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Code-breaking and oldWeather

Marcus Cocceius Nerva Caesar Augustus. 13th Caesar.

Marcus Cocceius Nerva Augustus. 13th Caesar.

Jr nyjnlf unir na rlr gb gur shgher, urer ng byqJrngure, naq jr’ir abgvprq bhe sevraqf ng gur nepuvirf cubgbtencuvat fbzr arjre ybtf – H.F. fuvcf sebz gur zvq-20gu praghel – nf jryy nf gur byqre barf jr’er hfrq gb. Gur nepuvirf ner abg cubgbtencuvat gurz sbe hf – gurl ner cneg bs nabgure cebwrpg – ohg gurl ner trarebhf crbcyr, naq gurl jvyy tvir hf n pbcl bs gur ybt obbx vzntrf vs jr jnag gurz. Qb jr jnag gurz?

Jryy bs pbhefr jr qb – bhe ybir sbe ybtobbxf arire snvyf, naq jr ner qrgrezvarq gung gur xabjyrqtr va gurz jvyy abg cnff njnl. Ohg jr pna’g qb rirelguvat evtug abj. Fb jr qb, hasbeghangryl, unir gb or frafvoyr, naq frg cevbevgvrf, naq lnqn lnqn lnqn.

Gur zbfg vzcbegnag guvat gb xabj nobhg nal cbffvoyr arj ybtf, vf jurgure nalbar unf ybbxrq ng gurz orsber: unir gurve jrngure bofreingvbaf nyernql orra genafpevorq? Gb svaq bhg, jr arrq gb ybbx va VPBNQF (gur vagreangvbany qngnonfr jurer jr fgber bhe jrngure erpbeqf) naq frr jung gurer vf sebz nal fuvc jr ner vagrerfgrq va – ohg gurer’f n pngpu.

Zbfg bs hf ersre gb n fuvc ol vgf anzr; bapr gur bjare unf qrpvqrq gb anzr n fuvc UZF Jbatnaryyn gura gur erfg bs hf fubhyq whfg sbyybj nybat. Bhe cerqrprffbef, ubjrire, jub qvtvgvfrq fbzr ybtobbx jrngure erpbeqf qrpnqrf ntb, qvq abg nterr. Creuncf gur anzrf jrer gbb ybat gb svg bagb gur Ubyyrevgu pneqf gurl hfrq sbe qngn fgbentr, ohg jungrire gurve ernfba gurl hfrq pbqr ahzoref nf fuvc vqragvsvref. Fb vs jr jnag gb svaq gur erpbeqf bs gur HFF Nexnafnf va VPBNQF, jr arrq gb xabj gung ure pbqr ahzore vf 01033 – naq, va trareny, jr qba’g.

Ohg gur byqJrngure grnz ner n pncnoyr ohapu, naq Xriva naq Znex ner sngubzvat guvf zlfgrel. Jvgu uryc sebz VPBNQF rkcregf ng APQP naq ABPF gurl ner qrpbqvat gur VPBNQF vqragvsvref fb jr pna yvax gur byq bofreingvbaf jvgu gur Nepuvir’f ybtobbxf naq cvpx bhg gubfr fgvyy haernq.

Documenting World War 1 at Sea

We chose our first batch of logbooks to cover the period of the First World War, as our climate records from this period were particularly poor. This gave us not only invaluable new climate information, but also a new look at a key historical period which is about to reach its centenary.

To use our historical results, we teamed up with Gordon and In Gordon’s words: ‘Our present world has been shaped by World War 1 – as much a maritime war as World War 2. Not just the Battle of Jutland or the Allies near-defeat by the U-boats, but Mediterranean, Belgian coast, South West & South Africa, East Africa, Persian Gulf, German raiders, Atlantic convoys, North Russia.’ We need to present our logbook records so they can contribute to public and scholarly understanding of the period.

