As a child, I inherited an ancient radio from my Scottish grandfather. It was a substantial block of cream and brown Bakelite, fronted by a glass plate that listed radio stations which had long since ceased to transmit. When turned on, a glow like a forge emerged from the back and after a patient minute or so, the valves would grow warm and it would slowly come to life.
On long wave, late at night, I would listen to the British Met Office’s shipping forecast. Digital radio may be crisp and clear, but it lacks the phenomenal reach of long wave, able to probe far out over the ocean to fishing trawlers and merchant ships buffeting their way through angry, slate-grey water. “Viking, northwest gale 8 to storm 10, veering west, squally showers, moderate, becoming good,” the hypnotic voice would incant. The words seemed oddly comforting, even though there meaning was unclear. Many years later I have at last been initiated into the code. I know the first name is an area of the sea, next comes a wind direction and speed, followed by expected weather and finally visibility. Much of the forecast is subjective - when does a squally shower become a more humble rain shower, for example, but there are two numbers that are precise. Gale 8 to storm 10. For this precision we have the Irish admiral Sir Francis Beaufort to thank.
Beaufort was the descendent of French Huguenots who had settled in Ireland, hence his French surname. His naval career began in the golden age of sail, when he went to sea at thirteen in 1787. The young Beaufort fought his way through the two decades of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. He was a midshipman on HMS Aquilon during Howe’s victory on the Glorious First of June, was badly wounded as a lieutenant aboard HMS Phaeton leading a cutting-out operation off the Spanish coast, and he took part in the 1806 attempt to capture Buenos Aires. But it was not for his military exploits that his reputation grew.
He was well known in the service as a scientific minded officer. While recovering from his injuries sustained in the cutting out expedition, he spent his time supervising the construction of a line of semaphore stations across Ireland from Dublin to Galway. His principle role in the attack on Buenos Aires was to survey and provide charts of the River Plate. When made post captain, he spent the last years of the Napoleonic wars mapping the coastline of Turkey.
After he retired from active service he was made Hydrographer of the Navy, a post he held until he was eighty years old. In that time his department transformed the accuracy of ocean surveying, producing much more accurate charts for the maritime community. While in this position he also devised the Beaufort scale of wind strength that is still used to this day.
Modern devices for measuring wind speed were not available on board ships in the 18th and early 19th century, resulting in mariners producing their own, esoteric terms to describe the conditions. They would speak of it “blowing above a cap full of wind,” or of a “topsail gale”, all of which lacked any precision. Beaufort’s genius was to come up with a scale of wind speeds from zero (calm) to 12 (Hurricane), where each step on the ladder corresponded with an observable change in the condition of the sea. So, for example, if a ship out at sea could see moderate waves of about six foot high with breaking crests, they knew it was blowing 5 on the Beaufort scale, which is a fresh breeze of between 17 and 21 knots. As a recreational sailor I know what Beaufort scale number I can sail in, and which number is beyond my abilities.
His greatest achievement is probably the one that he is least know for. When asked by Commander Fitzroy, to recommend a gentlemen naturalist to accompany him on his second expedition in HMS Beagle, it was Beaufort who chose the young Charles Darwin as his companion. It was a decision that was to have truly monumental consequences for the future of science, for it was the variety of animals and plants that the young Darwin observed on that voyage that set his mind pondering on how that had come about.
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Philip K Allan is an author of historical naval fiction. His debut novel, The Captain’s Nephew is on sale now, worldwide, at all good on-line retailers. Visit www.philipkallan.com to learn more.