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This timeline lets you see the historical developments in technology related to weather monitoring, measuring and forecasting. It also shows how scientific thinking changed over the centuries as modern science developed, and how society has influenced scientific thinking. A full transcript is underneath the timeline.

Measuring the weather – a timeline

  • Technological processes and inventions
  • Developing scientific ideas and concepts
  • Societal influences


Technological processes and inventions

Although a scientist may be credited with a new idea or the invention of new tools or technology, in many cases, these developments are built upon the foundations laid by earlier work. In some cases, attributing the actual credit for an idea or invention is very difficult and often debated. Over time, many refinements in weather tools continue to be made as new materials, technologies and understandings are developed.

Developing scientific ideas and concepts

Scientists build their research and theories upon the knowledge and understandings of earlier scientists. Over time, these ideas and techniques can be revised or replaced in the light of new research. Many changes to key science ideas are accepted gradually and are tested through research by many people. Many of the entries in this column illustrate how and when some of the fundamental aspects of the nature of modern science first developed.

Societal influences

Some of the developments in weather monitoring technology were able to occur due to the development, influence and transfer of ideas and technology from other fields of science. Some ideas and inventions were also heavily influenced by the societal and religious background of the times. 

Technological processes and inventions

3000 BC – Beginnings of meteorology

Ancient Indian writings are the first to include discussions about the weather, cloud formations and so on.

650 BC – Babylonians predict the weather

The Babylonians use cloud observations to make weather predictions.

600 BC – First public weather forecasts

Weather forecasts in Greece are formally issued to help people plan their seasonal cropping activities. The study of weather patterns becomes known as meteorology. This term comes from the Greek word ‘meteoros’, which means ‘high in the sky’.

400–500 BC – First rainfall records kept

Rain gauges are one of the most ancient weather instruments. Ancient Greeks and people in India are the first known to keep rainfall records. These rain gauges are relatively simple – containers designed to collect rain.

350 BC – Weather patterns described by Aristotle

Greek philosopher Aristotle writes Meteorology, which describes all current knowledge about climate and weather.

206 BC – First hygrometers used

Hygrometers measure the humidity of the air. Ancient hygrometers are in use in China during the Western Han dynasty and help the Chinese planning to plant crops.

200 BC – Compasses invented in China

Compasses work on the principle that the Earth has a magnetic field that the magnetic pointer aligns with. This enables direction to be determined.

Image: Creative Commons 3.0

100 BC – Windsocks used

Windsocks originally come from Japan and China, but no one is sure exactly how long they have been used. Windsocks are used as a basic guide to wind direction and speed.

48 BC – Earliest weather vane erected

The earliest weather vane we know about is built in Greece by the astronomer Andronicus and erected in honour of the Greek god Triton. It is in the shape of a man with the tail of a fish and measures between 4 and 8 feet long. A weather vane points in the direction of least resistance, with the front end having less resistance than the back, thereby showing the direction of the wind. Try the activity Making a weather vane and compass.

10–70 – Thermoscopes invented

Hero of Alexandria invents the first thermoscope. It demonstrates changes in heat by showing the expansion and contraction of water within a sealed glass tube. Thermoscopes are the forerunners of thermometers.

950 – Māori weather forecasting begins

Close observation of environmental clues allows Māori to develop localised systems for weather prediction.

Image: Dmitry Pichugin, 123RF Ltd

1441 – First standardised rain gauge

The first standardised rain gauge is invented in Korea. It is called a Cheugugi and is 32 cm high with a diameter of 15 cm.

Image: Model of ancient Korean rain gauge invented by Jang Yeong-sil, courtesy Steve46814, Creative Commons 3.0

1450 – First mechanical anemometer

Leon Battista Alberti is the original inventor of the anemometer, which is later improved upon by Robert Hooke. Try the activity Making an anemometer.

Image: Version of a cup anemometer, ca. 1846. Public domain.

1450 – First western hygrometer

A hygrometer measures humidity – the amount of moisture in the air.

