Exploring weather and all it entails

Welcome to the DRAW Blog! Our focus here is to introduce topics related to DRAW and weather. This could be background information about parts of the project, such as symbols, discussions on weather issues, such as climate change, or may simply be a way to get to know the DRAW team further. Check in every other week for new posts!

Introducing DRAW Members: Vicky Slonosky

by Rachel Black       on April 24th 2019

This week we will explore who is behind our project, starting with Vicky Slonosky!



Vicky Slonosky


Montreal (south shore) via England, France and Toronto and back to Montreal

Role at DRAW:

General wrangler & worrier, and historical weather data expert

Favourite Part of DRAW?

The enthusiasm! Everyone working on it is there because they want to be, and because they believe it’s an interesting and worthwhile project.

Favourite Season? Why?

Autumn- after the summer heat, the relief of the first cool breeze and hint of chill is like a promise of renewal- I think we should start our new year in October. Also, harvest season is a great time for any baker.

Favourite Weather Symbol? Why?

Tough one to choose, but I think snow drift, because it’s so quintessentially Canadian, with “poudrerie”, “blowing” and “drift” seen in the earliest Canada records going back to the 18th century (though admittedly often accompanied by words such as “violent", “affreuse" and “horrible"!)



Favourite Cloud Type? Why?

Cumulus- I love watching them grow, change shape, and billow out against a bright blue sky. Also very cool when they become dark and turn into dramatic storm clouds.

                      Plate 3 from Luke Howard’s Essay on the Modification of Clouds (1865)

Coolest thing you've learned while participating in DRAW?

The sheer number of people who are interested in weather and giving up their precious free time to type in old weather records, as well as the variety of way people have found to use the results.

And of Course:

Sweet or Salty?

Sweet (I'm a baker)

Star Wars or Star Trek?

Star Trek. I used to do all my math homework watching after school reruns

Cats or Dogs?

Allergic to cats, so dogs, but would be happy to have cats if I could

Favourite Animal?

Chickadees. I watch them from my kitchen window and have a special bird feeder only they can get into

Favourite place in Montreal?

So many to choose from! Toss up between St Helen’s Island for outdoors and BAnQ for indoors.

If you'd like to find out more about Vicky Slonosky and her work with DRAW check out our News page or explore the following:

Keep checking out the blog to see more DRAW Member Introductions in the coming weeks alongside our usual content!

Marginalia in the Ledgers

by Rachel Black       on April 10th 2019

Welcome to the third installment of the DRAW Blog! This week we will be discussing Marginalia and the incidences of marginalia which we have found in our own ledgers.

Have you ever encountered a book in which someone wrote in the margins? Or did you ever draw or doodle in the margins of your class notes as a student or while in a meeting? If you have, you have either encountered or created marginalia.

Marginalia are marks that are made as additions to an existing book or document. Specifically marginalia can be drawings, scribbles, comments or critiques which appear in the margins (or sometimes between the lines of the actual text too!). These marks can be placed by a reader after the fact (like if you wrote in notes regarding the text content in order to help organize your thoughts) but can also be created by the author or publisher during the documents’ creation. This can be seen in many biblical manuscripts through liturgical notes in the margins and even in popular fiction, like in the case of 16-18th century copies of Reynard the Fox where moralistic notes are placed in the margins for readers to muse on.

A good example, and one of the better known ones is the marginalia found in medieval manuscripts. Scribes would test their pens on the outer leaves of the manuscripts, and later books, to ensure their strokes would be consistent. These marks could be as random as scribbles or be the full alphabet, musical notation, or drawings. In one case, even a cat added marginalia to the manuscript, leaving paw prints on the pages! You will also see instances of marginalia in archival documents, such as personal papers. McGill University Archives holds private fonds from individuals and some contain marginalia, like the Ross Family Fonds which contains doodles in the student notes of Dorothy Ross - she drew her professors during class!

But why does marginalia matter?

Marginalia can provide a different layer of understanding to the document for modern day readers as information about the construction of the document and who was doing the writing is not usually recorded. As a result, these random doodles can tell us about trends (styles of writing in different parts of Europe for example) or even about the people involved. Marginalia is incredibly important to historians and archivists - even Citizen Scientists too!

We were surprised and excited then that while digitizing the ledgers for transcription that we found marginalia in the pages. Highlighted today are 8 images from ledger pages dating from 1902,and 1904-1906. The marginalia found in our ledgers are interesting; they appear to be something possibly to pass the time as they are not notes or commentary or pen tests - they are specifically portraits of people



Our observers have drawn several people they likely knew in profile view, replicating not only several men (with impressive facial hair) but also several women with fancy up-dos and details such as dress ruffles and hair accessories.



We honestly don’t know too much about these doodles as of yet - a few of the men have names scrawled underneath them and one of the portraits is initialed. We will have to research further into who these people might be or who could have drawn the portraits - all which could provide context to the observatory at the time and who was involved!




