Gordon Smith, who guided the historical side of oldWeather from the beginning, died on 16 December 2016 after a long illness: he was 75.
Gordon joined oldWeather in April 2010. He was brave enough to team up with a group of scientists planning a citizen science project rescuing historical climate observations. His job was to broaden the scope of the project – to teach us to value and use the ship logbooks we were reading as historical records, not just sources of pressure and temperature observations.
Gordon was a serious scholar, the author of two books on naval history, but he also had the vision to see that writing books was no longer the best way to communicate his subject, and the courage to try something new. He founded a website (naval-history.net) and, with a group of collaborators, built it into a valuable resource for both professional and amateur historians.
The thousands of volunteers contributing to oldWeather offered a flood of new material for naval-history.net, but that material needed to be checked, collated, and edited, to be useful to researchers. Gordon dealt with this by engaging unreservedly with the volunteers reading the logbooks; advising, encouraging, and teaching anyone interested. Some of the volunteers became sufficiently expert and enthusiastic to take on the necessary editing work, and this group of new naval historians is now playing a major role in the ongoing development of naval-history.net.
The success of oldWeather as a history project has also helped our work in climate science. Expanding the project in this way has been vital in sustaining the public interest that has kept oldWeather going for six years; now 20,000 people have contributed, generating millions of additional historic weather observations for use by researchers.
Gordon was able to do all this because he was not trying to write a book, or build his personal career as a historian. Instead he was willing to build naval-history.net as a public service, and to train and support a large number of amateur historians working with him. This long period of innovative and unselfish work has not only produced a valuable historical resource, but has also been of material assistance to climate science. oldWeather is both bigger and better for his contributions, and we’ll go on building on what he started.
What was life really like in the Royal Navy 100 years ago? Where did the ships go? How did the crews spend their days? What were the noteworthy, and the routine, events in their lives?
The Royal Navy logbooks we worked through in the original version of oldWeather provide a uniquely powerful insight into these questions – they are primary records of exactly what happened. But they are not easy to use – hard to read, not indexed, or searchable, and often full of obscure technical language.
When we transcribed the weather in the logs we caught many of the historical events as well, and we were able to make a formatted history file for each ship – linking each logbook page image to transcribed events and information from that day, and we assembled those ship histories on our partner website naval-history.net.
Those history files made from the raw transcriptions are a good start, but they are far from perfect: Some events we caught cleanly, some only half-stopped, and our decisions on what to leave were usually good, but not always. So our team of volunteer editors have been working through the raw files editing and improving them: reviewing the decisions made in the heat of transcription, correcting mistakes, merging multiple versions, adding missing events, incorporating pithy commentary and expert summaries of key points, and adding maps of the ship journeys.
As so often with oldWeather, this has been a lot of work – a major task tackled with care and patience by an increasingly-expert team of volunteers. Their achievement is clear to see, comparing the edited histories (in bold on this page) with the raw versions shows a huge improvement in clarity, accuracy, completeness, and value. And the score of the editing team has mounted steadily – they have just released their 200th edited ship history.
To get to 200 ships edited is an awesome achievement, but of course we still have power to add: HMS Cricket is done, as are Cardiff, India, New Zealand and Sydney; but Dunedin, Durban, Perth, Delhi and Capetown are yet to be conquered. Are you available for selection?
Kelp is, perhaps, more important than you might guess: Not only does it thicken your toothpaste, it supports whole marine ecosystems where it grows. It is important enough to have a Zooniverse project devoted to watching it grow, through Landsat images.
Satellite imagery is a great way to monitor the world – providing frequent, comprehensive pictures of the whole planet. But in-situ observations also have their place: people on the ground, interacting directly with the system being monitored, can often provide a detail and precision that the satellite records lack.
One of the unexpected joys of oldWeather is that it provides in-situ observations of a vast range of different things. Most often kelp is mentioned in the logs simply as a highlight of a day at sea:
Fine weather. Light breeze from South. At 2.30 took in and furled the sails. Passed a piece of kelp. [Yorktown, May 1892.]
4 to 8 a.m. Overcast but pleasant. Airs from NE. Passed some kelp. [Same, a day later.]
Sometimes we see the kelp interacting with the environment:
Saw a large patch of kelp with a dozen seals hauled out on it. [Rush, June 1891]
Sighted a whale and a bunch of kelp. [Yorktown, May 1892]
At daylight passed much drift kelp, to one large batch a boulder about 3 ft in diameter was attached [Patterson February 1885]
Occasionally they do seem to be actively surveying it:
Steaming along at various speeds, locating outer limit of kelp beds off La Jolla, fog gradually increasing, log hauled in. [Pioneer, spring 1923].
Continued sounding passing inside of Aleks Rock. No signs of kelp were seen. [Patterson].
