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Robert Fitzroy, Inventor of the Weather Forecast

This article was originally published in New Zealand Geographic, issue 99 September-October 2009

Robert FitzRoy is famous as captain of the Beagle on the voyage when Darwin made his discoveries, although many New Zealanders also know FitzRoy as Governor of New Zealand before George Grey. But to meteorologists, FitzRoy is famous as one of the pioneers of weather forecasting; indeed, FitzRoy coined the term “weather forecasting”. He was also a superb navigator and surveyor whose charts of South America were still in use more than 100 years after he made them.

Admiral Fitzroy

FitzRoy’s career got off to a strong start at 14 when he topped his class at the Royal Naval College then, after four years at sea as a midshipman, he became the first candidate ever to pass the Lieutenant’s exam with perfect marks.

Aged 23, he was given command of the Beagle, assisting Captain King surveying South America. Off the coast of Patagonia, a few months later, hurrying to a rendezvous, FitzRoy ignored the danger signs of a plunging barometer and threatening sky, with fatal consequences. A violent pampero wind caught the Beagle with too much sail and threw the vessel on her side. Topmasts and jib-boom were blown away, along with two sailors, who drowned.

FitzRoy ordered both anchors dropped which righted the Beagle and pulled her head into the wind, saving her from foundering. Praised for his seamanship in saving the vessel, FitzRoy felt he could have done better in anticipating the sudden onset of the gale. The coastline of Tierra del Fuego and Magellan Straits proved so complex that the survey was broken off and the expedition returned to England. The following year, the navy hydrographer, Captain Beaufort (now known for the Beaufort Scale for measuring wind strength) persuaded the Lords of the Admiralty to resume the survey and FitzRoy was ordered back to South America.

On this voyage, FitzRoy took Charles Darwin as a gentleman naturalist and companion. Constrained from conversing freely with officers under his command, FitzRoy needed someway to mitigate the loneliness of his position on such a long and stressful expedition. In fact, the previous commander of the Beagle had committed suicide after a breakdown.

The voyage, lasting from 1831 to 1836, was hailed as a triumph and FitzRoy honoured with the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society Medal. But the voyage eventually became famous for finding evidence for the theory of evolution, something that bitterly disappointed FitzRoy late in his life when Darwin’s Origin of the Species was finally published. By that time, FitzRoy’s religious views had hardened into a literal interpretation of the bible and he argued that large animals like dinosaurs had become extinct because the doors of Noah’s Ark were too small.

Four years after returning home, FitzRoy was elected to Parliament in 1841 as a Conservative, representing Durham in the Commons. There he worked to improve conditions in the merchantile marine including the regulation of those who wished to be masters or chief mates in the merchant fleets. He also was appointed a Conservator of the River Mersey and carried out a survey of conditions on that commercially important river. Many thought FitzRoy would go far, perhaps a Cabinet post or President of the Board of Trade, and most certainly a knighthood. But none that was to be. In the Spring of 1843, FitzRoy life took an unexpected turn when he was offered the position of Governor of New Zealand, which he dutifully and enthusiastically accepted.

Fitzroy In New Zealand

FitzRoy arrived in time to adjudicate the Wairau massacre, finding that the New Zealand Company settlers had no right to try to arrest Te Rauparaha but that Te Rangihaeata was wrong to have executed the prisoners taken in the affray. This infuriated the settlers while Te Rauparaha sent a message that FitzRoy should not trouble to send soldiers to find him at Waikanae as he would be happy to turn up in Wellington with a thousand warriors on any date FitzRoy cared to name. In less than two years, political allies of the New Zealand Company engineered FitzRoy’s recall while the settlers in Nelson burnt him in effigy. As the Gribbins point out in their biography, ironically FitzRoy was not recalled because of the citizens' petitions for his removal, nor any overall failing of his administration, but due to changing politics back home. With hindsight, we might well applaud FitzRoy for his governorship as he stood up for native rights.

FitzRoy’s voyage home was notable for a storm he forecast when the ship was anchored for the night in calm weather in Magellan Straits. Both FitzRoy’s barometers were falling fast but the captain ignored his warnings and retired below deck. Eventually, a young officer agreed to put out a heavy anchor on a heavy chain. When the storm struck at 2am, the heavy chain broke but tangled around the lighter chain. This was all that saved the ship from crashing into rocks and foundering with the loss of all onboard.

For the next years of his life, FitzRoy returned to his interest in the sea and the navy. He foresaw that the future of the Royal Navy lay in steamships, and he desired another command. In July 1848, he was assigned to oversee the outfitting of a new naval frigate: HMS Arrogant. Arrogant was a hybrid, a sailing ship equipped with a screw propeller turned by a steam engine. When the ship was commissioned the following March, FitzRoy was appointed its captain and set sail on a shakedown cruise.

During this time, FitzRoy, however, fell into a “black dog” depression and resigned to settle his affairs and regain his health, according to his own accounts. But this was his last command. His hopes of another were dashed by the excess of captains for ships in the Royal Navy. But while this may have been unsettling for FitzRoy, it paved the way for his place in meteorological history.

Weather Forecasting

The chance to develop his ideas on weather forecasting came to FitzRoy in 1854 when he was appointed Meteorological Statist to the Board of Trade. Initially tasked with compiling weather statistics for each part of the globe from ship’s logs, he took advantage of the invention of the telegraph to initiate forecasting. Barometers were distributed around the coast and their readings telegraphed to FitzRoy’s office every morning along with wind and temperature observations. Within hours a forecast would be telegraphed back. If FitzRoy thought a storm imminent, warning symbols of drums and cones were displayed from a mast.

The storm warnings proved both successful and popular, although not infallible. FitzRoy also sent forecasts to the daily papers. Whereas his storm warnings were displayed as soon as the telegram arrived, the newspaper forecasts usually took 24 hours to appear and their success judged on how well FitzRoy’s more speculative outlook day turned out.

In 1863, FitzRoy published The Weather Book containing his theories on how wind patterns and storms evolved as well as advice on how to use a barometer and a litany of horror stories of shipwrecks in storms.

FitzRoy’s illustration of the interaction of polar and tropical air masses looks remarkably like a modern satellite photo. From FitzRoy’s The Weather Book: a manual of practical meteorology, published in 1863.

FitzRoy was working 13 days a fortnight to improve his forecasts when criticism came to a head in parliament. FitzRoy had a nervous breakdown and took his own life on 30 April 1865. Born rich, FitzRoy died poor having expended much of his wealth advancing his work. A collection was taken up for the support of his widow and children. Notable among the contributors was Charles Darwin, who praised FitzRoy as ” an ardent friend to all under his sway.”

The storm warnings issued by FitzRoy’s staff were discontinued but soon reinstated by public demand and remain his greatest legacy. Also testament to his abilities is the number of people who served under him on the Beagle who went on to distinguished careers.

Today FitzRoy lives on in the name of one of the sea areas in the British marine forecasts, a mountain in Patagonia and numerous streets in New Zealand. SEE: Climate Change and its affects on New Zealand also Walker Circulation, El Nino and La Nina

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