shortly before his death in June. McDonald is also notable for his views contrary to the official US government line on UFO events

Worthwhile reading:

For an overview of the development of meteorology, as distinct from weather prediction,  I recommend "A History of the Theories of Rain" by W. E. Knowles Middleton.

"The Weather Prophets: Science and Reputation in Victorian Meteorology" by Katharine Anderson, in History of Science, xxxvii (1999), 179-216

"Visions of the Future: Almanacs, Time and Cultural Change 1775-1870" by Maureen Perkins, 1996, published by Clarendon Press (particularly Chapter 6 "The Parent of a Hundred Superstitions")

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©1999-2003, John D. Reid