Francis Beaufort (Wind Scale)


This is the first of a series of articles featuring the great people of Irish maritime history. The author is Dr John deCourcy Ireland, Honorary Research Officer of the Maritime Institute of Ireland, who has been honoured by many countries for his work in maritime history.


Francis Beaufort, born 1774, died 1857 after a remarkable life. We are all used to hearing weather forecasts on radio or television predicting ‘Wind Force So-and- So’.  How many realise that the inventor of the Wind-Scale was born and brought up in Ireland, and did here some of the scientific experiments which place him among the greatest contributors anywhere at any time to the development of the marine sciences?Francis Beaufort was born on May 27, 1774. His father was the Rev. Daniel Augustus Beaufort, Rector of Navan from 1765 to 1818. He entered the British Navy in 1787 at 13 and served in HMS Colossus and HMS Latona before being transferred to the 32-gun frigate HMS Aquilon, which acted as ‘repeater’ or signal-transfer ship in the celebrated drawn battle in 1794 between the French under Villaret Joyeuse and the English under Howe. The French called it the Prairial Fight and the English ‘The Glorious First of June’ (the French lost more ships but saved an all- important convoy of food ships).

Cutting out actions

In 1800 he was in command of the boats of HMS Phaeton on a ‘cutting out’ expedition, i.e., the boats were to approach an enemy ship in harbour silently by night, cut her from her moorings, board her and capture her. He received no fewer than 19 wounds on this occasion. Recuperating at home, he devised with his brother-in-law R.L. Edgeworth - kin of the author Maria Edgeworth - a semaphore telegraph system which proved capable of transmitting a message across the whole country from Dublin to Galway in 8 minutes. These experiments occurred in 1803-4. In 1805, Beaufort was given command of HMS Woolwich. This vessel formed part of an expedition, which was to have far- reaching effects both on Beaufort’s own career and on the history of the world. It was commanded by Home Popham, another seaman with scientific interests, and had on board a small force of soldiers commanded by one of the Waterford Beresfords.

Republic of Argentina

It seized in June 1806 the town of Buenos Aires, then a possession of Spain which was allied to Britain’s enemy Napoleon 1, there- by precipitating the events which were in due time to lead to the establishment of the independent Republic of Argentina in which the Mayo man, Admiral William Brown, played a vital role. As for Beaufort, the expedition gave him his first opportunity to show his excellence as a hydrographer. He surveyed the River Plate estuary, a vast, shallow, featureless waterway some 150 miles long and about as broad at its mouth, full of hazards to navigation.Alexander Dalrymple, Hydrographer to the East India Company, had been appointed to head the Hydrographic Office of the British Admiralty when it was set up in 1795, more than a century after the French had seen the need for such an aid to navigators.It is uncertain when Dalrymple met Beaufort, but he was deeply impressed by the survey he brought back from South America, and twice entertained him to dinner at the Royal Society Club in March 1808. He wrote of him: ‘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,’ and quoted to the Admiralty ‘a very distinguished Naval Officer’ who had told him: ‘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’.

As fit as any man

Dalrymple wanted a survey made of the banks and shoals from the coasts of England to the coasts of Holland and Denmark, and described Beaufort as being ‘as fit as any man living ’ for the task. Beaufort, an obscure Irishman, had no ‘pull’ with the Admiralty, considered essential for promotion, and although he had been Captain of the Woolwich, his rank had still been only Commander. In 1809, however, he became a Post Captain, and proceeded to the Eastern Mediterranean, where he carried out a survey of Turkish waters. His account of his Turkish experiences, published in 1817, was an early popular travel book. In an action with pirates in 1812 he was again severely wounded. Back in his Woolwich days Beaufort had been studying Dalrymple’s ‘ Treatise on Navigation’. In this, Dalrymple had included a table of the ‘Velocity and force of wind, according to their common appellations’, which had appeared in a paper read to the Royal Society in 1759 by John Smeaton, engineer, canal-constructor, light-house builder, and rewarded with the society’s Gold Medal.

The famous wind scale

Beaufort’s famous Scale, first drawn up in 1806, is obviously a modification and adaptation for maritime needs of Smeaton’s table.

