A Brill Calendar: June 3
Few prejudices are so deeply entrenched in Dutch public opinion as the fancy that the 19th century was an age of national stagnation.
The Holland of this era is seen as being inhabited by prudish individuals, without interest in the outside world, rather longing for olden days of de Ruyter fighting, Rembrandt painting, and the Republic (rather than Queen Victoria’s subjects) still ruling the waves.
Nothing could be more wrong. An experiment in physics using an ultra-modern tool, (a steam-locomotive dashing from Utrecht city to Maarssen village on June 3 1845), is just one refutation of this misconception amongst an untold number. It tested a very recent theory (one from 1842): namely, how frequencies of oscillation are affected by the relative motion between source and observer. An enterprising Dutchman, Christophorus Henricus Didericus Buys Ballot (Kloetinge October 10 1817 – Utrecht February 3 1890) had organized this spectacle after reading a paper by Christian Doppler, an Austrian physicist.
The sensational event – and its result, confirming the theory – caused Buys’s appointment as Professor at Utrecht in 1847, starting a career that resulted in the birth of scholarly investigation of weather & climate: meteorology. A brand-new device, the electromagnetic telegraph, became a ‘conditio sine qua non’ for the discipline: daily weather-maps. Inventing fundamental meteorological techniques, Buys created the royal meteorological institute KNMI (1854) a few years before formulating a law carrying his name: the relation between barometer readings and direction & force of winds (1857).
It is seldom that the exploration of a new area of inquiry, (involving participation from all over the globe), was crowned as fittingly as in his case: Buys Ballot introduced a plan for an ‘International Meteorological Institute’. It was realized in 1878, due to his prestige as a scientist, and his skill as trans-national organizer.