The History of Forecasting the Weather

Weather has always had a big impact on the life of people, often determining the fortunes of empires and civilization. For this reason, people have made attempts to predict and forecast the weather throughout the course of history.


Weather forecasting in the ancient world based itself on pattern recognition. For instance, they concluded that if the sunset was particularly red, the following day brought fair weather. This experience accumulated over the generations to produce weather lore, another major source of weather forecast in the ancient world. However, following the advancement of science in the modern world, weather scientists have proved that predictions based on pattern recognition are not conclusive.

The earliest recorded instance of weather forecasting in history dates back to 650 CE, when the Babylonians tried to predict short-term weather changes based on the appearance of clouds and optical phenomena such as haloes. They also took the help of astrology in this regard. Astrologers forecast the weather by observing the moon and the alignment of planets.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle’s work “Meteorologica”, written around 340 BC includes theories about the formation of rain, clouds, hail, wind, thunder, lightning, and hurricanes. This book remained as an authority on weather theory in Europe for the next 2000 years, until modern scientists proved many of such theories false. By 300 B.C., Chinese astronomers developed a calendar that divided the year into 24 festivals, each festival associated with a different type of weather.

Weather vanes, used to measure the winds were in existence from the 1st Century BC.


In the medieval ages when Europe was in a phase of stagnation and decline, the Muslim world kept alive interest in weather and earth sciences.

Abu Yusuf al Kindi (801873 CE) or Alkindus wrote a treatise on meteorology entitled “Treatise on the Efficient Cause of the Flow and Ebb”, relating movement of tides to temperature.

The most significant work during this phase was Ahmad Bin Abubekr Bin Wahishih’s “Nabatean Agriculture”, written in 904 CE. He discusses atmospheric changes based on signs from the planetary astral alterations; signs of rain based on observation of the lunar phases; and weather forecasts based on the movement of winds.

Ibn al-Haytham (965-1036 CE) or Alhazen, an Iraqi scientist explained the cause of morning and evening twilight and related topics like meteorology of the rainbow and the density of the atmosphere. His students, Qutubuddin Shirazi and Kamaludeen Farisi discovered the scientific principle of rainbows.

The famous Persian poet cum astronomer Ibn Sina or Avicenna invented the air thermometer late in the 11th century CE. Almost at the same time, Abu Abdulla Muhammad ibn Ma’udh of Spain calculated the height of the atmospheric moisture responsible for the refraction of the sun’s rays.


With the decline of the Arab-Islamic Civilization, the torch of scientific enquiry passed to the renaissance scientists of Europe. Many of the Arab works mentioned above underwent translation to Latin and the European scientists took off from where the Arabs had left.

Nicholas Cusa (1401-1464 CE) invented the hygrometer, an instrument to measure the humidity of air. In 1643 CE, Evangelista Torricelli invented the barometer for measuring atmospheric pressure. These instruments have undergone continuous refinements and improvements since then.

Around the same time, the spirit of renaissance made individuals make and record atmospheric measurements at various locations. The invention of telegraph and the emergence of telegraph networks facilitated routine transmission and exchange of these measurements among various observers. People started compiling these data to draw crude weather maps and try deciphering surface wind patterns and storm systems.


The two men most credited with the birth of forecasting as a science were Francis Beaufort (1774 1857 CE), inventor of the Beaufort scale used to measure wind speed, and Robert FitzRoy, developer of the Fitzroy barometer. Both were influential men in British naval and governmental circles, and though ridiculed in the press at the time, their work gained scientific credence, was accepted by the Royal Navy, and formed the basis for all of today’s weather forecasting knowledge

The developments in Europe soon found its echo in the United States of America. The fact that many parts of USA experience regular hurricanes and thunderstorms made weather forecasting an essential need.

In 1743 CE, Benjamin Franklin, using reports of numerous postmasters who used to keep track of the atmospheric measurement reports they disseminate, determined the northeastward path of a hurricane from the West Indies. This was the first major effort in predicting the weather based on scientific data. In 1849 CE The Smithsonian Institution began a three decade long project of collecting meteorological data with the goal of understanding storms. In 1858 CE The U.S. Army Engineers started collecting meteorological observations while surveying the Great Lakes.

In 1868 CE, Cleveland Abbe of the Cincinnati Observatory made a serious attempt to establish a quasi-private meteorological organization, with a system of one hundred reporting stations. However, he could not make much headway.

The United States Congress finally established a national weather organization in 1870 CE when it instructed the Secretary of War to organize the collection of meteorological observations and forecasting of storms on the Great Lakes and Atlantic Seaboard. Large shipping losses on the Great Lakes during the 1868 and 1869 seasons prompted this decision. The consolidation of most telegraphic service in the United States into Western Union in 1866 facilitated this move.

Developments in Europe were almost simultaneous. In 1848 CE, the British Daily News started the first telegraphic daily weather report. In 1860 CE the first storm warning was issued in the Netherlands.


The development of aviation necessitated more information of weather on the upper altitudes. In 1924 CE, Colonel William Blaire of the U.S. Signal Corps did primitive experiments with weather measurements from balloon, making use of the temperature dependence of radio circuits.

However, it was with the invention of the Radiosonde by Robert Bureau of France in 1929 CE that precise knowledge of weather conditions at higher altitudes became available. Radiosondes are small lightweight boxes equipped with weather instruments and a radio transmitter carried high into the atmosphere by a hydrogen or helium-filled balloon that ascends to an altitude of about 30 kilometers before bursting. During the ascent, the instruments transmit temperature, moisture, and pressure data back to a ground station where the data is processed.

Weather forecasts assumed great importance during World War II (1939-1945 CE), as aircraft and rapid troop movements became key parts of military strategy. The successful invasion of Normandy by the allied forces that turned the tide of the war depended a great deal on weather forecasts.

In 1922 CE Lewis Fry Richardson predicted the possibility of numerical weather prediction. However, it was only by 1955 CE, with the discovery of computers that facilitated the vast number of calculations required that practical use of numerical weather prediction began.

With the progress of man into space, weather prediction took a quantum leap. The first meteorological satellite, Tiros I, entered the orbit successfully in 1960 CE. In 1976 CE, the United States launched its first geostationary weather satellite.