The transcribed and edited logbook records are now a major component of, where they are described as:

British warship log books of the World War 1 era, totalling some 300,000 pages. The logs of over 300 ships have been transcribed, and most are online. They include coverage of Battle of the Falklands, Northern Patrol, Dardanelles, East Africa, trans-Atlantic convoys, Indian Ocean, China Station, amounting to some 60-70 percent of all major warship movements 1914-18, outside of British home waters.

But they are not enough on their own, we should combine them with other sources of information. Naval-History.Net has prepared for the centenary for some years, using contemporary sources where possible and more recent research where available. Current projects include:

  1. Chronology providing the political and military background to the war at sea.
  2. Naval Operations by Corbett and Newbolt – many of the excellent plans are online including all the Battle of Jutland – and the three volume Merchant Navy histories by Hurd.
  3. Navy despatches and relevant Army despatches from the London Gazette. Also Royal Navy honours and gallantry awards by award and by Gazette date. Includes Medal index/database by name.
  4. Royal Navy and Royal Marine casualties (researched by Don Kindell working with the Naval Historical Branch (MOD)), as well as those of the Dominion Navies and U.S. Navy & Marine Corps.
  5. Royal Navy warships and auxiliaries from the invaluable “Ships of the Royal Navy 1914-1919″ by Dittmar and Colledge. Although still in progress, all warships and many of the auxiliaries are listed by name and by type/class.

From the Stacks at the U.S. National Archives

Many thanks for bringing your transcription skills to bear on…well…the BEAR—arguably the most famous vessel to serve in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service— and all the other U.S. vessel logs that will be coming your way via Old Weather.  We’ve been watching with excitement as the WWI-era Royal Navy project wrapped up, and anticipating the shift to the logs of the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and other sea-going services.  We have been busy prepping the logs and clicking the shutters to keep you supplied.

Allow us to introduce ourselves. There are three of us in the National Archives team: Mark C. Mollan, Elizabeth Hope, and Luydmilla Mishonova.  Mark is a Navy/Maritime Reference Archivist and is charged with getting the records prepped and camera ready.  Elizabeth works in digital preservation at Archives 1 (on the National Mall in Washington D.C.).  She images the log book pages and makes sure every detail is captured.  Milla is photographing additional Navy and Coast Survey logbooks at Archives 2 in Maryland.


We’ve already come across some interesting dramas and historical footnotes.  The December 1897 log book for the BEAR covers the start of the harrowing Overland Expedition, which took a small Revenue Cutter Service crew from Cape Vancouver to Point Barrow, Alaska.  After a journey of more than 1500 miles, 200 stranded whalemen were rescued from starvation.

We are so grateful for the opportunity to dust off these records of yesteryear and make the weather of the past relevant to climate science of today, as well as share these wonderful stories with generations to come.  We look forward to corresponding with all of you citizen scientists on this groundbreaking collaboration.

Until next time,
Elizabeth, Mark and Milla

The transit of Venus

The weather in Exeter yesterday was best described as “ocr“, so I missed the transit this time. Fortunately, the skies were clear back in 2004, and I remember the experience of peering through a pair of binoculars equipped with a sun-filter and seeing the small black dot of Venus silhouetted against the sun.

The transit of Venus is a periodic event, and the big year was in 1769. I understand that the astronomers valued the transit as a way to get a handle on the size of the universe; but the real virtue was that it provided an excuse for the British Government to send an expedition down into the South Pacific. That expedition was commanded by James Cook, and it started the career of the greatest explorer of them all.

Of course, as a naval officer (Lieutenant, at the time), Cook kept a journal. If your eyesight is up to it, you can read his account of June 3rd 1769 in the original handwriting; but I admit that I looked up Project Gutenberg’s transcription:

Saturday, 3rd. This day proved as favourable to our purpose as we could wish. Not a Cloud was to be seen the whole day, and the Air was perfectly Clear, so that we had every advantage we could desire in observing the whole of the Passage of the planet Venus over the Sun’s Disk. We very distinctly saw an Atmosphere or Dusky shade round the body of the planet, which very much disturbed the times of the Contact, particularly the two internal ones. Dr. Solander observed as well as Mr. Green and myself, and we differ’d from one another in Observing the times of the Contact much more than could be expected. Mr. Green’s Telescope and mine where of the same Magnifying power, but that of the Doctor was greater than ours. It was nearly calm the whole day, and the Thermometer Exposed to the Sun about the Middle of the day rose to a degree of heat we have not before met with.

