Exactly 100 years ago today, at 10.05am on 26 April 1921, an unassuming cleric and academic, Rev William F Robison, the president of St Louis University, made history as the first person in the world to broadcast a weather report. He was launching the university’s own radio station, WEW, and followed some opening remarks with a 500-word meteorological bulletin.
Weather forecasting in Britain actually began 60 years before, when the Meteorological Office, a department within the Board of Trade founded to predict storms and limit loss of life at sea, began to supply the Times with weather reports in 1861. The shipping forecast was launched in 1867, when information about marine conditions was telegraphed to ports and harbours all round the UK coast.
When most of us think of the weather forecast, though, we tend to think of television and a presenter standing in front of a weather map. The first TV forecasts, on the BBC in 1936, featured rudimentary hand-drawn maps, with an off-screen narration by someone almost certainly wearing black tie.
It wasn’t until 1954 that the weather was given a face – that of George Cowling, who stood in front of the (still hand-drawn) BBC weather map and gave his predictions. Cowling, a man unaccustomed to the limelight, was more interested in the weather than being on TV, and joined the RAF as a military meteorologist in 1957.
Over the years, very few weather presenters have been employed by the BBC. Most have been with the Met Office. This has not always been the case with other broadcasters. The little-lamented tabloid channel L!VE TV, for example, was less interested in meteorological credibility, hence its decision to broadcast the weather in Norwegian. This may have been a tribute to Vilhelm Bjerknes (1862-1951), a physicist and one of the founding fathers of meteorology, but it’s just possible that it had more to do with the young, blond, female presenters. Even today, it doesn’t take long online to find endless pages devoted to ranking the world’s hottest weather presenters. Will the drizzle be any less drizzly if we’re told about it by someone in tight clothes?
Each generation has its memorable weather presenters. For me, the forecast will always be Fish, or the breathlessly enthusiastic Ian McCaskill, armed with their magnetic symbols that, with luck, would stick to the spot on the map where they put them. Today’s favourites, according to a recent Radio Times poll, are Carol Kirkwood and the famous finger of forecasting himself, Tomasz Schafernaker. Although, judging by recent events, perhaps Alex Beresford might be in with a shout now.
Just as the forecasters change, so too does the weather backdrop. Gone are the magnetic clouds that replaced the old hand-drawn weather maps. Now digital technology has given us satellite images and CGI.
In a 2017 podcast, weather forecaster Peter Gibb recalled how predicting conditions made a big leap forward in the 1980s thanks to a new supercomputer. This processing behemoth had roughly a third of the power of a modern smartphone. Today, the Met Office uses the Cray XC40, one of the most powerful computers in meteorology, capable of performing 14,000 trillion arithmetic operations every second. Even that, though, is shortly to be rendered obsolete. Last week, the Met Office announced that it is to partner with Microsoft to build the most powerful weather computer in the world, twice as powerful as any other computer in the UK.
Even without this new processing titan, modern forecasts are so precise, they even factor in variables such as soil type and whether the leaves are on the trees. The result of all this gadgetry is more accurate forecasts than ever before. Now, four-day forecasts are as accurate as one-day forecasts were 30 years ago. That said, long-term forecasting is still a fool’s game. Just look at the plethora of “Three months of blizzards” headlines certain newspapers churn out on quiet days, based on the sensationalist hypothesis of a fantasist with a ZX Spectrum.
Paradoxically, though, greater accuracy might spell the end for weather broadcasts. The ability to get a prediction not just for your region, but specifically for your city, town or even your village, is an extraordinary leap forward. But it’s not one that you’re likely to benefit from on a national broadcast. If I lived in Mayfair (a guy can dream, right?) Schafernaker might be able to tell me what the weather will be like in London and the south-east, but any number of apps will tell me what will happen in Mayfair every hour for the next few days. This kind of renders the weather broadcasts defunct.
In short, then, 100 years after the world’s first broadcast weather report, the outlook for weather forecasts on TV and radio could best be described as distinctly unsettled.
