The Beaufort Scale
Defining the Wind : The Beaufort Scale, and How a 19th-Century Admiral Turned Science into Poetry
by Scott Huler
This book was given to me as a gift from a friend and I have to admit, when I realized what it was about, my first reaction was, jeez, “footnote history” has finally hit rock bottom; what could possibly be more boring than the history of the Beaufort Scale?
I set the book aside for weeks, but I just happened to be listening to the local NPR affiliate where the author was being interviewed. He was a pretty engaging speaker and made the story sound (remarkably) rather compelling.
Scott Huler was actually a copy editor who became enchanted with the poetic descriptions that accompany the otherwise dry wind speed notations of the scale. He became something of an amateur historian in order to trace the history of the scale and Francis Beaufort, the man behind it.
What Huler does best is to provide a bit of historical context to why such a scale would be of importance. By providing a common vocabulary which associated wind speeds with their effects on everyday objects, people were able to quantify observations that were up to then merely qualitative. This was important for a number reasons. First, it was a time when, as Huler say, “nothing wasn’t important”; in other words, people lived much closer to the natural world than we do today and every detail was relevant. Also, Beaufort lived during the age of “first order” science, a time when the data was being accumulated that would lead to the great discoveries in the future; in fact, as Hydrographer to the Admiralty, he was responsible for placing Charles Darwin as the naturalist aboard The Beagle under the command of Robert Fitzroy.
He provides some insights into Beaufort himself. He was a man who was devoted to the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, and maintained meticulous notes and diaries (some of which kept a dark secret—which he kept encoded.) For years he was the first and only user of his scale, but once he was elevated to the position of Hydrographer he was able to direct its use in the rest of the Admiralty.
Huler shows how the descriptive elements of the scale itself have changed with the times to reflect people’s everyday lives. It was following the changes in the text that brought Huler to the realization that Beaufort wasn’t even responsible to the text as he had come to know it.
So while Beaufort is credited with popularizing the chart, he neither invented the idea of associating descriptions with wind speeds, nor with the poetic descriptions that Huler found so stirring in the first place. This would seem to undermine the very premise of the book, but in fact Huler’s overall passion for the subject and its times makes the book an enjoyable (and quick) read.