A Forecast Factory

A 1920's vision of human-computed weather forecasts, quoted from:

Weather Prediction by Numerical Process

by Lewis F. Richardson, B.A., F.R.Met.Soc., F.Inst.P.

formerly Superintendent of Eskdalemuir Observatory
Lecturer on Physics at Westminster Training College

Cambridge at the University Press, 1922

Note the final sentence below: "Outside are playing fields, houses, mountains and lakes, for it was thought that those who compute the weather should breathe of it freely." How sweet! (^_^) --- ^z


(Chapter 11/2, pages 219-220)

It took me the best part of six weeks to draw up the computing forms and to work out the new distribution in two vertical columns for the first time. My office was a heap of hay in a cold rest billet. With practice the work of an average computer might go perhaps ten times faster. If the time-step were 3 hours, then 32 individuals could just compute two points so as to keep pace with the weather, if we allow nothing for the very great gain in speed which is invariably noticed when a complicated operation is divided up into simpler parts, upon which individuals specialize. If the co-ordinate chequer were 200 km square in plan, there would be 3200 columns on the complete map of the globe. In the tropics the weather is often foreknown, so that we may say 2000 active columns. So that 32 x 2000 = 64,000 computers would be needed to race the weather for the whole globe. That is a staggering figure. Perhaps in some years' time it may be possible to report a simplification of the process. But in any case, the organization indicated is a central forecast-factory for the whole globe, or for portions extending to boundaries where the weather is steady, with individual computers specializing on the separate equations. Let us hope for their sakes that they are moved on from time to time to new operations.

After so much hard reasoning, may one play with a fantasy? Imagine a large hall like a theatre, except that the circles and galleries go right round through the space usually occupied by the stage. The walls of this chamber are painted to form a map of the globe. The ceiling represents the north polar regions, England is in the gallery, the tropics in the upper circle, Australia on the dress circle and the antarctic in the pit. A myriad computers are at work upon the weather of the part of the map where each sits, but each computer attends only to one equation or part of an equation. The work of each region is coordinated by an official of higher rank. Numerous little "night signs" display the instantaneous values so that neighbouring computers can read them. Each number is thus displayed in three adjacent zones so as to maintain communication to the North and South on the map. From the floor of the pit a tall pillar rises to half the height of the hall. It carries a large pulpit on its top. In this sits the man in charge of the whole theatre; he is surrounded by several assistants and messengers. One of his duties is to maintain a uniform speed of progress in all parts of the globe. In this respect he is like the conductor of an orchestra in which the instruments are slide-rules and calculating machines. But instead of waving a baton he turns a beam of rosy light upon any region that is running ahead of the rest, and a beam of blue light upon those who are behindhand.

Four senior clerks in the central pulpit are collecting the future weather as fast as it is being computed, and despatching it by pneumatic carrier to a quiet room. There it will be coded and telephoned to the radio transmitting station.

Messengers carry piles of used computing forms down to a storehouse in the cellar.

In a neighbouring building there is a research department, where they invent improvements. But these is much experimenting on a small scale before any change is made in the complex routine of the computing theatre. In a basement an enthusiast is observing eddies in the liquid lining of a huge spinning bowl, but so far the arithmetic proves the better way. In another building are all the usual financial, correspondence and administrative offices. Outside are playing fields, houses, mountains and lakes, for it was thought that those who compute the weather should breathe of it freely.

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