Linda Hall Library
Science Engineering Technology

Image from Science Museum London

Image from Science Museum London

Image from Art UK, https://artuk.org/

Image by Alejandro Dau, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40662944

Image by Cait Hurley, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8103142

Robert FitzRoy, an officer of the British Royal Navy, was born July 5, 1805. FitzRoy (also spelled Fitzroy or Fitz Roy) is well-known as the captain of HMS Beagle, the ship that carried Darwin around the world from 1831 to 1836 and provided the occasion for Darwin’s initial thoughts on the origin of species. It is not so often appreciated that FitzRoy, in addition to being a fine surveyor and hydrographer, was a pioneer in the science of meteorology. After his last command and retirement from active duty in 1851, he was appointed to head up a new department and fill a new position, Meteorological Statist to the Board of Trade, which would soon evolve into the Meteorological Office. He solicited weather information from ship captains and even provided them with a barometer of his own invention, with little sayings attached to different barometer readings that suggested what kind of weather lay ahead. In fact, it was FitzRoy who invented the weather forecast–the idea, the practice and the name–around 1859. Modern weather forecasters may not know much about Darwin, but they well know the name of FitzRoy, the man who gave them their jobs.  There is a FitzRoy “storm glass” on display in the Science Museum, London (first two images above).

Unfortunately, FitzRoy had for a long time suffered bouts of depression, and he took his own life in 1865. Darwin contributed £100 to a fund to save his widow and children from poverty. FitzRoy is buried in south London, at All Saints’ Church in Upper Norwood.  The Meteorological Office recently refurbished his gravesite (sixth image).

There is a portrait of a younger FitzRoy at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom in Shrivenham in Oxfordshire (third image).  Darwin also named a marine mammal in honor of FitzRoy, Delphinus fitz-royi, when he published his Zoology of the Beagle in 1839 (fourth image); it is now generally known as the dusky dolphin.  Perhaps FitzRoy’s finest monument is a mountain in South America, Monte Fitz Roy, on the border between Chile and Argentina in southern Patagonia (fifth image).  Although named long after his death, it is a formidable chunk of granite, resisting all climbers’ attempts until 1952, almost 100 years after FitzRoy’s founding of Great Britain’s Meteorological Office.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to ashworthw@umkc.edu.