SciencePunk

i-65be51775fb4657e19a50a4e585279e9-barometerw.jpgAs it’s shaping up to be my final days in Devon, me and my #1 Nerd travelled to Barometer World, a pilgrimage we’d been promising to make since the start of summer. As the name suggests, it’s a Mecca of meteorological wonder, boasting hundreds of aneroid and mercury barometers, barographs, thermometers, hygrometers and thunder bottles. It’s a bargain at £2.50 and I encourage everyone to go.

What intrigued me most of all, though, was the strange crystals attached to many of the old barometers. This, I was told, was storm glass, a curiosity whose origins are hidden in the mists of time.


i-4fd42c0dc0ee2293a4d9a560b5015a87-Storm_glass.jpgBack in the day, mercury barometers were very expensive, and only available to the wealthy. Unfortunately “wealthy” was not a word that could describe many of those who were at the mercy of the weather: farmers, fishermen, sailors, and so on. They had to rely on storm glass, an inexpensive and profoundly inaccurate divining tool. A mixture of chemicals in a sealed glass tube present a liquid that shifts from solid to crystalline under circumstances that still aren’t full understood. From these fluctuating patterns, predictions were made about the approaching weather.

In 1831, a tempestuous sea captain named Robert FitzRoy (nickname: “Hot Coffee”) set out on a voyage to chart the coasts of South America (you may have heard of the voyage: on board was a young naturalist named Charles Darwin). FitzRoy had a keen interest in meteorology and attempted to quantify the exact nature of storm glass. His observations eventually led to a standard script printed on many storm glasses, such as “A cloudy glass with small stars indicates thunderstorms” and “If there are crystals at the bottom, this indicates frost“.

In October 1859 a huge storm, the greatest in living memory, struck the British Isles. The clipper Royal Charter, on her way from Melbourne and packed with returning gold miners, was sunk with the loss of 459 lives, as were some 200 other ships. It was a national disaster. In response, FitzRoy pushed for the establishment of weather stations around the nation’s coasts to monitor atmospheric conditions. Storm glasses were distributed to fishing villages, earning them the name “FitzRoy’s Barometers”. In fact, it was FitzRoy who coined the term “weather forecast” in the course of his initiative. Reports from the land stations were sent back to London, under the management of the newly-formed Meteorological Office. The first weather forecasts published in the pages of the Times in 1860, and a system of flying cones in fishing ports to warn sailors of approaching gales developed the following year. To this day, the Met Office monitors the weather around Britain and issues regular warnings to mariners. Originally, the owners of fishing fleets objected to the system, as it meant boats were more likely to stay in port, but the fishermen themselves welcomed it, and FitzRoy is credited with saving untold lives. One of the areas covered in the Shipping Forecast, a stretch of ocean north-west of Spain, is designated FitzRoy in honour of the man. Sadly, having secretly exhausted his entire fortune in the drive to build a better weather prediction system, and battling with depression, FitzRoy committed suicide in 1863.

As mercury barometers fell in price, the mysterious and inaccurate storm glass fell out of favour, and was largely forgotten. As such, nobody is exactly sure how they work, and little research has been carried out to investigate their workings. Cecil Adams of Snopes The Straight Dope had a go, and found their predictions to be no better than chance. The fluid consists of a mix of camphor crystals, potassium nitrate, ammonium chloride, water and alcohol. As the glasses are sealed, it’s unlikely that pressure is responsible for the changes. Changes in solubility due to temperature are far more likely, but who’s to say unless you investigate it yourself?

Which brings me to my final point: all five ingredients of the storm glass aren’t that hard to get hold of. So maybe it’s time to run a few experiments of my own…

 

Part 2! Geek romance: making a storm glass pendant

Comments

  1. #1 Bee
    September 21, 2011

    Interesting. When I was a kid I had a clay pony covered with some crystal whose color was supposed to predict a weather change. I later learned it was cobalt cloride, and it doesn’t actually predict the weather (that much I figured myself ;-)) but is sensitive to humidity (see Wikipedia).

  2. #2 Frank the SciencePunk
    September 21, 2011

    Yes! They have some of these at the Barometer Museum, little dolls and stuff that change colour according to the humidity. Very cute.

  3. #3 James of Putney
    September 21, 2011

    Earlier this year I finally got around to reading “This Thing of Darkness” by Harry Thompson, a historical novel about FitzRoy and Darwin (largely fact-based, so far as I can tell).