The first of these is attributed to Nicolas of Cusa, based on a design drawn by Leonardo Da Vinci.

1593 – 1700s – Development of thermometers and temperature scales

From 1593, several inventors, including Isaac Newton, work on the idea of measuring temperature. Try the activity Making a thermometer.

1612 – Human temperature measured

From 1593, several inventors work on the idea of measuring temperature. In 1612, Italian inventor Santorio Santorio adds a numerical scale on his thermoscope and it is used to take human temperature.

1643 – First barometer

Evangelista Torricelli invents the first barometer – his first version is over 35 feet tall! The word barometer is derived from the Greek word ‘baros’, meaning weight, and the Greek word ‘metron’, meaning measure. It measures changes in air pressure. High air pressure tends to indicate fair weather, and low air pressure can indicate poor or rainy weather. Early barometers contain water, but later versions contain mercury. Try the activity Making a barometer.

Image: Liquid barometer, ClipArt

1714 – First reliable thermometer

Daniel Fahrenheit is credited with the invention of the first reliable thermometer, constructed using glass and mercury. He is also credited with the production of the first reproducible thermometers in 1709, where different thermometers could be produced showing the same temperature in the same situation.

Image: Late 18th century mercury thermometer, courtesy Museo Galileo, Creative Commons 4.0

1724 – Fahrenheit temperature scale devised

Daniel Fahrenheit devises the first reliable temperature scale where ice melts at 32°, body temperature is 98.6° and water boils at 212°. The Fahrenheit scale is still used in the USA today.

1742 – Celsius temperature scale devised

Anders Celsius suggests temperature should be measured on a 100-point scale, where the boiling point of water is 0° and freezing point is 100°.

1744 – Modern Celsius scale developed

The Celsius scale developed by Celsius in 1742 is reversed in 1744 when Carl Linnaeus suggests it makes better sense to show freezing at 0°C and boiling at 100°C. This scale is now the standard scale for everyday temperature recording throughout most of the world.

1783 – Hygrometer developments

A more reliable hygrometer is developed by Horace Benedict de Saussure. It uses a human hair that curls or straightens due to different humidity in the air.

Image: Early hygrometer made by Andrew J Lloyd, early 20th century. Public domain.

1802 – Clouds given Latin names

Different types of clouds are described and named in Latin – the international language of science at the time. Try the activity Clouds and the weather.

1806 – Beaufort wind speed scale devised

Francis Beaufort devises a system for describing wind speeds based on the effects they have on the environment. This is called the Beaufort scale.

1844 – Aneroid barometer invented

First invented by Lucien Vidi, a French scientist, this barometer doesn’t contain liquid as most previous designs have. Small changes in air pressure cause the mechanism within to expand or contract, and this movement is transferred to a needle on the front of the case. This design has been improved steadily over the years and is the basis of modern barometers.

Barometer readings are the basis of all weather forecasting as the changes in air pressure are predictive of future weather, unlike many of the other weather instruments. The units used are atmospheres (atm) or bars. One atm/bar is the air pressure at sea level at 15°C.

Image: Inner workings of an aneroid barometer, ca. 1905. Public domain.

1846 – The Invention of the cup anemometer

The cup anemometer is invented by English astronomer John Robinson. ‘Anemos’ is the Greek word for wind. Anemometers measure wind speed – wind will make the cups of an anemometer spin around, the speed of the spin depending on the strength of the wind. Wind speed is measured in knots or on the Beaufort scale.

1847 – First independent weather station

A stable kite is sent up in the air in England to make observations at altitude, using self-recording instruments.

1848 – Kelvin temperature scale devised

Lord Kelvin devises the Kelvin temperature scale, which is used by scientists worldwide. It has the same magnitude as Celsius but starts with 0° at absolute zero (the coldest temperature anything in the universe can be), which is the equivalent of -273.55°C.

Image: Lord Kelvin. Public domain

1860 – Co-ordinated weather forecasting

Fitzroy in England is collecting data and publishing his weather forecasts and the Smithsonian Institution in America is doing the same. Over the next few years, meteorological organisations are set up worldwide.

