The weather vane - a potted history

  • The Tower of the Winds in Athens. Image: M Doege.

    The weather vane over Cheltenham Racecourse stables. Photo: Barry Batchelor/PA Wire.

    The weather vane at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, Wimbledon, London. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire.

    Weather vanes atop Westminster Abbey, London. Photo: Clara Molden/PA.

  • The weather vane - a potted history
    16.02.2012 16:26


    The humble weather vane can still be a useful tool for rule-of-thumb forecasting.

    Although weather vanes might have been used in Mesopotamia 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, the first known was placed, appropriately, atop the Tower of the Winds in Athens, which also sported sundials and a water clock.

    The tower was built somewhere between the 200 and 50 BCE, and the wind vane – long since lost - took the shape of a Triton, a mythological merman-like demi-god who could calm or rouse the sea by blowing lustily through a conch trumpet.

    The structure of the Tower of Winds itself was itself designed as a giant direction indicator. It is octagonal, and a frieze near the top around its diameter depicts on each of its eight sides the personification – or rather deification – of the cardinal and ordinal wind directions.

    Working from N through NE, E, SE etc, the carvings portray the wind gods Boreas, Kaikias, Eurus, Apeliotes, Notus, Livas, Zephyrus and Skiron. Below these representations are eight sundials, while the water clock - or clepsydra - inside was driven by water running down from the Acropolis.

    It is rare that one sees a Triton-shaped wind vane these days but they have taken, and still take, many shapes and forms.

    Viking vanes were roughly quarter-circle shaped and often adorned by a beast, mythical or real, a style that can still be seen in Scandinavia. Most often the Vikings would place these vanes on the prows of their long ships, and they would point in the direction the wind was blowing. These days the convention is to indicate whence the wind is coming.

    The weathercock soon became the archetype, possibly - although perhaps apocryphally - because of a papal edict in the ninth century CE. The pope was supposed to have decreed that churches should surmount their towers with cockerel or rooster to remind worshippers of a passage from the Gospel of Luke: "I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me." Eventually these became one with the weather vane to kill two birds with one stone.

    Mediaeval wind vanes in Europe were more than decorative. They were a vital tool for archers to better aim their arrows. A cloth version called a banneret could be carried into the field, the precursor of the wind sock.

    As iron replaced copper through the 18th and 19th centuries as the material of choice, designs became more complex, with all manner of shape and ornamentation – fish, boats, domestic and wild animals, birds and even comets, after the passage of Halley’s comet in 1758. 

    Although there are now far more sophisticated means of measuring weather and applying it to forecasts, meteorologists still start with the basics such as temperature and wind, especially for very short-term forecasts.

    There are more accurate means of measuring wind these days - but barely; and a sudden change of wind direction is often the first sign of a change in weather. Our ancestors knew this well.

    By: Stephen Davenport