Notes on Two Mid-18th Century Meteorological Charts
The (probably) earliest charts in Hungary and their possible Dutch inspiration
To Michael Friendly
In his book Időjárási események és elemi csapások Magyarországon 1701–1800 (Weather events and elemental disasters in Hungary 1701–1800), the Hungarian meteorologist Antal Réthly exhibits two zoomed-in details of meteorological charts by the astronomer Ferenc (Franciscus) Weiss (1711–1785) (Réthly 1970: 207, 222). The two large-scale, paper-on-canvas charts show meteorological phenomena observed and gauged on a daily basis in Nagyszombat (Trnava, now in Slovakia) in the years 1763 and 1766. Both have the title Ephemerides Meteorologicae Tyrnavienses (Meteorological Diary of Trnava). The charts are preserved in the ELTE University Library and Archives in Budapest, under the catalogue number 614. Réthly writes the following about the chart of 1763:
“The diagram shows the air pressure in Paris-measure, the temperature, the quantity and shape of the precipitation and the direction of the wind. With the help of distinct signs the stormy, the rainy, the snowy and the foggy days can be read. The temperature is recorded in Fahrenheit three times a day: morning, noon, evening. […] That’s sure that many more graphs existed annually, but they have been lost with other observations, and only these two graphs lasted. The values for temperature, according to the averages, are too high. Only a few months’ data can be considered as accurate, according to our present knowledge. They changed the thermometer twice. For a while they used an instrument with an R°-scale [A.B.: most probably Réaumur-scale], then again with a Fahrenheit-thermometer. The dots represent the air-pressure. The temperature is noted by numbers.” (ibid: 206–207)
Réthly looked on the graphs with the eyes of a meteorologist, but I assume that, apart from the fact that these two charts are rare scientific artifacts in Hungary from the mid-18th century, they are notable for being amongst the earliest Hungarian examples of data graphics. They pre-date the previously-known beginning of data graphics in Hungary, which I put in the first third of the 19th century.
The construction of the Observatory, or the “Mathematical Tower,” in Trnava began in 1753, and from that year began recording the observations of meteorological phenomena. Weiss was appointed as the director of the Observatory in 1755, when the institution was officially launched. Réthly reckons that Weiss and his substitute, Ferenc Taucher, made charts on annual basis. Weiss and Taucher published nine volumes on their astronomical and meteorological observations between 1758 and 1770 (Bartha 2006: 28). Their observations were also published in the Ephemerides Astronimicae, edited by Miksa (Maximilian) Hell (1720–1792), director of the Observatory of Vienna, and in the Observationes, the annual journal of the international Societas Meteorologica Palatina in Mannheim, established in 1781. However, these journals did not publish charts on weather, only tables.
Tabulated diaries of meteorological observations and measures began to spread throughout Europe in the late 17th century. The first account with the intention to initiate tabulated data collection on the weather was penned by the scientist Robert Hooke (1635–1703) in his 1663 letter to the members of the Royal Society. The first tables appeared in 1667 (Daston 2015: 187–188), and in the early 18th century the collection of weather data became a sort of “citizen science” in Europe (Ross and Ferlier 2020). These tables contained data on air pressure, precipitation, temperature, and wind, and they were treated not only as numeric data releases but as comprehensive “images,” or graphic presentations of the weather (Daston 2015: 194). This method arrived by the end of the century in continental Europe’s universities and towns. This kind of table diary was published by the medic David von Gerbner (1655–1737) in Pozsony (Bratislava, now Slovakia), the botanist Rudolf Jacob Camerarius (1665–1721) in Tübingen, and the Salzburger mathematician Dominicus Beck (1732–1791). But their diaries did not contain charts. Where did Weiss get his inspirations, then?