The ideal weather observer does not expose his thermometer to the sun (shade temperatures please), so perhaps it’s no great loss that Cook’s journal does not contain regular weather observations. For those, we must turn to the Master’s log of HM Bark Endeavour (the closest equivalent to the familiar modern-day logs). For the day of the transit, this records “Little wind and variable with fine pleasant clear weather”. I reckon that’s “Lt. Airs, Var., 1, b” in our notation. Sadly, none of the logs contain regular thermometer or barometer observations – Cook did better on his subsequent voyages – but we do get wind speed and direction reports for every day.

Wei Hai … where exactly?

The 100 most-frequently used place names in the logs.

The 100 most-frequently used place names in the logs. (Made with

Working with the logbooks has done wonders for my knowledge of global geography. If it’s at sea level, one of our ships has probably been there, or at least mentioned sighting it on the way past, and we can travel, vicariously, with them; from Abadan to Zanzibar by way of Cockatoo Island, Fernando Po, Nuku’alofa, Surabaya, and Wuhu (with assistance from lighthouses on Mwana Mwana, Muckle Roe, and Makatumbe).

We’d expect the Royal Navy to spend most of their time in British ports, but we deliberately chose the logs we’re looking at to include those going foreign, and omit the stay-at-homes, because this gives us better information on global weather. This choice means that foreign ports are the most frequently mentioned in our logs. In the 300,000 or so log-pages we’ve looked at so far, Hong Kong tops the ‘most visited’ table (with 23,000 mentions), followed by Bermuda and Shanghai. The first UK port comes in fourth: Devonport (6000 mentions) and though most of these are for the UK naval base near Plymouth, its statistics are boosted by the existence of another base of the same name in Auckland.

The existence of two Devonports highlights a difficulty we run into in using the port names. When the ship is in port, and sometimes when it is operating close to land, the port name or landmark is the only information we have on the ship’s location. So we have to convert the name into a latitude and longitude, and this can be challenging. For many ports a position is not hard to find: Gibraltar, Bombay, Glasgow and Aden are all well known. Many more are only a quick web search away: Esquimalt is on Vancouver Island, Thursday Island is in the Torres strait, and Walvis Bay is in Namibia.

After that it gets harder – East London is nowhere near East London, St Vincent usually means Cape Verde, rather than the identically named place in the West Indies or the Portuguese headland made famous by the battle of 1797. ‘No. 10 dock’, ‘No. 5 buoy’, and ‘No. 7 warf’ are all in Plymouth, but ‘on patrol’, ‘southern base’, and ‘on surveying ground’ could be anywhere.

The Navy are renowned for their courage and seamanship. Their orthography and penmanship are a little more variable, so we have Wei Hai Wei (2345 entries), Wei-hai-wei (1357), Wei hai Wei (633), Wei hai wei (314), Wei-Hai-Wei (231), wei hai wei (91), wei lai wei (69), Weihai wei (57), wei-hai-wei (53), Wei hei wei (33), Wei-hei-wei (32), WEI HAI WEI (30), and even W.H.W (26) – all of which are references to the same place.

With the technology of 1914-22, sorting all this out into a set of positions would have been a terrible job; but modern internet search engines, atlases, encyclopaedias and gazetteers are very powerful tools for tracking down obscure and badly spelt place-names. Today I’m particularly grateful that I live in the future.

Social Graph of the Royal Navy in WW1

As we said in our recent blog post, Old Weather has been churning through Royal Navy logbooks from World War 1 for long enough now that we can start to extract some interesting stats from the words transcribed by the community.

Social networks are all the rage now, but here at Zooniverse HQ we’ve been wondering what the 90-year-old social graph of Old Weather would look like. We’ll have more to say in the near future about the interactions of people on board the Royal Navy ships from our logs, but what about the ships themselves? When ships pass each other at sea, or meet to exchange supplies, officers and information, they make a note of this in their logs.

