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Friday, 11th March 2011

Observatory's early history

In Early China Coast Meteorology - The role of Hong Kong, P. Kevin MacKeown retraces the history of the Hong Kong Observatory from the early 1880s to 1910s, and reveals details not found in local official accounts. It fills some knowledge gaps I have regarding the observatory and its development during those incubating years.

The establishment of the observatory in 1883 owes much to the scientific background of three gentlemen in Hong Kong: J.M. Price, surveyor general, Pope Hennessy, governor, and H.S. Palmer, aide-de-camp to the governor, around the period from 1870s to early 1880s. Both Price and Palmer were engineers, while Palmer had an extensive interest in astronomy. Hennessy graduated from a medical college and had written on astronomical observations.

It was Price who first proposed time keeping (based on astronomical observations) as the main thrust for the embryonic observatory, among its kindred duties which included geomagnetic monitoring and meteorological observations. This was pragmatic, the premise being that the foundation cost could soon be recouped through a small charge on ships visiting the port. Such thinking of course contrasted with that of the Colonial Office in U.K. which normally asked for the relevant observations to be collected for future scientific pursuits.

As events unfolded, meteorology and the associated typhoon warnings and weather forecasts quickly took centre stage and shaped the work of the Hong Kong Observatory even to this day.

Figure 1     The Hong Kong Observatory in 1913
Figure 1      The Hong Kong Observatory in 1913

Enter William Doberck (1852-1941), the founding director of the observatory from 1883 to 1907. Renowned for his work in astronomy, he favoured the title of Government Astronomer over the official one, namely director of the observatory. This pretty much sums up the uneasy relationship he had with the local government throughout his stint in Hong Kong --- the government expected him to contribute to storm warning, while he 'moonlighted' and continued to publish extensively on astronomy.

Dr. Doberck was quite a character --- a colourful one if the remark by a Colonial Office official when he applied for his sister to be his assistant is any guide: "seeing that he is a difficult man for the other people to get on with ... there is considerable advantage in selecting his sister." When he arrived in Hong Kong, he expected himself to play a leading role in meteorology in east Asia. This was denied, largely because the observatories in Shanghai and Manila run by Jesuit priests at the time were much advanced in storm warnings. The antagonism towards these observatories lasted through his directorship and beyond.

That he chose to hold those warnings from the Jesuits in low regard, it can be said, was much at the expense of his own reputation and of Hong Kong. Messages from Manila reporting fierce storms would have provided the much needed forewarning, although it should be noted that not all typhoons affecting Hong Kong pass through the Philippines.

In the Observatory's early history, ships at sea had yet to make their weather reports available through wireless, in time to be of any use to the forecaster. This did not happen until the early 1910s. Even then there were no weather radar, satellites, or reconnaissance reports from aircraft flying into storms. All these appeared only after WWII. One can imagine the impossible job those early meteorologists had in locating typhoons, let alone giving people ample warnings.

A meticulous person, Dr. Doberck did bring system and scientific rigour to meteorology in Hong Kong. For instance, the air pressure measurements conducted at the observatory compared, through intermediate standards, favourably with the standard at U.K., to within 0.003 inch, or 0.08 mm of mercury, during the 35-year period from 1883 to 1918.

Prof. MacKeown taught me science at university in the 1970s, and I was among those who were enlightened. Despite the passage of all these years, his teachings this time in Early China Coast Meteorology never cease to amaze.

B.Y. Lee

Reference: J.E. Peacock (Ed.), Hong Kong Meteorological Records and Climatological Notes 60 years 1884-1939, 1947-1950, The Government Printer, Hong Kong, 1952.

Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>