1893 – First pyranometer

A pyranometer measures solar radiation. These are developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and continue to develop today. They are now included as a piece of standard equipment in most weather stations.

1896 – First documented use of weather balloons

Leon Teisserenc launches thousands of weather balloons in France, and his work contributes greatly to our understandings about the atmosphere.

Image: University of Waikato

1905 – Ship to shore weather reports

Ships gain access to relevant weather information and forecasts from land-based stations via radio and are also able to send weather reports from the sea to the shore.

1926 – Anemometer improvements

Canadian scientist John Patterson invents the three-cup anemometer for the Meteorological Service of Canada. Anemometers continue to be developed from this time that have greater accuracy and far less error, calculating wind speed from the average cup speed.

Image: A weather station with a 3 cup anemometer on top. Thitiwat Junkasemkullanunt, 123RF Ltd.

1940 onwards – Radar is used to observe the weather

Radar is used to generate precise weather predictions and storm and hurricane warnings as well as allowing for improved understandings of weather systems.

1960 – First successful weather satellite launched

TIROS–1 spends 78 days recording and relaying thousands of weather images to NASA.

1969 – Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale created

Although hurricanes had been named for centuries and given personal names since 1887, they are now given alphabetical names and the strength is now given on a scale of 1–5. The Saffir-Simpson scale is widely used internationally, although New Zealand tends to use the Australian Tropical Cyclone Category System.

1971 – The Fujita scale for rating tornadoes introduced

Japanese-American storm researcher Ted Fujita develops a scale for rating tornadoes.

1975 – First geostationary operational environmental satellite launched

This satellite is designed to track hurricanes and is the first of the sophisticated set of weather monitoring satellites in orbit today.

Image: Satellite image of Cyclone Gita (February 2018), courtesy of MetService NZ.

1980 – Satellite receiving equipment installed in NZ

Dishes are installed to collect weather information from both geostationary and polar orbiting satellites.

1989 onwards – Weather radar installations in NZ

Starting with Mount Tamahunga in Auckland in 1989 and prioritising cities with international airports, weather radar is installed systematically across the country.

1995 onwards – NZ launches own weather satellites

New Zealand launches several satellites to provide local weather data. This technology improves with time, providing better resolution images and more useful information.

1999 – First high-performance computing facility in NZ

NIWA sets up the first high-performance computing facility, which includes a supercomputer (FitzRoy) to deal with all the data related to NIWA’s various research tasks and also generates weather forecasts for the public.

2000 onwards – Automated weather recordings in NZ

Automatic weather stations systems are developed, allowing for automated weather observations to be reported every minute.

Developing scientific ideas and concepts

3000 BC – Use of observational data

Careful observation of the natural world is inherent within all societies across the world to build understandings of how the world works. Observations of local weather patterns are important for survival, and this knowledge is often understood by all members of a society.

600 BC onwards – Meteorology develops as a subject

Meteorology continues to be a subject of discussion for scientists and philosophers for many centuries BC across the northern hemisphere and through until the early AD centuries. People who specialise in meteorology often use the information to generate useful weather predictions that are sometimes shared with the general public.

950 – Mātauranga Māori

Over time, through observation and by developing a close relationship with the environment, Māori build the understandings needed to interpret environmental clues about weather and climate in Aotearoa. Much of this knowledge is finely attuned to particular regions.

1441 – Standardisation

The first standardised rain gauge represents an example of the value of standardisation to science. Standardisation of equipment, measurements and processes allow comparisons to be made from place to place and over time. This is an important aspect of modern science.

1500s–1900 – Latin increasingly used for scientific vocabulary

As modern science develops in Europe from the time of the Renaissance, the use of Latin as the preferred scientific language increases. By the 1890s, most specialist scientific vocabulary is in Latin. A common language allows for scientific definitions and concepts to be clearly communicated across the world.