This enormous chart shows all of the Old Weather ships in a big grid, highlighting in purple where ships connect to each other. You can look down the chart, or across it, to find the interactions for a given ship. You can see that the HMS Arlanza and the Alsation seem to meet up with quite a few of the other ships of the chart. Both are Armed Merchant Cruisers that cross the busy stretch between the UK and the USA. So is the HMS Motugua, and it too has a fair few interactions with other vessels.

Taking those ships that are often mentioned, we can delve further into their interactions and create arc plots for those vessels. The arc plot below, for the HMS Alsatian, shows that it has encountered 26 ships in the transcriptions made to date. The thickness of the lines connecting vessels indicates the relative number of times that the two ships reference each other. The HMS Moldavia and HMS Patia are fairly well-connected with the Alsatian.

What isn’t shown on the large network plot is that the most mentioned vessel in the Old Weather fleet is the HMS Bee, a river gunboat and a ship that is only 36% complete so far on Old Weather (maybe you could jump aboard and help to complete it?). This ship is not mentioned a great deal by every ship but rather features regularly in the logs of a few vessel in the fleet. The arc plot for the HMS Bee is shown below. The HMS Bee interacts a great deal with the HMS Scarab and the HMS Cricket. all three are gunboats, as is the HMS Gnat. The next step here is to examine the logs and find out when these vessels interacted so much, and why. A blog post of these at a later time.

Finally, for this post, let’s look at the arc plot for the top twenty most-connected vessels in Old Weather so far. These are the ships from the large network plot that connect with the most other ships. These plots can be made for the whole fleet – but they become very large and complex and thus difficult to take value from. This slimmed-down version showing just the top twenty gives you an idea of the ships that are linked to other ships.

This is the kind of simplistic data that can be extracted from your transcriptions of events. So far, only the development team have been looking at this, but the tools are being made available to the historians of Old Weather for further analysis. I’m excited by what they can uncover.

Many of the ships listed in these charts are available on our Old Weather Voyages page, so you can see for yourselves how they interact with each other. You can use that page to read the log entries and see where ships were when they encountered one another. We’re always trying to find new ways for everyone to explore the Old Weather data and if you have any suggestions we’d love to hear them, either here on the blog or via twitter @oldweather.

Old Weather Voyages

Can you believe that Old Weather is 44% complete‽ I can’t, but that’s what the site is currently telling me. It’s amazing how much care and effort has been poured into this project by people all over the world. 63 vessels are now complete and the task of processing and understanding everything is underway.

Yesterday we said we had a little thank you coming and here it is: Old Weather Voyages. Stuart Lynn, the principal developer for Old Weather, and myself have been toying with the idea of displaying your weather and event transcriptions in a fun and interesting way. Old Weather Voyages lets you see the data that you have all provided in a way that puts the voyages of these ships front and centre

The Old Weather Voyages site displays one ship’s log book at a time and lets you watch events unfold as they did nearly a centrury ago. you can either just sit back and watch the ship at it voyages around the globe, or you can grab the time slider and whiz back and forth, seeing what happens and when.

As the ship moves around the world, its track is coloured according the the sea temperatures that have been recorded. The events from the ship’s log are shown on the log page on the left hand side. The image below shows the voyage of the HMS Africa up to the afternoon of Saturday November 3rd 1917. The log on the left shows that there have been several sicknesses reported over the past week on the ship. The ship’s track shows that the water is warmer nearer the equator than it is in South Africa, for example.


We hope that this new way of exploring the Old Weather data shows not only that the information being transcribed is coherent and useful, but also that your data really does go somewhere! We are often asked, here at the Zooniverse, what happens to your clicks and transcriptions. Here is a great way to explore the early results of the project and explore the history behind the science.

Other fun ships, to get you started, include HMS Inflexible, HMS Goliath and HMS M31.

[If you have a Mac, you can also grab Old Weather Voyages as a screensaver]


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