The Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory

Signals to Lighthouses and Astronomy to Oceanography

The Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory had a long and diverse scientific tradition which started in 1845 when the first Liverpool Observatory was established.

The original Observatory was built in response to provide accurate navigation for shipping. The observatory had three main requirements:

  • To determine the exact longitude of Liverpool. This was eventually achieved when the difference in longitude between Greenwich and Valentia, Ireland, was calculated, using two intermediate stations, one of which was Liverpool Observatory.
  • To provide accurate time for the Port of Liverpool. This was determined by observing stars with a transit telescope, from which Greenwich Mean Time could be calculated. A daily signal was given at 1 p.m. by the release of a time ball on the observatory roof.
  • To test and rate ships' chronometers against accurate time. Chambers with regulated temperatures were set up in which to test chronometers.

Meteorological observations were also started to provide local forecasts for shipping.The observatory moved to Bidston Hill in 1866 and continued to serve the port of Liverpool and its maritime needs. As Bidston was 3 miles from Liverpool the daily signal was changed to firing a cannon – The 1 o'clock Gun. The observatory continued its science by starting meteorological observations in 1867 and several seismographs were set up in 1897 in the deep cellars for experiments in the then new science of seismology.

Doodson tide machine

In the early 20th century the Liverpool Observatory at Bidston and the newly-founded Tidal Institute at the University of Liverpool quickly established a close collaboration which resulted in the amalgamation of the two Institutes in 1929,  providing accurate tidal predictions.

Professor Joseph Proudman and Dr. Arthur Doodson became internationaly recognised as experts in the analysis and prediction of tides.

From the 1920's upto the 1950's the Liverpool Observatory and Tidal Institute (LOTI) was predicting tides for two-thirds of the world, expertise which was very useful during the Second World War particularly for the D-Day landings.

In 1953 a disastrous storm surge flood on the U.K East Coast caused the deaths of 300 people. This highlighted the public need for an accurate flood warning system. The cause of such floods due to a combination of high tides and strong winds had already been a subject of study at LOTI and J. R. Rossiter wrote the report detailing its causes. After the initial use of approximate statistical methods development work led to the world's first storm-surge prediction scheme based on a numerical model being set up in 1978 and which has been upgraded ever since.

In the latter 20th century the work of the Institute (which became the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory in 1987) expanded into many areas of oceanographic research including long-term sea-level change, a by-product of which was recognition of the need for a barrier in the Thames. The global circulation of the world's oceans is being studied by means of instruments in remote areas including Antarctica and, closer at hand.


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