John Fletcher Miller
John Fletcher Miller was considered one of the foremost meteorologists of his time. One of a group of Quakers from the north of England to take a great interest in meteorology in the 19th Century, his meticulous observations and network of weather stations established the Lake District as one of the wettest places on earth, with higher rainfall than parts of the tropics.
Born to a Quaker family in Whitehaven in Cumbria, he attended the same school at which the scientist John Dalton had previously taught. He began keeping a meteorological record when he was only fifteen. He had planned to become a doctor, but when chronic pain prevented him, he focused instead on continuing his observations.
In the course of his life, Miller recorded not just temperature, rainfall, wind speed and direction, but details such as surface evaporation, dewpoint (determined by observation and experiment) and the radiation of heat from the earth’s surface at night. His descriptions of weather are often powerful and evocative.
"At about 11pm there was a fearfully vivid flash of lightning followed instantaneously by a deafening pearl of thunder, when the lightning struck a flag staff at Lonsdale Place, which it shivered into a countless number of pieces, some of which were projected to a great distance."
In 1837, Miller became a member of the British Meteorological Society, and on their behalf, he recorded observations on a journey to Sydney, Australia, and from there to Valparaiso in Chile, a voyage he undertook to improve his health.
In 1846, he set up a network of 26 weather stations, with rain gauges and other equipment, at different altitudes around the Lake District, including Scafell Pike (the highest point in England). Although he employed shepherds and other helpers to record measurements for him, he would at times walk as much as 70 miles in one day to check his instruments.
This was the first time rainfall in the Lake District had been recorded in such systematic detail, and his five-year study established it as one of the wettest places on earth, with rainfall higher than some parts of the tropics. He observed that precipitation increased up to an altitude of 2000 feet, after which it decreased.
In 1847 the Royal Society awarded him a grant of money to help with his experiments and in 1850, he was elected as a Fellow.
Like many of his Quaker contemporaries in the north of England, he was interested in both meteorology and astronomy. In 1849, he built his own observatory, with a rotating roof, next to the family’s tannery in Whitehaven. He fitted it with a 9.5 inch refracting telescope on an equatorial mount, which he used to observe Encke's Comet, Saturn, the Sun and Mercury and events such as shooting stars and an eclipse. He also had a fine wire micrometer which allowed him to make precise measurements of double stars, thought at the time to be one of the hardest challenges for an astronomer.
He often gave lectures in Whitehaven on scientific topics and welcomed interest in his observatory.
He died in 1856, having only just attained the age of 40. Before his death, he was researching a compendium of the Lake District, incorporating its geology, botany, ornithology, and entomology, and focusing on plants and insects unique to the area.