Science won tribal dispute with the navy over meteorology

22 November 2017

Weather forecasts are among the scientific achievements which have become an indispensable part of our society. But how did the discipline of meteorology develop into an independent academic field as it was shaped in the period between 1830 and 1870? And who were the main players? While conducting her historical inquiries, researcher Azadeh Achbari came across a power struggle between the navy and science, which was ultimately decided in favour of the latter. She defended her PhD thesis at VU Amsterdam. Her research was made possible with funding from the NWO Mosaic programme.

Photo: Shutterstock

Although research had already been conducted into the history of meteorology in the UK and the US, Azadeh Achbari chose to take a much broader and far-reaching international perspective by including the role played by navy officers; an aspect that had hitherto received little attention. When national and international observation networks were set up out at sea, scientists from universities were not the only ones to play an important role: naval navigation units also significantly advanced the field. The governments of seafaring countries (the UK, the Netherlands and France) contributed too. Changing alliances between these groups resulted in the institutionalisation of meteorology.

Scientific foundation

Azadeh Achbari: ‘Naval officers built large-scale networks to map wind patterns and ocean currents in their search for fast and safe navigation routes. That required international cooperation and standardisation. They made contact with professors at universities to give their projects scientific substantiation. Conversely, this collaboration gave academics the chance to emphasise the societal relevance of their science in order to obtain government support.’

Science and the navy drew attention to the strategic advantages – in both a commercial and military sense – which would arise from joint research into wind patterns and ocean currents. Both parties were thus able to legitimise the importance of financial support from their governments for setting up national meteorological institutions. In the Netherlands, this resulted in the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI), founded by the senior meteorologist Christophorus Buys Ballot in 1854.

Neither the naval officers nor the academics were satisfied with a subordinate position, Achbari contends. There was fierce rivalry between the two groups. The dominant role played by naval officers dissipated in the second half of the nineteenth century as meteorology based on the study of averages took precedence over meteorology based on local weather conditions where geographical factors were taken into account. Eventually, academics successfully occupied positions of authority in the new scientific institutions.

Even Buys Ballot abruptly lost his European status, Achbari recounts in an aside. A few years after his ‘wind rule’ was changed to a ‘wind law’, Buys Ballot was appointed chairman of the meteorological congress in Vienna in 1873. He also chaired the permanent international meteorological committee, achieving huge success. But during the Viennese deliberations, Buys Ballot was forced to back down on two of his proposals to increase the accuracy of meteorological observations worldwide. The representatives took the view that the methods and standards he proposed were not in line with the new standards of the professionalising discipline. The navy’s navigators and academic pioneers such as Buys Ballot had both had their day.

Additional information

 Azadeh Achbari (1980) completed her thesis ‘Rulers of the winds’ as part of NWO’s Mosaic project ‘Global science from a Dutch perspective: Dutch participation in 19th-century Humboldtian networks’ at the Faculty of Physical Sciences, VU Amsterdam. Her supervisors were professor Frans van Lunteren and professor Karel Davids.

Source: NWO