City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Weather Report

Written in


150 years old this month, the UK’s Met Office have just bought themselves a new computer, upgading "from a pair of Cray T3Es to the NEC SX-6."

They have a long history of using mathematics and computers in their work:

"In 1922, the English mathematician, Lewis Fry Richardson was the first to apply mathematics to the dynamics of the atmosphere, which allowed predictions to be made about the weather. Unfortunately, being in a pre-computer age meant that the calculations would take so long that even with many people working to solve the equations, the answer would not be found before the next days weather arrived. Even Richardson himself determined that it would take 64,000 people to perform the calculations needed to provide a forecast in time …"

Fifty years ago, they decided to go out and pick up "an electrical desk-calculator and the services of a mathematician specifically trained in computational methods".

Over the next 10 years, some of the staff then tinkered with the legendary computer own by catering company Lyons, seeing the potential for computationally-driven weather forecasts, before finally buying their own kit in 1959.

"Nicknamed ‘LEO’ short for Lyons Electronic Office, it was built in the 1950’s and ran the first real business computer programme. It was used to calculate the value of Lyons’ bakery sales … With glowing valves and copious amounts of paper tape the Met Office finally embraced the computer age in 1959 and purchased a Ferranti Mercury, which was nicknamed Meteor. Since then, the computers have been regularly replaced to match the requirements needed to run increasingly complex numerical models of the weather, and for handling the multitude of weather data from surface observations and satellites. Currently forecasts for the next 24 hours are correct on six days out of seven, and today’s three-day forecasts are as accurate as one-day forecasts were 20 years ago."

Compare and contrast these pictures of the Ferranti Mercury with the NEC SX-6. Compare again with this picture of assistants in the Communications room in 1965 receiving weather conditions from weather stations and weather ships. Progress seems to imply the disappearance of people … 150 years old – here’s the story of the Met Office & its computers
The Met Office:  History of Computers 1959 to 2004


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