The Automatic Rain-Gauge of Sir Christopher Wren, F.R.S.

SAMUEL JOHNSON once said ‘when two Englishmen meet their first talk is of the weather. They are in haste to tell each other what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm’. More than two hundred years have elapsed, but, not surprisingly, the preoccupation of the English with the weather has still persisted. The interest in meteorological phenomena, however, could be traced to the old Babylonian culture (3000–1000 B.C.) when the priests were interested in Astro-Meteorology which became an integral part of the Assyric-Babylonian religion. The astrological cuneiform library of Assurbanipal (at present in the British Museum) indicates that the Chaldeans (race name of the Babylonians) made observations of clouds, winds, storms and thunder.

The first rain-gauge, in any form, ever used was in India around the fourth century B.C. and was probably the brain-child of a very resourceful ‘Chancellor of Exchequer’, Kautilya (equally well known as Vishnugupta Chanakya), who devised a system of taxation of lands based on the amount of rainfall they received. The next use of rain-gauges was by the Jews of Palestine around the first century A.D. The first recorded use of snow-gauges was in China (chu chhi yen hsueh) in A.D. 1247. The Koreans copied the Chinese rain-gauges around the middle of the fifteenth century. The Italian Benedetto Castelli (1577–1644) was the first to devise a rain-gauge in Europe in 1639 (I). The earliest English rain-gauge was made by Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723), one time President of the Royal Society, and unlike the previous instruments which were all of the non-recording type, the inventor made an automatic tipping bucket rain-gauge.

By Asit K. Biswas, 1967. Article published in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Volume 22, Issues 1/2, pages 94–104. DOI: 10.1098/rsnr.1967.0009

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