A valuable aid to safety of mariners

The ‘sea criteria’, showing the gradation of wind from calm to storm, as published in nautical almanacs, are Beaufort’s modification of an idea of Dalrymple’s of a series of drawings illustrating the changing appearance of the sea as the wind grows in strength (cf. the photos on the British Meteorological Office’s most useful ‘State of Sea Card’, Met. O. 688A, which every seaman ought to have).Beaufort’s scale culminates in a Force 12 hurricane ‘which no canvas can withstand,’ when the speed of the wind is above 63 knots and the ‘air is filled with foam and spray: sea completely white with driving spray; visibility very seriously affected’. Beaufort made valuable friends in the years following the end of the war with Napoleon in 1815, including the efficient John Barrow, who became Secretary to the Admiralty in 1812 and did much to root out jobbery and complacency, and the Arctic explorer Edward Parry, who was responsible among other things for reorganisation of the Irish Sea mail services.In 1829 Beaufort succeeded Parry as Hydrographer of the British Navy. He was the fourth to hold the post, which he occupied for 26 years. As he was the longest tenant of the office, so by universal consent it is agreed that he was the greatest. Under Beaufort, the British Admiralty Chart became what even today it largely remains, the most trusted navigational document available for all sea waters. Beaufort, introduced the rule, still meticulously followed, that no chart or other document may ever be published by the Hydrographic Office without undergoing the Hydrographer’s personal scrutiny. Surveys which he initiated included the British Isles, the Mediterranean, the East Coast of Africa, the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, the China Sea, the Saint Lawrence Gulf and South America.There were other partial surveys. One of his successors, Vice-Admiral Edgell, wrote in 1948: ‘His profound knowledge, devoted application, ability and experience raised the … surveying service to heights which his predecessors had scarcely dreamed of, and the office became the model on which foreign governments shaped their hydrographic services.”

Held in admiration

He was held in admiration and affection by the band of officers who served under him, and it speaks well for their loyalty and faith in his judgement that there was never any question of appointing a younger man … until Beaufort’s health began to suffer from the demands made by the heavy task’(Edgell: Sea Surveys, Longmans Green and Company). Beaufort’s insistence on objective accuracy (and perhaps his Irish background?) led to his absolute refusal to allow hydrographic expeditions to be used for the imperialistic purpose of ‘showing the flag’. He demanded of his officers what he consistently gave himself, devotion of the whole of their ener- gy to the sublime scientific task of surveying all the seas of the whole world for the good of all mankind. While acting as Hydrographer, Beaufort was a member of the Arctic Council, and a portrait exists of him sitting with this body organising the search - in which Irishmen participated conspicuously - for the Franklin expedition, lost north of Canada trying to find the North-West passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Beaufort was responsible for a group of Arctic Sea islands being named after his friend and predecessor, Parry. The Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska, is named for Francis Beaufort. A portrait of him in the British National Portrait Gallery by S. Pearce shows a handsome, kindly but determined face. In 1837 Beaufort was one of a group of scientists who made a voyage on the Thames in a barge fitted with the Swedish engineer Ericsson’s new fangled invention, a screw propeller.

Royal Geographical Society

Beaufort was also an expert cryptographer. He devised a wholly original message-code system. Professor Christopher Lloyd, a biographer of the Secretary of the Admiralty, Barrow, discovered in the works of Captain W.H. Smyth, author of the most trustworthy nautical dictionary in English, that it was on Beaufort’s suggestion that Barrow made the moves that led to the foundation in 1830 of the Royal Geographical Society with which Beaufort was associated from the start. Charles Darwin, in his preface to ‘A Naturalist’s Voyage’, wrote ‘. . . it was in consequence of a wish expressed by Captain Fitzro y, of having some scientific person on board (of HMS Beagle that sailed on December 27 1831 from Devonport to survey the coastal waters of Patagonia) ... that I volunteered my services, which received, t h rough the kindness of the Hydrographer, Captain Beaufort , the sanction of the Lords of the Admiralty’ - so that Beaufort was also indirectly responsible for some of the most momentous scientific proclamations of the 19th century: Darwin always insisted that all the work that brought him celebrity had its origin in the Beagle voyage. Beaufort was promoted Rear-Admiral in 1848, retired in 1855, died in 1857. He once pointedly remarked: ’the tendency of all people is to undervalue what they do not understand’. This is, alas, probably why his life, almost wholly constructive and forward-looking, is so little known in his native land. Loyal to the service to which he swore allegiance while yet a child, Beaufort developed a vision that far transcended the normal outlook of his fellow-officers. His passion for knowledge was not just for himself but for all mankind. He was one of the first to realise a truth that we, 230 years after his birth, must face and act upon with the utmost urgency if we want mankind to survive and flourish in the 21st century - the truth that 71% of the globe we inhabit is sea, and if we can understand its untold mysteries we will make life richer and fuller for all. Beaufort, an individual Irishman born when we had no navy of our own and were a dependent province of another state, made a contribution of unsurpassed importance to the development of understanding of the sea. His marvelous discoveries were absolutely basic for the development of modern (post 1800) civilisation. He was an exceptional genius about whom far too few people know anything. Taking an example from him, cannot our whole island community bend its energies to making a constructive contribution, worthy of an independent maritime nation, to widening and deepening that understanding in our own age that requires it so much?
Posted in People
The original Lugnad was, according to legend, a "luamaire": that is a navigator or helmsman. He is credited with bringing his uncle, Saint Patrick, to Ireland. Lugnad's grave is in a ruined monastery on Inchagoill island in Lough Corrib, County Galway