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Francis Beaufort

Sir Francis Beaufort (1774-1856) was a great Irish hydrographer (map-maker). Beaufort was the creator the Beaufort scale for indicating wind force. From the circle representing a weather station, a stave (as in musical notation) extends, with one or more half or whole barbs. For example, a stave with 3 ½ barbs represents Beaufort seven on the scale, decoded as 32-38 mph, or a "Fresh Gale".

Other allusions to the man, Beaufort, are found on geographic maps. For his name is used geographically perhaps more than any other person. Among these:

Cryptographers also associate the name with a famous cypher.

In 1829, at age 55 (retirement age of most administrative contemporaries), Beaufort became the Hydrographer of the Bristish Admiralty, remaining so for 25 years, longer than his predecessors or successors. Beaufot converted a minor chart repository into the finest surveying and charting institution in the world. Some of his excellent charts are still used, 200 years after he created them.

Beaufort trained Admiral Robert FitzRoy who (as Commander Fitzroy) was Captain of the HMS Beagle, in the famous voyage with Charles Darwin to the Galápagos Archipelago, resulting in biological discoveries that eventually led to Darwin's theory of evolution.

Beaufort was descended from Huguenots who fled France after the terrible St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, eventually settling in Ireland. Young Francis' father, also named Francis, was a vicar of the Anglican Church in a region near Dublin. Francis left school and went to sea at the age of fourteen, but became sufficiently self-educated to associate with some of the greatest scientists (e.g. Herschel, Airy, Babbage) of his time.

As a consequence of being shipwrecked at age fifteen, in peril of starvation, due to a faulty sea chart, Beaufort became obscessed with the importance of education and the development of accurate charts for those risking the seas.

Beginning on a merchant ship of an East India company, Beaufort rose (in this period of the "Napoleonic Wars") as midshipman, lieutenant, commander and captain in His Majesty's Navy. Whereas other wartime officers sought leisurely pursuits at each opportunity, Beaufort spent his leisure time taking soundings and bearings, making astronomical observations to determine longitude and latitude, measuring shorelines, to compile his results in new charts.

When finally assigned as captain, Beaufort's survey of the previously uncharted coast of southern Turkey was recognized as the finest yet submitted to the Admiralty. While thus surveying, Beaufort incurred nineteen wounds during capture of an enemy vessel under the active guns of a Spanish fortress.

During his tenure, the great astronomical observatories at Greenwich, England, and Cape of Good Hope, Africa, were placed under Beaufort's administration. Beaufort directed some of the major maritime explorations and experiments of that period. For eight years, Beaufort directed the Arctic Council during it search for the explorer, Sir John Franklin, lost in his last polar voyage to search for the legendary Northwest Passage.

As a council member the Royal Society, the Royal Observatory, and the Royal Geographic Society (which he helped found), Beaufort used his position and prestige as a scientist to act a "middleman" for many scientists of his time. Beaufort represented the geographers, astronomers, oceanographers, geodesists, and meteorologists to that government agency, the Hydrographic Office, which could support their research. In this capacity, Beaufort approved Charles Darwin as naturalist on Fitzroy's voyage to the Galapagos Archipelago.

Overcoming many objections, Beaufort obtained government support for the Antarctic voyage of 1839-43 by James James Clark Ross for extensive measuements of terestial magnetism, coordinated with similar measurements in Europe and Asia. (This is comparable to the International Geophysical Year of our time.)

Beaufort promoted devolopment of reliable tide tables around British shores, motivating similar research for Europe and North America. Aiding friend and fellow scientist, William Whewell, Beaufort gained the support of the Duke of Wellington in expanding record-keeping at 200 coastguard stations of Great Britain. Beaufort gave enthusiastic supported to his friend, the Royal Astronomer and noted mathematician George Airy in achieving a historic period of measurements by the Greenwich and Good Hope observatories.

Beaufort also endured the political struggles of government administration and naval promotion. Long denied deserved advancement, these injustices became notorious to his fellow officers. Knighted in 1848, he became the "Sir Francis Beaufort" known to posterity.

Beaufort's extant correspondence of 200+ letters and journals contained portions written in personal cypher, which his biographer deciphered and published for the first time.


Beaufort of the Admiralty, Alfred Friendly, Random House, New York, 1973.