by Dick Hobbs Issue 105 - September 2015
Its no go my honey love, its no go my poppet.
Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall for ever,
But if you break the bloody glass, you wont hold up the weather.
It is not often I inflict poetry upon you, so why have I turned to Louis MacNeice? Because I am writing this piece on 26 August, and the view from my office window is of unrelenting, torrential rain.
In the last few days, the BBC has announced it is to sever its relationship with the Meteorological Office after 93 years and find another supplier for its forecasts. So I thought I would cheer myself with a quick look at the history of the weather forecast on television.
The first forecast I can find seems to have been on WNBT, the forerunner of WNBC in New York. On 14 October 1941 it offered a weather forecast presented by the cartoon character Woolly Lamb.
The idea that the weather was not a serious part of the news in America remained for many years, with the slot including cartoon characters, animals, stunts and crazy costumes. Indeed, that idea remains to this day, with the legendary Willard Scott of the Today programme saying a trained gorilla could do this job. Mr Scotts training for weather forecasting included a stint as Bozo the Clown and the origination of the character Ronald McDonald.
The other trend in America, of course, was the bimbo to distract you from the news at the end of the day. This remarkable sustaining of sexism over decades of demeaning females led the redoubtable Izora Armstead and Martha Wash to call themselves The Weather Girls and offer the unlikely forecast that it would shortly be raining men.
On the BBC things were, inevitably, rather more serious. The UKs first experience of weather predictions on television was at 19.55 on 11 January, 1954. Apparently, tomorrow is going to be a good day to hang out the washing.
That start time was significant. A full five minutes, up to the hour, was allowed for the weather forecast. Can you imagine that happening on a mainstream channel today? It would feel like an eternity.
The pioneering on-screen forecaster was George Cowling, who was not a professional presenter but a weather scientist, employed by the Ministry of Defence. Indeed, one of his recollections was that forecasters were drawn from a specific pay grade in the Civil Service. One day he was told he was getting a promotion to the next grade, and he never appeared on air again.
Because the forecasters were not BBC employees, they had their office at what was then the London Weather Centre in Kingsway in central London. They would prepare the forecasts, and create their visual aids which were maps of the United Kingdom with felt-tip pen lines drawn on them. These were rolled into a document tube, and the forecaster would get on the Underground to Lime Grove to deliver the evening bulletin.
This was eventually replaced by everyones favourite technology, the map on the wall with magnetic stickers for the weather symbols. They were everyones favourite because there was barely a 50% chance that they would stick where the forecaster wanted them, and audiences in the 1970s were routinely in gales of laughter as the likes of Barbara Edwards and Michael Fish watched their carefully placed rain clouds slide gracefully from Glasgow to Goole.
By the mid 1980s, computer graphics power was advancing, and I nearly became an authority on weather forecasting. The Met Office went out to tender to a number of companies to develop a customised weather graphics system, capable of being operated by meteorologists rather than graphics designers.
At the time I was working for a large computer software company, and I thought this would be a good contract to win. Sadly, the internal politics of the company felt that, as the customer was (at the time) a part of the Ministry of Defence, the project should be handled by the defence group not the broadcast group. I went to one meeting and it vanished without trace.
Today of course we expect vast resources of technical wizardry in the presentation of weather. Indeed, The Weather Channel in the States has just launched a regular slot in which meteorologists explain how weather happens, using walk-around augmented reality in the studio to see a tornado being created. It is very impressive.
But whether our forecasters are conjuring up virtual storms or drawing on maps with a marker pen, what we really care about is the accuracy. The Met Office has a mathematical model underpinning its forecasting which uses non-hydrostatic dynamics with semi-lagrangian advection and semi-implicit time stepping. So that must be good.
But when is it going to stop raining? As Louis MacNeice might have said, if only he could have solved the scansion challenges, if you break the bloody semi-lagrangian advection, you wont hold up the weather.