2.1 “The Quicksilver Experiment:” and the Establishment of Tabular Data Recording in Early Instrumental Weather Observation

Tuesday, 12 January 2016: 1:30 PM
Room 231/232 ( New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center)
Brant M. Vogel, Independent Scholar, Brooklyn, NY

At the January 16, 1660/1 meeting of the Royal Society of London, the President Lord Brounker and several active members including Robert Boyle, Sir Christopher Wren and astronomer (and Society Treasurer) William Balle were “Appointed a Committee to bring in the History of the Quicksilver Experiment.” The barometer, as we know it, was not to be named as such until 1663, but had been the subject of experiment in England since Henry Power had worked on repeating Pascal's experiments with the “Torricellian tubes” in 1653. At a meeting almost a year later, December 4, 1661, Boyle was requested to bring in his results, and it was noted that “That Mr Ball bee pleased to bring in his relation of the Quicksilver Experiment.” Four weeks later, Balle brought in the observations he had been keeping since 1659 on his family land in Mamhead, Devon. The document was striking enough that it was ordered to be framed two months later. Not only had Balle recorded the changes of level of the mercury, but also the position of his thermometer ("weather glasse"), place, the winds, and the notable weather of the day, and laid them out in a tabular format, a format familiar to accountants, almanac makers, and, notably, astronomers. This document seems to have anticipated Wren and Robert Hooke's discussions of making a “history of the weather” c. 1663, and anticipates the format of Hooke's famous “Scheme for a History of the Weather” published in the Philosophical Transactions Num. 24 (April 8, 1667) and in Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society (London: 1667). Balle's idea as formalized theoretically and visually by Hooke, disseminated as it was in print, had the lasting effect of providing the weather diaries, published accounts, and observational programs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with something of a standard form–a synoptic table which lays out multiple variables and observations to one view. Late seventeenth century diaries, mostly for want of enough instruments, were not as comprehensive as Balle and Hooke's tables, but by the early eighteenth century this paradigm began to have influence throughout Europe and her colonies, with Johann Kanold publishing Hooke-style tables from around Europe in his Silesian journal (beginning 1717), and Royal Society Secretary James Jurin's 1723 international call for observations, which came complete with a template. Revived yet again by Roger Pickering in 1744, the table became the standard for gentlemen's diaries, scholarly journals, projects like the meteorological network of the Societas Meteorologica Palatina in the 1780s and 90s, numerous nineteenth century publications, and survives today in newspapers and web pages. What is common sense now, however, was startling enough in the 1660s to call for a frame and public display. This presentation traces the history of how this innovation became commonplace. [Image courtesy of The Royal Society]

Supplementary URL: https://youtu.be/Wwhu1Er3QiE

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