Of the many meteorological instruments developed over centuries to measure and forecast weather, few objects possess the visual intrigue and conversation-starting appeal as the storm glass. Also referred to as a weather glass or camphor glass, this distinctive liquid-filled glass device has a long affiliation with predicting imminent storms at sea and on land. While less scientifically grounded than modern technology, storm glasses remain a decorative staple in many households celebrating their mystique.
In simplest form, the storm glass consists of a sealed, glass container housing a mixture of liquid compounds like water, camphor, potassium nitrate, ammonium chloride and ethanol. The liquids interact and crystallize in captivating ways when temperature and atmospheric pressure fluctuate. Storm glass enthusiasts would closely examine the changing crystals, bubbles, precipitates and solubility within the glass body to interpret signs of impending meteorological events.
The Origins and History
The genesis of the storm glass dates back to the 17th century when French astrologer Goadoud crafted the earlier “weather dial”. His crude device used distilled water inside glass vials, which expands and contracts minutely as atmospheric conditions evolve. Across Western Europe at the height of naval exploration, a priority was devising accurate weather forecasting instruments for ships venturing through volatile oceans.
In the mid-19th century, the modern version of storm glass emerged from the addition of camphor, salt compounds and alcohol by Admiral Robert FitzRoy of the British Royal Navy. FitzRoy’s model added the visual drama of crystallization and solubility reacting more prominently to temperature and pressure changes. Remaining wildly popular through the Victorian era, FitzRoy storm glasses were a prized ship’s instrument and drawing room novelty.
How Does It Work?
While the exact scientific forces within a storm glass are still not completely understood, the essential mechanism relies on the delicate relationship between solubility, temperature and air pressure. As the ambient barometric pressure increases or decreases, it directly impacts how the miscible solution’s compounds either dissolve or crystallize out of solvent. Simultaneously, the liquid components expand or contract slightly in volume with temperature fluctuations.
The camphor crystals in suspension within the chamber provide the visual spectacle that continues fascinating storm glass owners today. When the glass body warms during high pressure systems, the lowered solubility means more camphor precipitates out in lovely branching crystals. Then when low pressure conditions return, the camphor rapidly dissolves back into solution. These unique properties lend themselves towards basic weather prediction and measurement capabilities that enthralled earlier explorers.
Of course, today’s accurate meteorology relies on sophisticated technology like Doppler radar, atmospheric data buoys and complex computer modeling rather than charmingly simple storm glasses. However, the fundamental force of air pressure changes central to a storm glass’ functionality does provide genuine indicators around short term weather shifts. So while more of a decorative conversation piece than groundbreaking forecasting tool, storm glasses still showcase 19th century ingenuity through their crystalline dance and maritime legacy.