Todd’s Grand Meteorological Scheme

Todd started his working life as an astronomer and like a number of his professional contemporaries, he progressed from looking at the heavens, to observing the weather to then forecasting the weather. Like the smart Victorian scientists of his time, Todd’s interests were very wide, but his special gift was his capacity for organisation.  He was able to see the possibilities and pull together the resources to enact grand schemes.  Nothing better illustrates this than his first letter to the editor of the Register soon after arriving in the dusty colony of 17,000 South Australians in 1855. In it, Todd laid out a precise plan for building a continent wide meteorological network that would rival any other in the world.  From scratch, this required the building of telegraph networks across vast areas that Europeans had not even explored.  He stated the need for precise instruments and their trained observers to be placed where settlements were many hundreds of kilometres distant and technological support was non-existent.  Additonally, his continental system required a high degree of cooperation where governments of the 6 colonies acted like separate countries. Any betting person would have dismissed this 28 year old as an innocent dreamer, yet 30 years later, Todd’s work in surveying, astronomy, telegraphy, horology, electrical engineering and the post office came together to establish the network, one he dreamed of in his candle lit study soon after arriving in the new colony.  By 1883, at his West Terrace Observatory, Todd and a few staff were drawing synoptic weather charts that we would recognise on our televisions today.  They covered such vast distances, Perth to Auckland, Darwin to Hobart, that they eclipsed the American and European charts of the day.  His meteorological network was in many ways the result of his other endeavours, for without them he would not have had the communication systems and the electrical power to run them, nor the engineering precision of his instruments, nor the precise timing and the trained manpower to make the required observations that enabled the production of synoptic charts and weather forecasts on a daily basis.

19th Century Meteorology - It’s Impact

We cannot underestimate the impact meteorology had on the inhabitants of Europe, America and Australia.  Prior to Todd’s contemporaries, weather was something that happened locally and seasonally.  As a settler, the experience of rain may have stretched as far as a horse ride away, say 100 kilometres.  Beyond that, news did not travel fast and shared weather shared with country and inter-colonial citizens was not considered.  Also, weather was a seasonal event, with rain a winter experience and dry a summer certainty in South Australia.  What happened in another colony was of little practical consequence and only dimly realised. However, this localised world was challenged by the geographic breadth of Todd’s synoptic maps.  They would have been beyond the comprehension of the mid-nineteenth century residents of the seven colonies.  The distance from Perth to Auckland on Todd’s maps is 5335 kilometres, not much less than London to Kabul in Afghanistan, an incomprehensible distance to citizens of Europe and their colonial cousins, a population bound by horse and cart and the occasional train ride.  But the audacity of distance shown in these maps was amplified as the they were overlayed daily by weather data drawn from the time-synchronised observations of dozens of observers made possible by the new telegraph systems.  Both the space and time dimensions of the weather systems were revolutionary in mid-Victorian times.  Today, we can see this revolution unfold in the daily weather maps drawn by Todd and his staff from 1878 to 1909. Weather systems affecting Perth on Monday could be in Adelaide by Wednesday and Melbourne the next day.  The rapidity of change and the vast distances covered were laid bare by modern meteorology as Todd’s synoptic charts were posted daily for public consumption. In it’s own way, these consecutive charts showed how integrated the separate colonies of southern Australia really were.

Other Todd Firsts

Beyond the weighty practicalities of helping to establish the continental observation network, his contribution to meteorology has been poorly understood.  Todd was the first to arrive in Australia with an appointment as a Weather Observer.  Having been mentored by James Glaisher at Greenwich, one of the best meteorological minds of his time, he was fully across the theory and practice of the new science of meteorology. Todd established the first permanent weather bureau on the continent.  He was also the first to suggest that weather systems in southern Australia did not proceed from east to west, as commonly thought, but rather moved from west to east.  Todd was also the first to make the connection between weather phenomenon in India and Australia, an effect we now know of as the Southern Oscillation, part of the ENSO effect responsible for causing droughts and floods. With his passion to be at the forefront of science and technology, Todd was a senior participant in the 3 key Inter-Colonial conferences where meteorological policy and practice for the Australasian region was established, following the latest standards form Europe and America.  In addition, he has written the only account of these conferences that has survived in the public domain today. At Federation, he was the senior meteorologist in Australia, having served 50 years in his post. His legacy is with us today as volunteers digitise data from his extensive weather journals that cover meteorology in the southern and eastern colonies from 1879-1909. This data is now available to researchers in their quest to analyse climate change more than a 100 years later.  In addition, he has left us with the only continuous record of daily synoptic charts for that 32 year period.

National Significance

Todd was the first person to arrive on the continent of Australia charged with the responsibility of Metorological Observer. At Federation, he had served for an unmatched 50 years and was the senior meteorologist in our new country. On his arrival, he identified the importance of the telegraph to the development of modern meteorology.  His work in this area is legendary and enabled the growth of the national observation network. He was the first to arrive in Australia with calibrated instruments, he was one of three colonial meteorologist who developed the national observations and reporting network, and he was the first to speculate about the ENSO effect on Australian weather
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