1624 – The term thermometer is coined

Up until this time, the concept of temperature – comparing hot versus cold on a scale – hasn’t been commonly understood and no one has yet successfully devised a device or scale to measure it. The word thermometer is derived from the Greek word ‘thermos’, meaning hot, and the Greek word ‘metron’, meaning measure. Several temperature scales are developed.

Image: University of Waikato

1600 onwards – Collaboration of scientists

Evangelista Torricelli is one of many Italian mathematicians and scientists working in the time of Galileo. This is a time of the scientific renaissance where natural philosophy is being replaced by modern science and many scientists are working together, building on each other’s ideas and developing new understandings about the natural world.

Image: Painting of Evangelista Torricelli by Lorenzo Lippi (circa 1647). Public domain

1600s–1800s – Scientific revolution

Accumulation of knowledge about the world is well under way across all fields of science. This is epitomised by the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia in 1687. Many scientists work in a variety of fields. See some of our other timelines for other major discoveries around this time, for example, History of gases and plasmas.

Image: Andrew Dunn, Creative Commons 2.0 Generic

1774 – Systematic collection of barometric readings

Systematic collection of data is integral to the development of modern science. The Royal Society in England begins to take and record twice-daily barometric readings in 1774 and allows long-term records to be kept.

1857 – Link made between isobars and wind

Dutch meteorologist Christopher Buys-Ballot makes the link between isobars and wind and comes up with an easy rule to follow – for the southern hemisphere, “To look into the wind, the low pressure is on the left.”

1860 – Using data to predict the weather

Using data from a variety of sources to create a picture is fundamental to modern science. Robert Fitzroy, captain of Darwin’s ship HMS Beagle from 1828–1836, becomes known as the father of forecasting. He pioneers the science of weather forecasting, combining observations and data from weather monitoring instruments to make predictions about the weather, which are then regularly reported to the public.

1861 – NZ Government involved in meteorology

An auditor is appointed by the New Zealand Government to begin a programme of regular weather observations. This involves buying the first state-owned thermometers.

1882 – First weather maps published in NZ

Leading New Zealand newspapers start regularly publishing weather maps for the public.

1874 – Storm warnings issued to ships and harbours in NZ

Responsibility for forecasting the weather, using all the information available at the time, is taken on by the Marine Department. Storm warnings are issued that help harbourmasters around the country to make decisions to reduce shipwrecks, and the system is adopted after a successful trial.

1928 – New applications of technology

Air pressure changes with altitude. Specially adapted portable barometers, called altimeters, are used to measure the height above or below sea level. Paul Kollsman invents the world’s first accurate altimeter in 1928. It converts barometric pressure into distance above sea level in feet, allowing pilots to fly blind.

1992 – NZ MetService and NIWA established

MetService is mandated to provide national weather services for New Zealand, based on information collected from a wide variety of sources. NIWA is mandated to “promote and facilitate the application of the results of research and technological developments”. This is an example of a co-ordinated approach to the gathering, analysis and sharing of scientific data between scientists and between scientists and the public.

1996 – Public weather broadcasts

This is an example of a trend where science is being shared with the public – it is no longer just the domain of the experts

Societal influences

3000 BC – Early weather forecasting

All societies rely upon the weather for survival, so we can assume that weather forecasting is practised well before written records begin. Many indigenous societies pass on their weather–reading skills orally.

600 BC – Urbanisation

Many members of society are working closely with the land, and urbanisation is also occurring. Weather forecasting is developing into a specialised skill, with information being gathered and then disseminated to the general public. 

100 BC – Windsocks in battle and on the sea

The wind sail, originally used to direct oxygen into a ship’s lower compartments, may have inspired the development of the windsock in the Western world. By the time of the Romans, windsocks are known in Europe – the Romans use them as military banners.

Image: Modern windsock, Adaptice, 123RF Ltd. Roman military banner (or draco) in re-enactment, B.Codrin, Creative Commons 3.0

48 BC – Weather vanes become popular

It is popular for the houses of the wealthy Greeks around this time to have weather vanes erected on the roof. They are often very ornate, as the wind is thought to have divine powers.

