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Ever since Torricelli's pioneering work, the barometer has been repeatedly re-designed to improve its portability and increase its accuracy.

Dyed spirit or mercury used in early barometers would stain or get stuck in the tube, and, as barometers had an open tube, mercury often spilled out of the instrument during field expeditions. Cistern type barometers were designed to adjust the mercury level for calibration, and were later designed with a plug valve to prevent leakage.

Bending or folding the barometer tube was another solution to reduce the size of the apparatus. Manipulating the glass tube in this way also amplified the movements of the mercury and enabled designers to increase the increments of a marked scale.

Aneroid barometers did not use liquid to measure air pressure. Instead the flexibility of materials such as metal springs bended and distorted shape according to air pressure. Although the concept of an aneroid barometer was first suggested in the early eighteenth century by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), its successful construction was not realized until the mid-nineteenth century.

Domestic use

Domestic stick barometer
Domestic stick barometer by Benjamin Martin, c.1770 (Wh. 0811).

When using barometers during field observation, natural philosophers noticed that certain weather conditions appeared when the barometer level read particular heights. For example, a mercury barometer on a sunny day stood generally above 30 inches, but on rainy days it was often below 29 inches.

In 1675, barometers for domestic use in weather prediction began to be produced, which quickly became a status symbol for wealthy individuals. For instance, the instrument maker Benjamin Martin (1704-1782) produced finely crafted barometers as luxury objects for the home.

Throughout the eighteenth century, the study of weather and meteorology became increasingly fashionable as a pursuit for the gentry.

Allison Ksiazkiewicz

Allison Ksiazkiewicz, 'Design concerns and solutions', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge.

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We will be reopening on 17th May!

Booking is essential, but tickets are free. They will be available from Tuesday 11th May at the University of Cambridge Museums website. Tickets will be available for the following week.

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