    The novel incorporates a good deal of scientific discussion (meteorology, geology, paleontology, cartography, anthropology and – of course – evolutionary theory) and is also quite moving. Recommended.

  4. #4 KeithB
    September 21, 2011

    Cecil Adams writes “The Straight Dope”, he has no connection with Snopes. They also have no connection with Feldman who wrote “The imponderables” series.

  5. #5 Frank the SciencePunk
    September 21, 2011

    Thanks Keith – fixed.

  6. #6 Art
    September 21, 2011

    I can’t but wonder about testing done on a modern storm glass. The term storm glass seems to have been, over several hundred years and around most of the globe, to have been applied to a number of different items with only roughly similar designs and a wide variety of fillings.

    There is “camphor crystals, potassium nitrate, ammonium chloride, water and alcohol” in some indeterminate mix but there are also ‘shark oil’ storm glasses and more widely many of the early barometers, some quite simple affairs (filled with water, alcohol, to keep it from freezing, and sometimes some coloring) were, as I understand it, sometimes popularly called storm glasses.

    While it is possible that people have made up various versions of glasses and fillings which change semi-randomly I find it hard to believe that all such glasses were useless. Especially since even the simplest vacuum-held water column provides some utility.

    There is also the simple fact that modern Hammacher Schlemmer is not claiming historic accuracy nor the devices ability to predict weather. Testing their storm glass offering is not likely to provide results more meaningful that testing a movie set cyclotron. It is intended as a visual wonder, and conversation piece.

  7. #7 Notebookdepo
    September 24, 2011

    Thank you eeleman

  8. #8 Jimbo92107
    September 25, 2011

    It’s not that storm glass doesn’t work, but rather that it needs be used with a complimentary tool. I would suggest consulting weather radar, then using the storm glass as a pointer while saying, “I’m thinkin’ thar be storms a-comin’ from that a way.”

  9. #9 BEN GREGO
    February 25, 2012

    I’ve had mine now for over two months; doesn’t do a darn thing! I have kept it in one place for 2 weeks, nothing; moved it to a 2nd place for 2 – 3 weeks, nothing; now it’s in a fourth location and after a week – nothing…….

    So can anyone tell me what the heck I’m doing wrong? It is in my living room, away from draftt, etc. All I get is the majority of the ‘stuff’ at the bottom and a very thin layer on top, which the sheet says indicates ‘wind higher up’..not much of a forecast……..am so disappointed, and look forward to hearing from others!!

  10. #10 susie25
    London
    December 16, 2012

    I bought one from bits and pieces, mine isn’t doing anything either, i also followed the instructions, beginning to wonder if who ever is producing them isn’t making them properly, the order of the solutions mixture could be wrong somewhere or just elaborate fakes.

  11. #11 donna
    NJ
    January 21, 2013

    I bought one for Xmas and it’s not doing anything either ! I followed the directions , and we have had all different types of weather and still it has done nothing. we have a chance of snow this week and I’m waitng to see some action from my Fitzroy !

    • #12 Frank the SciencePunk
      January 23, 2013

      Where did you buy yours from? If you can access the fluid, perhaps you could try tinkering with the proportions of chemicals!

  12. #13 Dee
    PA
    January 27, 2013

    Purchased from bits n pieces as well for a Christmas gift. Followed the instructions after shipping and did the same as Susie25..still nothing!

  13. #14 Maggie
    IN
    May 14, 2013

    Originally, the storm glass would have been mounted to the mast of a ship outside in the elements. Today’s storm glasses need to be near a window or closest to the outside as possible from inside the house to function.
    I’ve had mine for a month on a south facing three season porch and it reacts to our twitchy Midwestern weather 48 hours in advance. It’s been accurate so far.
    Folks may have to move the storm glass around to find the location where the glass functions best.

  14. #15 Malc
    United Kingdom
    November 23, 2013

    Had one a year, from bits and pieces. Moved the damn thing all over the house, nothing. How that sailor chappie made admiral with a duffer like this I’ll never know. Useless

  15. #16 Judy
    NY
    January 3, 2014

    It appears that my comment/question was deleted when I had to correct my Email. The question concerned the storm glass from Bits N Pieces. The directions were somewhat unclear as to whether the crystals needed to be dissolved, using a hair dryer or shaking?or just shaken slightly and moved to the bottom of the tube. It seems to change a bit so something is happening, not sure id it is really forecasting.

    Thanks for any info and happy 2014.

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