Robert Fitzroy, a master meteorologist
Lying safely in bed and listening to the shipping forecast on the radio, has a deep resonance with many who live on the British Isles.
It is hard to imagine that without the work of a man called Robert Fitzroy during the 1860’s, many, many lives would have been lost in the treacherous seas that surround us.
Fitzroy’s work in the field of meteorology was astonishingly in advance of it’s time (he considered sunspots to have an important influence on climate).
So who was Fitzroy and what is his connection to the shipping forecast?
- He was the 4th great grandson of Charles II and son of Lord Charles Fitzroy
- He entered the Royal Naval college at Portsmouth in 1818 and over the next 10years revealed himself to be extremely talented
- In 1828 by a twist of fate he was made captain of HMS Beagle whilst it was on a surveying expedition of Tierra del Fuego. He returned to England accompanied by Fuegian natives whom he hoped to teach English and Christianity to.
- His second voyage on the Beagle, at his own expense, was to return them home. He desired company on the long voyage, someone with whom he could share his scientific and research interests. Charles Darwin was suggested and accepted as his travelling companion.
- So it was that Fitzroy and Darwin became shipmates for five years
- Fitzroy struggled to marry his religious beliefs with his scientific and on their return, following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Fitzroy felt tremendous guilt at having a hand in the development of the Theory of Evolution. He even went as far as attending the debate between Wilberforce and Huxley at Oxford, on the side of Wilberforce.
Fitzroy was elected to the Royal Society in 1851 and thence given the task of collecting weather data at sea.
- He set about the task with determination and developed a series of barometers which were placed at each port to forewarn of bad weather.
- He used telegraphy to establish the first daily weather forecast and although after his death in 1865, they were scrapped by a government too ignorant and sceptical to understand his work, they were reinstated in 1867 at the demand of ordinary sailors and fishermen.
His achievements and innovations spread far and wide beyond meteorology and his connections to other brilliant minds such as Darwin and Bartholomew Sullivan need further exploration.
So tonight when the shipping forecast comes on, listen out for ‘Fitzroy’ and think of the man not the place.
Robert Fitzroy committed suicide
Fitzroy died a bankrupt and was buried at Upper Norwood on May 6th 1865, quietly and without due honour. What a sad ending to a great and intriguing life.