800 – Papal decree

The Pope decrees that all churches have a weather vane shaped as a rooster placed on their steeple or dome to remind people of their faith – this is where the term weather cock comes from.

Image: Close up detail from the Bayeux Tapestries (ca. 1065) of a weather vane being installed on Westminster Abbey. Public domain.

950 onwards – Māori knowledge of weather

As Māori arrive in Aotearoa, they have to learn about their new environment. Over the centuries, they develop extensive knowledge about local weather and climate conditions. These learnings form the basis of traditional and modern agriculture, fishing, medicine, education and kaitiakitanga (guardianship).

1300 onwards – Compasses in common use

Compasses are used as navigation devices across the northern hemisphere from China to Western Europe.

Image: Nautical compass from the 16th century. Luis García, Creative Commons 3.0

1600 onwards – The beginnings of modern science

The views of the natural world held by the church are being increasingly challenged. This era is the first in Europe where the world is being measured and not simply accepted as divine.

1642 onwards – Ships record weather observations around NZ

From the first encounters of Europeans with the New Zealand climate, much weather information is recorded – mostly in ships’ logs, as recording the weather at sea is routine. The influence of shipping on weather reporting continues until shipping becomes the less dominant form of transport around New Zealand.

1830s and 1840s – Telegraph machines invented

The development of the telegraph machine makes the collection of a range of weather data from various regions possible, as it allows information to be sent across long distances. Increased ability to communicate efficiently is transforming how both society and science operate.

Image: Morse telegraph machine, F.Sergio, 123RF Ltd

1844 onwards – Barometers become very common

Barometers become very popular and are common in homes and on farms, boats and small aircraft, as well as being used in meteorology.

1904 – Electronics history begins

With the invention of the vacuum diode by JA Fleming in 1904, the history of electronics begins. Electricity is new, and applications of this new technology revolutionise society and the possibilities for science. Accuracy in weather forecasting and measurement improve with every generation of electronic technological development.

1925 – Windsocks common at all airports

Of all pieces of weather equipment, the windsock has remained the least altered in terms of design and technology.

1905 – Weather reports are sent from ship to shore

The invention and improvements of radio allow data to be sent long distances quickly and allows for more accurate weather forecasting.

1935 onwards – Radar is used to improve weather forecasting

Practical radar systems are developed and a variety of applications ensue, including the development of more accurate weather forecasting. It also allows weather to be viewed on a bigger, more international scale.

1960 onwards – Satellites and space technology

The development of space technology and the capability to launch craft high in the atmosphere allows for the development of weather monitoring technology on a global level.

1970 onwards – Weather radar networks expand worldwide

Weather radar is becoming standardised and develops into networks where various agencies across the world can share and compare data. This is an example of the increasing co-operation of scientists and the sharing of scientific data on a global scale.

1992 – Crown Research Institutes Act

In a world first, New Zealand alters its approach to public science and establishes a commercial company, NZ MetService, owned by the government, to create money that will support the science of weather forecasting and reduce the costs to the taxpayer. NIWA is also established as a CRI to “provide understanding of climate and the atmosphere and increase resilience to weather and climate hazards”.

1996 – TV weather broadcasts

Developments in TV graphics allow the public to see and interpret the weather forecast for themselves.

1998 onwards – Use of computers

Computers are routinely and increasingly used to assist weather observations and forecasting. Developments of information technology and software and miniaturisation of electronic components leads to increased sophistication and accuracy in the areas of radar imagery, surface observations and satellite imagery. Worldwide sharing of weather data is now standard practice.

2000 onwards – Increased accuracy and sophistication

Miniaturisation of electronic components allows for a range of more sophisticated equipment in all fields. Weather forecasting technology such as miniaturised weather stations, electronic barometers and smartphone apps increase accuracy and public access to weather data.

Rights: University of Waikato Published 19 April 2018 Referencing Hub media