Today (30th April) is the 150th anniversary of the death of Vice Admiral Robert FitzRoy, the founder of the Met Office. FitzRoy joined the Navy when he was just 12 years old and made his name as commander of several ships including HMS Beagle, made famous by the voyages of Charles Darwin. FitzRoy met Darwin in 1831 inviting him aboard the Beagle, as a fellow gentleman, to keep him company during the long journey, thus changing the course of history forever. Today the voyage of the Beagle is synonymous with Darwin, however, as the ship’s captain, FitzRoy played a crucial role in the journey. FitzRoy became an MP during the 1840s and introduced a Bill dramatically improving safety at sea by introducing qualifications for ships masters and mates. FitzRoy continued to advance his naval career and was appointed Director of the Meteorological Office in 1854. The dawn of weather forecasting
Following the disastrous Royal Charter Storm of October 1859, FitzRoy lobbied for permission to establish a Gale Warning Service for the protection of shipping. Observations from stations around the British Isles were sent to London and gale warnings were issued when necessary. Using a system of cones and drums, the direction from which the gale would strike was displayed for ships both in port and passing along the coast. Possibly the first national forecasting and warning system in the world the service continues to this day as the ‘Shipping Forecast’. FitzRoy felt that ‘prediction’ and ‘foretelling’ sounded too unscientific for a process based on the developing science of meteorology so he coined the term ‘weather forecast’. His first public weather forecast, published in his own hand writing, was published in the Times on 1 August 1861. Although he had been given Government backing to establish a Gale Warning service, FitzRoy had no permission to establish public forecasts, nevertheless they were very popular. Queen Victoria used to contact FitzRoy for forecasts a few days before making journeys to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Indeed, on the last day he attended the office it was to telegraph a forecast to the Queen. Scientific and meteorological work FitzRoy felt strongly that not enough was done to protect the lives of sailors and fishermen and he devised a new barometer for use in fishing harbours. They were placed where all could see them and were designed to be easy to read and interpret, FitzRoy’s barometers were credited with saving hundreds of lives and FitzRoy paid for many of them himself, exhausting his own personal fortune. A few barometers survive in situ at fishing ports around the British Isles, including Mousehole in Cornwall. FitzRoy’s The Weather Book: A manual of practical meteorology, written during a Summer Holiday in 1863, was a leading work on meteorological science and techniques and marked the beginning of an era of major advances in meteorology and guided the science into the 20th century. Death and legacy FitzRoy was a pioneer of meteorology and forecasting and was, in many ways, a man ahead of his time. A workaholic who once declared, ‘I’d rather wear out than rust out’, FitzRoy increasingly struggled with depression. The pressure of work and criticism took a severe toll on his health and, on 30 April 1865, FitzRoy took his own life. He was buried in unconsecrated ground within the front churchyard of All Saint’s Church, Upper Norwood. His entire fortune of £6,000 (equivalent to around £400,000 today) had been exhausted on public service. FitzRoy was the world’s first full-time weather forecaster. As a pioneering meteorologist and founding father of the Met Office, FitzRoy made accurate weather forecasting a reality. To this day, the Met Office is proud of this outstanding scientific legacy and strives to continue operating at the forefront of scientific discovery.