One source of inspiration may have been the Dutch geographer Nicolaas Kruik, or Nicolaus Cruquius (1678–1754), who started measuring the weather in 1705; from 1721 he worked on a graphic system for presenting different meteorological phenomenons (Van Engelen and Geurts 1985, Zuidervaart 2005: 385). The journal of the Royal Society in London, the Philosophical Transactions, published Cruquius’ article, the Observationes Accuratae Captae…, on the air pressure, precipitation, wind power, and temperature in Leyden (Cruquius 1724). A chart, very similar in method to Weiss’ dot plot, was attached to it.
Weiss’ other source may have been the Dutch scientist Pieter (Petri/Petrus) van Musschenbroek’s (1692–1761) Physicae experimentales… from 1729. A similar chart was attached to the chapter Ephemerides Meteorologicae Ultrajectinae on the observations in Utrecht (Van Engelen and Geurts 1983).
According to the catalogue of the ELTE University Library Budapest, the University of Trnava had both publications during the time when Weiss was the director of the Observatory. Musschenbroek’s work was well known and widely used in the educational institutions of the era in the Kingdom of Hungary (M. Zemplén 2016).
The similarities between Cruquius’, Musschenbroek’s, and Weiss’ charts are convincing. The dot-plot method for barometric observations is the same.
If we look at Musschenbroek’s chart and Weiss’ chart of 1766, we can see, for instance, that the legend on Weiss’ chart is almost an identical copy in arrangement, signs, word use, and explanations to Musschenbroek’s chart.
Cruquius’ and Musschenbroek’s charts have been known to meteorologists for decades, and the information graphics historian Michael Friendly also put Cruquius’ chart (without the image) in the Milestones Project about historical data visualizations with the comment: “abstract line graph (of barometric observations) not analyzed.” The line, in fact, is a series of unconnected points. We don’t know yet of other examples of similar meteorological proto-charts, but it is noteworthy that two such versions were created by a Hungarian astronomer in the mid-18th century.
Attila Bátorfy is master instructor of journalism and information graphics at the Department of Media and Communications of Eötvös Loránd University Budapest. He is currently working on his doctoral thesis on the history of information graphics in Hungary. He is also head of the visual journalism project ATLO.
I would like to give my thanks for the images to Zsuzsanna Mód and her colleagues from the ELTE University Library and Archives Budapest.
I also would like to thank Claire Santoro for her thoughtful editing of my article.
Bartha, Lajos 2006. A nagyszombati egyetem csillagvizsgálójának kezdetei. (The Beginnings of the Observatory of the University of Trnava) In PADEU Vol. 16, №7 (2006), pp. 7–38.
Daston, Lorraine 2015. Super-Vision: Weather Watching and Table Reading in the Early Modern Royal Society and Académie Royale des Sciences. In Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 78, №2 (Summer 2015), pp. 187–215.
Engelen, van A.F.V. and Harry Geurts 1983. Vooruitstrevende ideeën over de meteorologieen klimatologie van Petrus van Musschenbroek (1692–1761). Historische Werkundige Waarnemingen. Deel II. De Bilt, Koninklijk Nederlands Meteorologisch Instituut
Engelen, van A.F.V. and Harry Geurts 1985. Nicolaus Cruquius (1678–1754) and his meteorological observations. Historische Werkundige Waarnemingen. Deel IV. De Bilt, Koninklijk Nederlands Meteorologisch Instituut
M. Zemplén, Jolán 2016. A felvidéki fizika története 1850-ig. (The History of Phisics in Upper Hungary until 1850) Budapest: Magyar Tudománytörténeti és Egészségtudományi Intézet
Réthly, Antal 1970. Időjárási események és elemi csapások Magyarországon 1701–1800. (Weather events and elemental disasters in Hungary 1701–1800) Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó
Ross, Catherine and Louisiane Ferlier 2020. A Citizen Science. Stormy Weather: From Lore to Science. Online Exhibition. Royal Society/MET
Zuidervaart, Huib J. 2005. An Eighteenth-Century Medical-Meteorological Society in the Netherlands: An Investigation of Early Organization, Instrumentation and Quantification. Part 1. In The British Journal for the History of Science , Vol. 38, №4 (December, 2005), pp. 379–410.