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The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as a young child

Popular old barometers for
forecasting the weather from home

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Two types of barometer could be found in homes of years ago - the aneroid barometer which is the subject of this page and an earlier type called the mercury barometer. Both worked by measuring air pressure - see how barometers forecast weather.

My mother-in-law's barometer was an aneroid barometer, and she always seemed to be tapping it to see what the weather was going to be like. To find out why, read on.

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Advantages of aneroid barometers

Aneroid barometers became relatively common in middle class families during the 1930s. They were cheaper and easier to read than mercury barometers, and although they were often hung on walls for display like mercury barometers, they could also be made small and consequently portable, particularly as they did not contain any liquid.

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How the aneroid barometer works

Instead of having a pool of mercury that the atmosphere pushes down on, as is the case for the mercury barometer, aneroid barometers have a flexible, air-tight metal box. When the air pressure rises, it squashes the box slightly and conversely when the air pressure falls, the box flexes slightly outwards. A spring attached to the box moves a pointer over a scale which, like the mercury barometer, is calibrated to indicate bad weather for low pressure and good weather for high pressure. (As air pressure decreases as one goes up a mountain, the calibration can also be for height, so making the device into an altimeter.)

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Wall mounted aneroid barometers in homes

Wall mounted aneroid barometer in carved wooden case

A wall mounted aneroid barometer, photographed in Llanerchaeron House. Note the old-fashioned writing on the dial, although the barometer is likely to be more modern than a mercury barometer.

Many aneroid barometers went some way towards mimicking the appearance of the older and more expensive mercury barometers in that they were housed in a tall elegantly carved, polished wood cases. Although the height of these barometers was unnecessary as far as the workings of the barometer was concerned, it was used to house a thermometer for measuring air temperature.

Wall mounted aneroid barometer in carved wooden case

Dial of an aneroid barometer. Note the second pointer that can serve as a reference position by setting it to coincide with the main pointer by twisting the knob at the centre. Later, the difference between the two pointers shows the direction of the change in air pressure and hence the direction of the change in the weather.

Like mercury barometers, an aneroid barometer only measures air pressure at the time and place one looks at it.

For forecasting, what matters is the direction of change in the air pressure which indicates the direction of the change in the weather.

Aneroid barometers make the direction of change easier to see because they come with a second or reference pointer which can be set to be directly under the main pointer. This reference pointer then stays in this position until it is reset. So when the main pointer, moves, how much it has moved can easily be compared with where it was earlier. This corresponds to how much and how quickly the weather is changing.

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Shelf and desktop aneroid barometers in homes and offices

Aneroid barometers are not limited by size in the way that mercury barometers are. So small versions were used for display on shelves and desks.

Aneroid barometer suitable for a shelf or desktop

Small aneroid barometer suitable for a shelf or desktop.
Although not clear in this picture here, the original photo shows the thermometer on the right calibrated in degrees Centigrade, whereas degrees Fahrenheit was standard in Britain in most of the 20th century. So probably this particular device is foreign and the thermometer works on a principle based on a bi-metal strip - but that is a another story.

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So why tap the barometer?

So why did my mother-in-law keep tapping her barometer?

The reason was that sometimes the pointer arrangement of an aneroid barometer can stick. Tapping releases it, so that the difference between the main pointer and the reference pointer becomes more obvious, hence better indicating how the weather is changing.

If you can add anything to this page, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.