But the most interesting mentions feature it as a hazard to navigation. I suspect most of our log-keepers would see definite benefits in any decline of kelp:
Slowed down a few minutes on account of kelp. [Concord, August 1901]
4:15 Kelp ahead, full speed astern … Ran about 1/2 mile SWxW and ran into kelp again. Wreck bore E 1/2 N. Stopped and backed away from it [Patterson].
found four masted schooner “Watson A. West” in the kelp on the outer edge of the shoal, broadside to the beach, close in and in dangerous position [Unalga, October 1916].
Between six and seven o’clock, patent log registered only 3.9 knots: hauled in rotator and found it fouled with kelp; cleared it, and allowed 2.6 knots for the discrepancy. [Commodore Perry, July 1896].
Found spar buoy #16, two hundred yards NE of true position and in kelp. [Commodore Perry, February 1903].
At 10.36 sighted what appeared to be a pinnacle rock. Stopped ship lowered boat and after inspection the object proved to be a much worn spar, heel up, with kelp attached. [Yorktown, June 1894].
We don’t have that many observations of kelp – we probably won’t be much help to the Floating Forests team mapping the distribution, but we do have our own viewpoints to add – aspects that the satellites will never see:
oldWeather has its own venue for high-quality science gossip, but in the late nineteenth century there were no internet forums; instead they had a printed magazine: Hardwicke’s Science Gossip: A Monthly Medium of Interchange and Gossip for Students and Lovers of Nature.
Today we’d call those ‘Students and Lovers of Nature’ scientists, so our friends at the Zooniverse have set up another transcription project, to read Science Gossip and related magazines, and find out what the citizen scientists of 100 years ago were interested in.
There is one thing in particular that we are also interested in – it’s a safe bet that the pages of those magazines contained information on the weather of the time; comments and perhaps original observations. At oldWeather we specialise in ship’s logbooks, but we are not fussy, and we value weather observations from any source. So we’ve added another tag to this new project for marking pages: #oldweather for any weather observations that turn up.
Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey was an eminent ornithologist round about a century ago. The Smithsonian have her diary from 1887, and are running a volunteer project to transcribe it. Despite the strong hints given in the printed page headers of her diary, Florence rarely included weather observations, but there is at least one:
Minus 26 degrees (presumably F), and down to minus 30 in the valley. That’s pretty cold even for New York state (where Florence was at the time). Why so cold? Now, that’s something we can help with, with our rich collection of historical observations and renalysis. I don’t usually do forecasts (there’s another part of the Met Office for that), but as this one’s for 128 years ago maybe we can stretch a point:
Forecast for Monday, January 3rd, 1887: The high pressure currently over the central United States will strengthen and move eastward, bringing clear skies, northerly winds, and very cold weather.
There’s a lot of history hiding in even purely scientific datasets. This movie shows just the locations of the 1.4 billion observations in the International Surface Pressure Databank (1851-2008), and in it I think I can see:
- The constraints on sailing-ship trade routes imposed by the global wind fields.
- The transition from sail to steam in shipping (late nineteenth century).
- The opening of the Suez canal in 1869 (01:30).
- The Famous Arctic voyage of Nansen’s Fram (03:20).
- The heroic age of Antarctic exploration (starting at about 04:00).
- The opening of the Panama canal in 1914 (05:10).
- The first world war (05:10).
- The second world war (07:00).
- Major administrative changes in India (08:00).
- The introduction of drifting buoys (1978: 10:20)
- And, sadly, a reduction in observations coverage in the last couple of decades as participation in the Voluntary Observing Fleet declines.
Of course these observations are not all that were made. Many more historical observations exist (on paper, or in restricted access collections), but these are the ones that are currently available to science. The process of rescuing the observations has also left its mark on the coverage – including right at the beginning of the video, where the coverage of ship observations reduces sharply in 1863 – the end of Matthew Fontaine Maury‘s pioneering data collection work. Various subsequent rises and falls in coverage result from the work of many other scientists and teams; including, of course, a large group of Royal Navy ship observations in the period around the First World War (starting about 05:00) clearly distinguishable just from their locations, as Naval ships move in a quite different pattern from commercial shipping. (Our US Arctic ships are not in this database yet – they will be in the next version).
oldWeather forum moderator Caro has been showcasing the history in our logs, by tweeting, every day, excerpts from the logs of exactly 100-years ago (follow along here). The terse style of the logs is a good match for Twitter, but on some days so much happened that we’d like to go into more detail. December 8th, 1914 was such a day, so Caro has written this post:
It’s been said before: oldWeather is not just about the weather. We transcribe history too and few of the historical narratives to emerge from our WWI ships’ logs can compare to the events that took place on this day, 8 December, 100 years ago: the Battle of the Falkland Islands. The logs of all nine Royal Navy ships involved ― Bristol, Canopus, Carnarvon, Cornwall, Glasgow, Inflexible, Invincible, Kent, and Macedonia ― have given our transcribers and editors first-hand accounts of one of the most important sea battles of WWI.
