Back in the 1800s, when powerful man-of-war ships sailed the seas armed with cannons and propelled primarily by sails, there was no standard way to describe wind speeds.
Though sailors regularly took note of them, they would describe the prevailing conditions in subjective terms. What one man considered a stiff breeze could be a gale to another. But the Beaufort scale changed all this.
In 1805, this scale of wind force – which is still in use today – was developed on board the HMS Woolwich by its Irish-born Commander Francis Beaufort.
On January 13th, 1806, he set it out in his private logbook and stated that he would use it to characterise winds going forward. Within a few years, its use would well spread beyond the quarters of the HMS Woolwich and impact navigation worldwide.
Francis Beaufort’s Irish roots
On May 27th, 1774, Francis Beaufort was born in his father’s Church of Ireland rectory in Navan, County Meath. His parents, Mary and Daniel Augustus Beaufort, had moved to Ireland from London. His grandparents, who were Protestant Huguenots, had fled there from France to avoid religious persecution some years earlier.
Beaufort’s father was a multi-talented man who had studied at Trinity College. As well as being a rector, he was also an amateur architect, a founder of the RIA and is remembered for creating one of the earliest detailed maps of Ireland in 1792.
He sent his two sons to a grammar school in Cheltenham to further their education, but they were immediately kicked out for fear that their ‘atrocious Hibernian accent’ might ruin the pronunciation of other students.
As a result, Francis ended up attending the David Bates’s Military and Naval Academy in Dublin. He also spent five months studying astronomy at the Dunsink Observatory with a Trinity College professor.
Both sons went on to follow in the footsteps of their father – but in very different ways. William Louis, the eldest, also became a rector. While Francis became known for his cartography skills.
In 1789, aged just 14, Francis Beaufort set out to pursue a life of adventure at sea. He started off working as a cabin boy on one of the British East India Company’s merchant ships during a voyage to the East Indies and China.
Then, in 1790, he joined the British Navy as a midshipman. Here, he rose through the ranks being promoted to lieutenant, then commander and then captain. His quick ascent was largely thanks to his service during the Napoleonic Wars.
A man of science – and combat
While sailing, Beaufort spent his leisure time updating his log, making astronomical observations and surveying uncharted waters.
While exploring the coast of modern-day Turkey in 1811, he discovered Hadrian’s Gate and made it known to the Western world. But just a year later, while he was mapping part of the coast, he was severely wounded by a bullet to his femur.
This wasn’t the first time he was hurt while serving in the Royal Navy. He was previously wounded by a sword and a blunderbuss while capturing a Spanish ship. But this time, his injury ended his active service.
The evolution of the Beaufort scale
Beaufort had some other near-death experiences too. At 15, before joining the Navy, the ship he served was wrecked when it hit a shoal off the coast of Indonesia.
At 17, he also fell out of a dinghy on the way to his ship in Portsmouth Harbour. He was rescued by a fellow sailor, but not before his life flashed before his eyes.
These experiences gave him an appreciation for the importance of mapping shorelines and understanding weather conditions – which certainly influenced his later work.
While aboard the HMS Woolwich, he continually improved his new scale of wind force. Most importantly, he added specific characteristics which defined each point on the scale, so sailors could estimate wind speeds through visual observation.
So, for example, if a ship couldn’t put up its sails for fear they would rip, this was considered a 12 on the scale – which was classified as a storm or hurricane.
In 1831, the scale was officially used for the first time on the HMS Beagle. As a result, it was then officially adapted for use by all Navy ships in 1838.
Over the years, the scale was revised to include criteria for fishing smacks and other merchant ships. Today, anyone can look at the land and the sea, instead of ship sails, to determine wind speeds.
At the age of 55, when most people retired, Beaufort became the British Navy’s hydrographer. His role was to survey the world’s waters in order to help ships navigate them.
So, continuing on from his past work, he sent expeditions to chart the Antarctic’s magnetism and developed reliable tide tables for the British coast. Over 25 years, he transformed the Navy’s knowledge and chart repository. Some of Beaufort’s charts are still in use today – 200 years after they were created.
As a result of his great work, Beaufort was promoted to the Navy rank of Rear Admiral and received a knighthood. Locations like the Beaufort Sea near the Arctic and Beaufort Island in the Antarctic were also named after him.
He continued to pursue his passion until 1855 when he finally retired. Just two years later, he died at the age of 83 in Hove, England.
Sir Francis Beaufort is just one many noteworthy Irish seafarers. To learn more about our maritime history and the famine ships of the 1800s, visit The Jeanie Johnston.