A brief history of the Met Office

From storms to space weather - a brief history of some of the key events in the history of the Met Office

Maury North Atlantic (1852) by Met OfficeMet Office

The Brussels Conference of August-September 1853

In 1853 American oceanographer Lt Matthew Fontaine Maury (US Navy) called an international conference to establish 'a uniform system of meteorological observations at sea'.

Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Norway, Russia, the UK and the US all sent delegates.

Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy (1860/1860) by Met OfficeMet Office

Robert FitzRoy

To collect the UK share of observations the Met Office was founded on 1 April 1854 by Admiral Robert FitzRoy 

Initially there was no plan to forecast the weather, in fact many leading scientists believed this was impossible.

Royal Charter Storm Chart (1859-10-26/1859-10-26) by Met OfficeMet Office

The origins of forecasting

On the night of the 25 and 26 November 1859 the UK was struck by a major storm. It later became known as the Royal Charter Gale, after the most famous ship to be lost that night.

The Royal Charter

The ship sank within sight of the coast Anglesey with the loss of over 450 lives including all of the women and children aboard. 

Robert FitzRoy believed he could have forecast the storm and asked Parliament for permission to establish a storm warning service.

Earliest Shipping Forecast sea areas, Met Office, 1924-01-01/1924-01-01, From the collection of: Met Office
Latest Shipping Forecast, Met Office, 2000-01-01/2000-01-01, From the collection of: Met Office
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Shipping Forecast Map 1924 (1924) by Met OfficeMet Office

The Shipping Forecast

As a result of the storm the Met Office began a storm warning service for shipping, using visual signals shaped like cones and drums. With the invention of the radio this service developed into the iconic Shipping Forecast which was first heard on the air waves on 1 January 1924.

Ernest Gold (1916-10-24/1916-10-24) by Met OfficeMet Office

Forecasting for the Military

The Met Office started to forecast for the military during World War One. Met Office staff forecast for the  Royal Flying Corps and for the Army - providing observations to aid in high angle shelling, warning of potential for gas attacks and forecasting to aid troop movements.

Lewis Fry Richardson (1920/1920) by Met OfficeMet Office

Lewis Fry Richardson FRS

Known as the father of Numerical Weather Prediction, Richardson tested his ideas whilst serving as an ambulance driver in WW1. 

He developed the concept of using mathematical formulae to forecast the weather using computers almost forty years before the first machine was built.

First regular televised weather chart - 5 pm on 29 July 1949 (1949-07-29/1949-07-29) by Met OfficeMet Office

Broadcasting the weather

The first weather forecast was read out on the BBC on 14 November 1922, just hours after the station launched. Further forecasts were added in 1923 and on 1 January 1924 the iconic Shipping Forecast was heard for the first time.

First Television weather presenters (1954) by Met OfficeMet Office

First televised weather chart 29 July 1949

After successful experiments showing weather charts on-screen in November 1936 the service started regularly in 1949 and in 1954 George Cowling (right) became the first TV weather presenter, appearing live and drawing up the charts whilst explaining the forecast.

Weather Observation Chart at 0100 GMT on 5 June 1944 (D-Day -1) (1944-06-05/1944-06-05) by Met OfficeMet Office

Forecasting for D-Day

The allied invasion of Europe in 1944 depended upon one critical element - the weather. The invasion was originally planned for 5th June but poor weather was correctly forecast so the invasion was delayed until the 6th June. 

Weather Observation Chart at 1300 GMT on 6 June 1944 (D-Day) (1944-06-06/1944-06-06) by Met OfficeMet Office

Better weather was forecast for 6 June. Although it was still windy with rough seas the landings were a success. The D-Day forecast remains perhaps the most important forecast made by forecasters from the Met Office with partners from the US Air Force, RAF and Royal Navy.  

Aerial view of completed Meteorologial Office Head Quarters at Bracknell (1962-01-01/1962-01-01) by Met OfficeMet Office

1960s Met Office moves from Dunstable to Bracknell

As technology moved on, the Met Office needed sufficient space for the first operational supercomputer.

The nearby roundabout became known as the Met Office roundabout.

The building was knocked down after the Met Office relocated to Exeter and is now a block of flats.

English Electric KDF9 (Lyons Electronic Office) computer installation, Bracknell (1966/1966) by Met OfficeMet Office

First Operational Supercomputer

After moving to Bracknell, the Met Office was able to purchase a KDF supercomputer powerful and fast enough to run forecasting models operationally. It was nicknamed Comet. 

1st Numerical Weather Predication (NWP) output (1965-11-02/1965-11-02) by Met OfficeMet Office

The first operational forecast from the super computer was produced on 2 November 1965.

Gridded Data

Following ideas first laid out by Lewis Fry Richardson, the forecast model used numbered grids. The conditions in each grid were calculated and then combined to accurately model moving and changing weather patterns.

Chernobly radioactive plume modelling chart (1986-04-26/1986-05-05) by Met OfficeMet Office

26 April 1986 Chernobyl and NAME

During the Chernobyl disaster radioactive materials were carried in the atmosphere and deposited over western Britain. 

Afterwards the Met Office developed the Numerical Atmospheric-dispersion Modelling Environment to model the movement of many types of airborne particles.

1987 Storm Chart vt 0100 GMT on 16 October 1987 (1987-10-16/1987-10-16) by Met OfficeMet Office

The Great Storm of 1987

On 16 October the UK was battered by the worst storm since 1703. It caused huge damage and 22 lives were lost across England and France. 

To help the public be better prepared for future severe weather, the National Severe Weather Warnings Service was launched in 1990.

Met Office coat of arms (1990-04-02/1990-04-02) by Met OfficeMet Office

Met Office Coat of Arms

In 1990 the Met Office became an Executive Agency. As part of the process it was awarded its own Coat of Arms with various weather related features.

Per Scientiam Tempestates Praedicere

The latin motto can be translated as 'to predict the weather through science' 

Within the shield are references to rainfall and the three areas of forecasting at the time - land, sea and upper air. Although not forseen in 1990 the star can now reflect space weather forecasting.

Weather Vane

At the top of the coat of arms is a weather vane. These show the direction of the wind. The earliest Met Office logo featured a weather vane and was nicknamed the 'chicken on a stick'.

Opening of the Hadley Centre by the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1990-05-25/1990-05-25) by Met OfficeMet Office

Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Science and Services

Opened on 25 May 1990, the centre was created to better understand the emerging science of climate change. The scale of research achieved by the centre meant that a CRAY C90 Y-MP-8 Supercomputer was purchased specifically for Met Office Hadley Centre climate research in 1992.

Met Office HQ building Exeter (2003/2003) by Met OfficeMet Office

Exeter HQ

The Met Office relocated once again to Exeter in 2003 where it has remained since. 

For the first time all its departments were in the same building, the only exception was the Archive which is based just across the road. 

The cutting-edge building won awards for innovation.

Space Weather Solar Synoptic Map (2022/2022) by Met OfficeMet Office

Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre (MOSWOC)

Solar flares can affect many aspects of modern technology including GPS, power grids, and mobile communications. To assist affected industries the Met Office began a Space Weather forecasting in 2014. 

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