The 14th annual iPhone photography awards offer glimpses of beauty, hope and the endurance of the human spirit. Out of thousands of submissions, photojournalist Istvan Kerekes of Hungary was named the grand prize winner for his image Transylvanian Shepherds. In it, two rugged shepherds traverse an equally rugged industrial landscape, bearing a pair of lambs in their arms.
Alphabet today launched its latest tech startup, Intrinsic, which aims to build commercial software that will power industrial robots.
Intrinsic will focus on developing software control tools for industrial robots used in manufacturing, we’re told. Its pitch is that the days of humans having to manually program and adjust a robot’s every move are over, and that mechanical bots should be more autonomous and smart, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and leaps in training techniques.
This could make robots easier to direct – give them a task, and they’ll figure out the specifics – and more efficient – the AI can work out the best way to achieve its goal.
“Over the last few years, our team has been exploring how to give industrial robots the ability to sense, learn, and automatically make adjustments as they’re completing tasks, so they work in a wider range of settings and applications,” said CEO Wendy Tan White.
“Working in collaboration with teams across Alphabet, and with our partners in real-world manufacturing settings, we’ve been testing software that uses techniques like automated perception, deep learning, reinforcement learning, motion planning, simulation, and force control.”
Tan White – a British entrepreneur and investor who was made an MBE by the Queen in 2016 for her services to the tech industry – will leave her role as vice president of X, Alphabet’s moonshot R&D lab, to concentrate on Intrinsic.
She earlier co-founded and was CEO of website-building biz Moonfruit, and helped multiple early-stage companies get up and running as a general partner at Entrepreneur First, a tech accelerator. She is also a board trustee of the UK’s Alan Turing Institute, and member of Blighty’s Digital Economic Council.
“I loved the role I played in creating platforms that inspired the imagination and entrepreneurship of people all over the world, and I’ve recently stepped into a similar opportunity: I’m delighted to share that I’m now leading Intrinsic, a new Alphabet company,” she said.
The new outfit is another venture to emerge from Google-parent Alphabet’s X labs, along with Waymo, the self-driving car startup; and Verily, a biotech biz. ®
Charles River is expanding its testing capabilities in Ballina as part of its partnership with Covid-19 vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca.
Contract research organisation Charles River Laboratories is planning an €8m site expansion in Ballina to facilitate batch release testing for Covid-19 vaccines from AstraZeneca.
The expansion at the Mayo site will create an additional 1,500 sq m of lab space and 90 highly skilled jobs in the area over the next three years.
The company provides longstanding partners AstraZeneca with outsourced regulated safety and development support on a range of treatments and vaccines, including testing and facilitating the deployment of Vaxzevria for Covid-19 and Fluenz for seasonal infleunza.
The latest investment follows earlier expansions at the Ballina site and Charles River recently announced plans to establish a dedicated laboratory space to handle testing of SARS-CoV-2 and other similar pathogens that cause human disease.
“We are incredibly proud of the transformational changes we have implemented on site and the role that Charles River has played in supporting the safe and timely roll-out of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine,” said Liam McHale, site director for Charles River Ballina.
“Throughout the pandemic, our site remained fully operational while keeping our employees safe and having a positive impact on human health. Our expanded facility will provide us with the increased capacity needed to continue the essential services we provide to our clients.”
Charles River acquired the Ballina facility, which focuses on biologics testing, in 2002. The company employs 230 people at its two facilities in Ireland, including the Mayo site and a site in Dublin, established in 2017, which serves as the EMEA and APAC headquarters for the company’s microbial solutions division.
IDA Ireland is supporting the expansion. Mary Buckley, executive director of the agency, said Charles River is an “employer of long standing” in Co Mayo.
“The enhancement of its product lines and the development of additional capability at the Ballina facility is most welcome,” she added. “Today’s announcement is strongly aligned to IDA Ireland’s regional pillar and its continued commitment to winning jobs and investment in regional locations.”
Dan Wygal, country president for AstraZeneca Ireland, added: “Our Covid-19 vaccine, Vaxzevria, undergoes extremely robust safety and quality testing prior to becoming available for patients. We are committed to bringing safe, effective vaccines to Ireland and other markets as quickly as possible, and Charles River will continue to be an important partner in this regard.”