Why wind guru Beaufort had to hide a stormy personal life




The Irishman whose device for measuring wind became the standard, harboured a deep secret at home, says Robert Hume

MARCH is a windy month and an appropriate time for next week’s European Wind Energy Conference (March, 10-13) in Barcelona. Here in Ireland, construction is underway on the Beaufort Research Centre, at Ringaskiddy, Co. Cork — named after the Irish hydrographer, Francis Beaufort, who devised a windscale still used by met offices and yachtsmen.

Beaufort was born in 1774 at ‘Flower Hill’, a small house near Navan in Co Meath, where his father was rector. When he was a boy, his family moved to Cheltenham, where he and his brother were expelled from school because their ‘atrocious’ Irish accents ‘spoiled’ the pronunciation of the other boys.

Back in Dublin, he was taught mathematics and seamanship at David Bates’ Academy, and astronomy at Dunsink Observatory. But his formal schooling ended at 14, when the family settled in London. His father paid a ship’s captain to take Francis on a surveying voyage to the East Indies and China. By age 17 he had escaped death twice. In 1789, because of a faulty chart, his ship ran aground on a shoal off Sumatra. Later, he almost drowned in Portsmouth harbour.

Accurate sea charts became an obsession of his. Beaufort made surveys of the Rio de la Plata region of South America, Turkey, Syria and Bombay. Every two hours (instead of the obligatory 12) he wrote a weather report and made forecasts. He also developed tide tables. In 1805, while at Portsmouth awaiting orders, he devised the windscale for which he is famous. Others, including Daniel Defoe, had developed scales before. But Beaufort’s scale, with its 13 points (0 = calm; 12 = hurricane), was simpler, and in 1838 the Royal Navy made it mandatory for ships’ logs.

The scale was related to the sails of a frigate. Descriptions ranged from: ‘just sufficient to give steerage’ to ‘that which no canvas sails could withstand’. Beaufort worked his way upwards from midshipman to commander. But his seagoing career ended in 1812, when he was wounded in an encounter with the Turks. He managed the Greenwich and Capetown Observatories and directed the Arctic Council. He became the ‘link man’ between the Admiralty and scientists, securing government funds for Darwin’s voyage in the Beagle.

In 1829, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and became hydrographer for the British Admiralty, a post he held for 25 years. At five each morning, Beaufort started work on his charts. He produced 1,446 — an average of sixty-eight charts a year. They constituted the first coherent panorama of the world’s coastlines, and made earlier hydrographers look slapdash.

Beaufort retired from the Royal Navy, with the rank of Rear Admiral, in 1846. Two years later, Queen Victoria knighted him. But his journals and diaries — written in a secret code comprising Greek letters, astronomical symbols and invented squiggles — reveal a deeply troubled private life. His wife, Alicia, died of breast cancer in 1834. Shattered by her death, and daunted by raising five children, he asked his two spinster sisters, Harriet and Louisa, to move from Ireland to his house in London. The presence of Harriet (with whom he had always been very close) was too great a temptation. In his diary entry of November 26, 1835, he writes: ‘Fresh horrors with Harriet, O Lord forgive us’. Two months later: ‘Again, I employed Harriet. O Lord take pity upon me and strengthen my mind now.’ He was sixty-one, she was fifty-seven. There were 13 such coded entries over three years, until he married his second wife, Honora Edgeworth.

His behaviour with Harriet tortured him for the rest of his life, but only became public after his death at 84, in 1857. His windscale was not modified until 1906, when sailing ships had given way to steam. It now included descriptions not of sails, but of how the sea and trees moved. In 1946, the scale was extended from 13 to 17 values.

Recent typhoons in the Philippines were recorded on the Fujita scale — a development of the Beaufort scale — which measures the force of very strong winds by the damage they inflict. Ironically, Beaufort is famous for one of his minor accomplishments. More important was his surveying, which has made sea voyages safer; and several geographical features are named after him — including the Arctic’s Beaufort Sea, and Beaufort Island in Antarctica.

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