Back on November 1, Admiral von Spee and his German cruisers had defeated a Royal Navy squadron near Coronel, Chile. British losses were heavy; the ships Good Hope and Monmouth were lost and with them the lives of about 1600 men. Glasgow and Otranto escaped. The British Admiralty, realising the danger of the German ships escaping into the South Atlantic and disrupting the Allies’ operations along the African coast; or sailing around the Horn to attack the now almost defenceless British base in the Falkland Islands, sent a squadron to the South Atlantic to track down von Spee’s cruisers. Eight Royal Navy warships assembled at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands on December 7. The old battleship Canopus had been set in place as guardship for Port Stanley, resting on the mud, since mid-November.
On 8 December, the German cruisers Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Nürnberg, Dresden and Leipzig, together with three auxiliary vessels, gathered to attack the Falklands and raid the British facilities there. Gneisenau and Nürnberg detached from the rest of the German squadron and moved to attack the wireless station and port facilities of Port Stanley. The two raiders were seen by a hilltop spotter who reported their approach to Canopus, waiting out of sight behind the hills.
The logs continue the story:
- 9.19am Canopus: Opened fire fore & aft 12” turrets on Gneisenau & Nürnberg
- 930am Canopus: Ceased fire. Enemy retreated
- 9.30am Glasgow: Weighed and proceeded
- 9.50am Kent: Proceeded to follow enemy. 3 more German cruisers reported in sight, Scharnhorst, Leipzig, and Dresden
- 10.15am Glasgow: As requisite keeping touch with enemy; squadron weighing and proceeding from Port William
- 11.43am Carnarvon: Bristol ordered to take Macedonia & destroy transports
- 12.57pm Inflexible: Opened fire at extreme range on Leipzig, firing 12 rounds of 12 inch, apparently making no hits
- 12.57pm Invincible: Invincible opened fire
- 1.25pm Invincible: Enemy’s light cruisers observed to spread to starboard
- 1.33pm Invincible: Scharnhorst & Gneisenau opened fire
- 1.35pm Invincible: Cornwall, Kent & Glasgow ordered to chase enemy light cruisers
- 2.51pm Inflexible: Opened fire on Gneisenau, 15,200 yards, Invincible engaging Scharnhorst, the leading ship in line ahead
- 3.00pm Glasgow: Opened fire & engaged Leipzig with 6″ gun
- 3.30pm Bristol: Fired 2 rounds fore 6″ and ordered Santa Isabel and Baden, German colliers, to stop; crews ordered to abandon ships. German crews transferred to Macedonia
- 4.01pm Inflexible: Scharnhorst listing heavily to starboard, two funnels gone, and ship on fire. Ceased firing on her
- 4.15pm Carnarvon: Opened fire [on Scharnhorst]
- 4.17pm Carnarvon: Scharnhorst turned over & sank bow first; cease fire
- 5.00pm Kent: Kent proceeded in chase of Nürnberg
- 5.30pm Cornwall: Opened fire [on Leipzig] with 6″ guns & continued action with all guns
- 5.40pm Macedonia: Opened fire on Baden
- 5.48pm Inflexible: Finally ceased firing [on Gneisenau]. Signalled to Carnarvon, “I think enemy have hauled down their colours”
- 6.02pm Invincible: Gneisenau sinks. Invincible, Inflexible and Carnarvon proceeded at full speed to pick up survivors
- 6.45pm Kent: Opened fire and finally ceased fire at 6.57pm; Nürnberg sank at 7.25 pm
- 6.50pm Cornwall: Enemy [Leipzig] on fire fore and aft
- 7.00pm Bristol: Macedonia ordered to remain till colliers sunk and proceed to Port Stanley with crews
- 7.23pm Kent: Stopped and endeavoured to pick up [Nürnberg] survivors
- 7.53pm Macedonia: Baden sank
- 8.15pm Macedonia: Opened fire on Santa Isabel
- 9.00pm Cornwall: Stopped; lowered port boats to pick up [Leipzig] survivors
- 9.23pm Cornwall: Leipzig foundered
- 9.30pm Macedonia: Santa Isabel sank
The German auxiliary Seydlitz and light cruiser Dresden escaped. Almost 1900 German seamen lost their lives; 10 British were killed.
One hundred years on, we remember all those who died at Coronel and the Falklands and in the battles to come.
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?
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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.
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 Naval-History.net. 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 naval-history.net, 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:
- Chronology providing the political and military background to the war at sea.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.