March 2021 Newsletter Meteorology

Robert Hooke and Meteorology: His Promotion of Citizen Science


In 1667 Robert Hooke notes in his diary ‘Rainy morn’.  It may be just one small entry for the acclaimed physicist, but it’s a giant leap for meteorology.  Read in conjunction with Hooke’s diary entries from July, this innocuous note is tremendously important:  it disproves the universally held fallacy that if it rains on St Swithun’s Day, 15 July, it will rain for the next forty days.  Hooke notes on 15 July ‘a pretty deal of rain’, then forty days of drought, followed by rain again today.

This is the Age of Enlightenment and Hooke, is pioneering a new methodology for objectively observing the weather.  Hooke is convinced that by recording and studying daily accurate, comparable observations it will be possible to deduce the laws of weather, and thereby forecast it.  He is way ahead of his time.  Modern meteorology defined by scientific rigour and institutionalized discipline will not emerge for two hundred years. But the balance is tipped.  Weather is no longer read as divine punishment, and predicted by lore and superstition, but as a science requiring steady accumulation of empirical data. The prospect of predicting the unpredictable is now real.  This is also the time when the weather first becomes a favoured topic of conversation for British people.

Hooke set out a systematic schedule of everything scientific weather observers should take note of (wind speed and direction, temperature humidity, air pressure, the appearance of the sky and so on.  Among these details Hooke was the first person to establish a standard list of terms to describe different kinds of cloud cover.

In 1663, his paper to the Royal Society – A Method for Making a History of the Weather – sets out his template for keeping a weather journal with eight immutable criteria.  It encourages several other members of the Society, including the philosopher John Locke to do so.  Hooke was envisaging an example of what is now called Citizen Science, in which observers around the country would record the weather.

In order to make histories quantitative, observers required standard instruments, and these were developed and promoted by Hooke.  Hooke had several instruments for recording the weather, but the one he mentions most often in his diary is the wheel barometer.  Originally an intriguing instrument for making experimental demonstrations about the nature of air and vacuums, the glass tube filled with mercury gradually transformed into a device for measuring atmospheric pressure .  It was named ‘wheel barometer’ by Robert Boyle in 1663.  Hooke described his own ‘wheel barometer’, in which small rises or falls in a column of mercury caused by changing atmospheric pressure were made visible by the rotation of a pointer,  in the preface to Micrographia. 

Image showing Hooke’s wheel barometer, hygrometer and wind gauge

Hooke’s weather report for Sunday 10 March 1672:

(mercury) fell from 170 to 185.  Most part of ye Day cleer but cold & somewhat windy at the South – (I  was this morning better with my cold then I had been 3 months before (moon) apogeum – it grew cloudy about 4 (mercury falling still)

What is Citizen Science?

Citizen Science is the collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists. 

The promotion of Citizen Science has become popular with the media, and funders of scientific projects, as a way of engaging the general public in science. Favorite projects have been the recording, at specified times, of natural history (butterflies, birds etc) observed in participants’ gardens.  A more exotic project has been the recruiting of the public to assist with a vast backlog of satellite images of space.  Participants were taught how to classify galaxies based on their shape. Quality control was achieved by showing the same images to a number of participants and looking for consistency in the classifications they assigned, or otherwise.

Hooke’s proposed citizen science was taken up by a small number of professional gentlemen and members of the nobility rather than the public of the day that did not have spare time or the resources.   Hooke thought such observations could be used to forecast the weather. 

On the 6 October 1664 Hooke wrote to Boyle to tell him of a great discovery he had made using one of these barometers:

‘I have also since my settling at Gresham college, which been now full five weeks constantly observed the baroscpial index… and have found it most certainly to predict rainy and cloudy weather, when it falls very low;  and dry and clear weather, when it riseth very high, which if it continues to do, as I have hitherto observed it, I hope it will help us one step towards the raising a theoretical pillar, or pyramid, from the top of which, when raised and ascended, we may be able to see the mutations of the weather at some distance before they approach us, and thereby, being able to predict and forewarn, many dangers may be prevented, and the good of mankind very much promoted.’

Hooke’s vision would not be fulfilled until two centuries later when Admiral Robert FitzRoy ‘invented the weather forecast’ based on the kind of links between atmospheric pressure and weather that Hooke had discovered.

One of the earliest modern citizen science enterprises will have been recording the weather (keeping weather diaries).  Such historic records have been aggregated to make one of the resources used to plot climate change.

For more than 30 years, Meteorological observations have been made on behalf of the Island at Shanklin by Clive Cooper.



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