The HMS Beagle, Weather Forecasts & Charles Darwin’s Big Nose

By Debra Kelly on Thursday, December 8, 2016
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” —Charles Darwin

In A Nutshell

The captain of the HMS Beagle almost didn’t let Charles Darwin join the expedition, as he believed that the shape of Darwin’s nose signaled that he didn’t have the enthusiasm and strength the journey required. He did let him come in the end, of course. And it was during these voyages that the captain, Robert FitzRoy, would start making detailed observations of weather patterns that would ultimately allow him to predict major weather patterns like storms and winds. He called his predictions “forecasts” and would pioneer the science we still rely on today.

The Whole Bushel

When it comes to the journeys of the HMS Beagle, the most famous person on board was undoubtedly Charles Darwin. But the Beagle‘s captain was famous—or rather, infamous—in his own right, and he almost didn’t even let Darwin on the ship to begin with.

Robert FitzRoy was born in 1805, and as the third son born to a second son of the upper crust, he had all the education and responsibilities that came with life among the elite. But his birth order also meant that he was left largely to make his own way. He turned to the Royal Navy.

That’s where his connection to the HMS Beagle started, but it was a stout belief in the once scientific practice of physiognomy that almost changed the course of science history. There were a lot of weird beliefs about the connection between a person’s physical appearance and their inner workings, and FitzRoy bought into the idea that outside beauty was a demonstration of inside beauty. But it went both ways. When he first met Darwin, the captain almost turned him away because of his nose.

Darwin would later write of the captain, “he was convinced that he could judge a man’s character by the outline of his features; and he doubted wheather anyone with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage. But I think he was afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely.”

FitzRoy would go on to an almost two-sided infamy. On one hand, his campaigning for the fair treatment of Maori natives put him in a favorable light in New Zealand. That campaigning didn’t play so well back home in England. To the public, his career was decidedly less than stellar. FitzRoy would eventually slit his own throat on April 30, 1865. Before that, though, he embarked on another sort of journey that would leave him absolutely broke but ultimately change how we see the world every day.

During his time at sea, FitzRoy spent a lot of time paying attention to the weather. After countless observations, he started making daily predictions of what the weather was going to be like the following day, and he called them forecasts.

For the first time, weather predictions were being made based on scientific observations rather than folk wisdom. When FitzRoy established the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade, he was at the head of something revolutionary.

The organization was founded with the idea that keeping track of wind patterns would lead to more efficient sailing and, in turn, trade. They would later become the Met Office, and they’d pioneer work in things like charting the paths of storms and winds.

They were also ridiculed for the belief that they could do any of these things.

At the time, weather predictions were largely made by watching the behaviors of animals. When the idea that science could predict weather was presented to the House of Commons, it was rejected. Yet FitzRoy was determined that his observations could be put to use, and after a Royal Charter gold ship sank in 1859, he was given the go-ahead to give it a try. He started out issuing storm warnings, and that gradually gave way to weather forecasts that weren’t that much different than we know today. Once people realized they could count on them to be at least mostly accurate for around a day in advance, they started being used by everyone from farmers and fishermen to fairgoers and gamblers, who used the forecasts to help guide the day’s betting.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit: Conrad Martens
The Nose: A Profile of Sex, Beauty, and Survival, by Gabrielle Glaser
The HMS Beagle Project: Robert FitzRoy Takes His Own Life
The Quarterly Review of Biology: The two faces of Robert Fitzroy, Captain of HMS Beagle and governor of New Zealand
Te Ara: FitzRoy, Robert
BBC Magazine: The birth of the weather forecast