Posted by: Rob Viens | August 27, 2012

Barometric Musings

Today, August 27th, Darwin continued the story of the barometer he began yesterday, which for the last three or four days had ” been slowly falling”.  FitzRoy had predicted that once it started to rise the wind would shift direction.  Darwin continues the story:

“Accordingly at one oclock it began to rise, & the Captain immediately ordered all hands to be piped up to weigh anchor.— In the course of an hour from being a calm it blew a gale right on shore, so that we were glad enough to beat off.— By the morning we were well out at sea; so with snug sail cared little for the breeze or the heavy swell.— If we had not a Barometer, we probably should have remained two hours longer at anchor, & then if the gale had been a little harder we should have been in a most dangerous situation.” (Aug 27)

Again FitzRoy’s interest in understanding and ultimately predicting weather conditions paid off. I am continuously impressed by his success as a maritime meteorologist. Later in his life FitzRoy was appointed as the “Meteorological Statist to the Board of Trade” (sort of the “national meteorologist”).  One of the legacies he left in this role was to have a barometer installed at every port in England, so that sailors could consult the conditions before heading out to sea. He also invented several types of barometers, including one you can still get today called a FitzRoy Barometer. Here is one example of one of his barometers from

Even with FitzRoy’s excellent attempts to predict and prepare for bad weather, the Beagle was still tossed about quite a bit.  Darwin continues:

“As it was, the sea was very heavy & irregular.— it fairly pitched our Howitzer out of the slide into the sea.— This was not our only misfortune, as in weighing ship we tore our anchor into pieces & quite disabled it for use.” (Aug 27)

The howitzer was one of the defensive guns on the Beagle – it was a “four pounder”. See Defending the Beagle with Nine-Pounders for details on the Beagle‘s armament.

The ship would have carried spare anchors, as it was not uncommon to lose one or two on a long voyage such as this.  However, the loss of a gun and anchor was still difficult for a small ship heading to un inhabited country.

Interestingly, it was not enough of an incident to make FitzRoy’s Narrative.  He simple refers to the general hazards of shifting winds on a survey ship:

“While examining the positions nearest to Blanco Bay, we had occasional alarms—such as the wind shifting and blowing strong directly towards the land; our soundings shoaling suddenly to three, or less than three fathoms; or thick weather coming on while a boat was away sounding;—but these are every-day events in a surveying vessel actively employed.” (Narrative, FitzRoy)

For all the fame he received for being “Darwin’s Captain”, FitzRoy’s own legacy as a pioneering meteorologist is respectable in its own right.  More on this in later posts. (RJV)


  1. […] of Patagonia in the last couple of weeks (after the howitzer lost in a storm last week – see Barometric Musings).  Darwin described the situation: “Again in heaving up the anchor (one of the best & […]

  2. […] Clearly Darwin had learned a thing or two about using a barometer from his friend the Captain (see Barometric Musings). […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: