Friday, July 26, 2013

Sir Francis Beaufort - The Man Who Caught the Wind

by Arthur Russell

Portrait of Sir Francis Beaufort
The Beaufort Scale for measuring the strength of wind was developed by Sir Francis Beaufort who was born in Navan, Co. Meath, Ireland on 27th May 1774. He was the son of Daniel Augustus Beaufort, a Protestant clergyman and member of the Royal Irish Academy who had himself created a new map of Ireland in 1792. 

The Beaufort household into which Francis was born was located on Flower Hill in the provincial town of Navan. The old house where he was born and reared survived until very recently but eventually succumbed to the “development mania” that plagued Celtic Tiger Ireland in the last decades of the twentieth century. A modern apartment complex now occupies part of the site where the rambling Beaufort house once stood. All that now shows where the scientist was born is a simple plaque which has been erected under a large tree in front of a school which has also been erected on the site.

The Beauforts of Navan were descended from French Huguenot refugees who had come to Ireland in the aftermath of the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day during the 17th century religious wars in France.

As a young man, Francis showed early interest in the sea and joined the British Navy. By the time he had reached his 16th birthday, he had already experienced shipwreck. The fact that this was caused by faulty charts fuelled his interest in hydrography and the creation of accurate nautical charts. 

He saw his share of action in the Napoleonic Wars and was seriously wounded on HMS Phaeton in the course of the capture of the 14-gun polocca Calpe near Malaga in 1800.  During his convalescence from this, he spent 2 years helping his brother-in-law, Richard Lovell Edgeworth (father of Maria Edgeworth, authoress of Castle Rackrent), in the construction of a semaphore line between Dublin and Galway which was capable of transmitting messages across the breadth of Ireland in 8 minutes. He refused to be paid for this work, preferring to subsist on the meagre naval pension being paid to him.  

When he recovered his health, he returned to active naval duty and was quickly made ship’s captain. During his time at sea, he immersed himself in taking readings at sea, updating and creating new charts and he virtually educated himself to the point where he became recognized as a leading expert in sea charts and nautical maps.

Plaque in front of school on 
Flower Hill, Navan, Co Meath
It was during these years that Beaufort developed his earliest version of a wind force scale and weather notation coding which he continued to use and perfect during his scientific career. 

Where his colleagues sought leisurely pursuits, Beaufort spent his leisure time taking soundings and bearings, making astronomical observations to determine latitude and longitude, and measuring shorelines, which he assiduously applied to new improved chart. Beaufort’s first ship command, HMS Woolwich, afforded him a unique opportunity to conduct a detailed hydrographic survey of the Rio de la Plata estuary in  South America

Experts in the British Admiralty were very impressed by the completed survey that Beaufort brought back to them. Most notably, Alexander Dalrymple, the first hydrographer of the British Admiralty, remarked in a note to the Admiralty in March 1808: 

"‘Captain Beaufort did more in the month he was in the Plate to acquire a correct knowledge of its dangers, than was done by everyone together before. We have few officers (indeed I do not know one) in our Service who have half his professional knowledge and ability, and in zeal and perseverance he cannot be excelled".

What was most remarkable about all this was the fact that Beaufort was largely self-educated and demonstrated masterly knowledge and had established himself as a pioneer in his chosen field. As such he was destined to rub shoulders with some of the greatest scientists and mathematicians of his time. Among these were John Herschel, George Airy, and Charles Babbage.

The Beaufort Wind Scale
Perhaps his most enduring and well known legacy is the Beaufort Windscale which is a methodology for measuring the strength of the wind as it impacted on sailing ships and later steam ships which replaced them during the 19th century. Ways of measuring wind was not a new idea in nautical circles. Beaufort’s achievement was the fact that he was able to have his system universally accepted; where no standardised system existed before.

The first proposed scale presented in 1806, ranged from calm (0) up to storm force (level 13) in which wind strength was correlated with the amount of sail a full-rigged ship would carry appropriate to the wind conditions. It was first used officially by Robert Fitzroy in 1831 and thereafter adopted by the British Admiralty in 1838. As sail gave way to steam the scale was modified by defining levels in terms of the state of the sea or wind speed.

A long and distinguished career
In 1811–1812, shortly after being promoted to Captain, Beaufort charted and explored southern Anatolia in Turkey and succeeded in locating many classical ruins there. An attack on the crew of his boat at Ayas, near Adana, by Turks in which he sustained a serious bullet wound in the hip, interrupted his work. He returned to England and drew up the charts based on records and readings taken during his time there. He also published his book, Karamania, in 1817, which is a brief description of the South Coast of Asia Minor and of the remains of Antiquity he had explored.

Chief Hydographer of the Admiralty
In 1829, at the relatively late age of 55 years, when most seamen would be expected to retire from active service, Beaufort was appointed British Admiralty Hydographer of the Navy, a post he held for a further 25 years. During this period of his long and distinguished career, Beaufort converted what had been a minor chart repository into the finest surveying and charting institution in the world. Some of the excellent charts the Office produced during Beaufort’s time are still in use. 

One of the practices he introduced to the office he led for so long and which is still meticulously followed, is that no chart or other document may ever be published by the Hydrographic Office without first undergoing the Chief Hydrographer’s personal scrutiny. He took also over the administration of the great astronomical  observatories at Greenwich, London and at the Cape of Good Hope in Africa and directed some of the major maritime explorations and experiments of the time. Among these, he directed the Arctic Council during its search for the explorer, Sir John Franklin, who was tragically lost in his last polar voyage in search of the North-west Passage between the North Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.

Beaufort’s link with the voyage of HMS Beagle
Beaufort trained Robert Fitzroy, who was put in temporary command of the survey ship HMS Beagle after the ship’s previous captain had committed suicide. When FitzRoy was reappointed as Commander for the famous second voyage of the Beagle he requested Beaufort "that a well-educated and scientific gentleman be sought" to accompany the voyage. Beaufort's enquiries led to an invitation to Charles Darwin, who subsequently drew on observations made during the voyage to formulate his theory of evolution which he presented in his book, The Origin of Species.

As a council member of the Royal Society, the Royal Observatory, and the Royal Geographic Society, of which he was a founder member, Beaufort used his administrative position to interact with the most prominent scientists of his time. Beaufort recommended the geographers, astronomers, oceanographers, geodesists, and meteorologists to the Hydrographic Office, and gave significant support to many research projects.

Overcoming many objections, Beaufort obtained government support for the Antarctic voyage of 1839–1843 by James Clark Ross, which investigated the Earth’s Magnetic forces.

Plaque marks Beaufort's birth
He also promoted the development of reliable tide tables for Great Britain and Ireland which motivated similar research elsewhere in Europe and North America. He supported his friend William Whewell, and attracted the support of the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, in expanding record-keeping at 200 British Coast Guard stations. Beaufort gave enthusiastic support to his friend, the Astronomer Royal and noted mathematician Sir George Airy in achieving a historic period of measurements by the Greenwich and Good Hope observatories.

It is a measure of the regard in which he was held, that he finally retired from the Royal Navy with the rank of Rear Admiral on 1st October 1846, at the relatively advanced age of 72 years. Two years later, in April 1848 he was appointed Knight Commander of the Bath (KCB) and was henceforth known as Sir Francis Beaufort.

Beaufort’s private life had its share of scandal which did not become public until after his death when portions of his private memoirs, written in a cipher developed by himself, were deciphered. It appears that from 1835, until he married Honora Edgeworth in November 1839; he had an incestuous relationship with his sister Harriet. The entries also show he was tortured by guilt over the relationship.

This son of Navan, Co. Meath, who contributed so much to the world of nautical science, as well as to our understanding of the oceans and seas which occupies 71% of the surface of the planet on which we live, died on Dec 17th 1857 and is buried in St John’s Church Gardens in London.

Arthur Russell lives in Navan, Co Meath where the subject of this post, Sir Francis Beaufort, was born in 1774. He is author of the historical fiction book Morgallion which was published in April 2012 and is available in paperback and e-book format. (Ref - Morgallion is set in the 14th century at the time of the Edward Bruce led Scottish invasion of Ireland to claim the High-Kingship of Ireland and establish an Irish Bruce dynasty. 


  1. Fascinating post. Shared!

  2. Deeply intrigued about this obviously brilliant, extremely dedicated, physically courageous,and tireless man. Thank you for the introduction, Arthur. Beaufort seems to have been everywhere, behind and just slightly in the shadows of so many other greats of his era. The incestuous relationship with his sister it known what happened to her? Did she later wed? If you know more, please share.

    1. Hi Octavia - a little is known about Harriet. In public records she is referred to as "spinster" so presumably she did not marry. Cannot find record of her death. She is mentioned in a book called "Revisiting Our Forest Home" the immigrant Letters of Frances Stewart, who emigrated to Canada from Co Meath in 1822 with her husband Thomas Alexander Stewart. Harriet was her close childhood confidant and mentor. Frances sent many letters to her from her new home which are quoted in the book. According to these, Harriet lived at a number of addresses in Ireland among which - Edgeworthstown, Co Longford; Collon, Co Louth; Hatch Street, Dublin (1840.

  3. Thank you so much Arthur for following up on my question about Harriet. We think today of that quiet designation, "Spinster" and wonder what extraordinary experiences are hidden within...


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