If you are interested in reading more about marginalia check out the following:

Or, if you would like to see the marginalia featured here up close, contact the McGill University Archives here.

International Communication: Weather Symbols

by Victoria Slonosky       on March 27th 2019

Welcome to another DRAW Blog post! This week we will be looking at the why and how of weather symbols.

While transcribing you may have come across little symbols used to depict different types of weather, rather than writing. It was one of the most difficult challenges we faced in designing our interface in fact. We can’t just ask our citizen scientists to type them in - there are no keys for these symbols after all! Do we provide a table to consult? Do we ask them to type them in as “rain” or “snow”? What sort of standard should we use that is both accurate and easy for citizen scientists to transcribe?

Our developer Rob came up with the answer: a drop-down menu which let the users match the handwritten symbol on the page with a list of pre-determined symbols. We created this list from a variety of print sources, including the Instructions to Observers (1878) by George Kingston, the director of the Meteorological Service of Canada and Hints to Meteorological Observers (1908, 6th edition) by Marriott.

This difficulty we faced in trying to figure out a standard to transcribe the weather symbols is not new. The idea of trying to use standard words to describe weather goes back to at least the 18th century. One of the first attempts to coordinate standardized international weather observation was undertaken by the Societas Meteorologica Palatina, in Mannheim. The Mannheim network had stations across Europe and in North America and Greenland. A number of factors including cost and the Napoleonic Wars contributed to its demise in 1795 as international correspondence, even about the weather, came under suspicion of potential espionage!

In the early 19th century, Francis Beaufort and Luke Howard continued the search for a standard way to discuss weather. Howard was the topic of our last blog post about cloud classification systems, and Francis Beaufort was a member of the Royal Navy. As such, he was interested in trying to classify wind strength for ships at sea. The Beaufort Scale describes the force of the wind based on visual cues, such as white caps on waves or the filling of the ships’ sails. Beaufort also devised one or two letter codes for weather such as “rn” for rain. He used “b” for “blue sky”, which is why we sometimes see “b” as an indicator for “clear” - this is a common symbol found in our own ledgers!

This system worked well enough for the English but as time went on countries wanted to exchange weather data and an international standard was needed. Letter codes for weather conditions based on each country’s language were too confusing. A standard that transcended language was needed.

The first international meeting to set standards for land-based meteorological measurements was held in Vienna in September 1872. Question 15 on the docket was “Is it desirable to introduce for Clouds, Hydrometeors, and for other extraordinary phenomena, symbols which shall be independent of local language, and therefore universally intelligible?” According to the minutes there was a long debate on the “advisability and the difficulty of the adoptions of symbols”, in which scientists from Brussels, Christiania, Geneva, Florence, Vienna, London, Padua, and St. Petersburg took part.

Consensus was met though and the following symbols were agreed upon:


And well, the rest is history! You can see these symbols in use when transcribing the weather data from our ledgers. If you are interested in looking at further weather symbols, check out Meteorological Observations for a full list of symbols you might see while transcribing!

For more information check out:

The Invention of Clouds - Richard Hamblyn
The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers who Sought to see the Future - Peter Moore

Clouds, Cloud Types and Abbreviations

by Victoria Slonosky       on March 13th 2019

Clouds or the lack of, are an ever present part of our skyscape. It is no wonder then that when the classification of the world around us began during the 18th century Enlightenment, with Carl Linne in Sweden developing the binomial system of plant classification (still used today for all living things) that the classification of clouds wouldn't be far behind. The classification began in the early 19th century with Luke Howard.

Luke Howard was a Quaker chemist who spent hours as a boy watching the clouds. He was among the first to realize that clouds had a limited number of distinct types, rather than endlessly drifting from one shape to the next (Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was another who tried to classify clouds by type and height). He based his Latin cloud names on the typical shapes and heights of the clouds. Cumulus clouds are heap-like, stratus clouds by definition and have some form of precipitation falling from them. As they were based on Latin, Howard’s cloud types were able to be used internationally since he first devised them in 1817.

Howard gave his first lecture on cloud types in London in 1802, when he proposed that there were three main types of clouds: Cirrus, Cumulus, and Status. He recognized also that clouds morphed from one type to another, often in recognizable ways as the weather changed. For example, cumulus clouds could spread and merge into a stratus layer. He proposed that the basic cloud formations reflected the physical process by which the clouds were formed, such as cumulus clouds being formed by convection, which turned clouds from mysterious, ever-changing entities into physical sciences which could be studied and related to weather such as participation. In a way, we could say that the classification of clouds launched the scientific field of meteorology.


Thunderclouds gathering - frontispiece of Essay on the Modification of Clouds, 3rd Ed. Luke Howard, 1865

When writing down the observations for clouds in ledgers such as the ones which DRAW is transcribing from, using the full name of a cloud could be cumbersome. Clouds as a result have two letter abbreviations, such as Ci for Cirrus. They can be combined, such as when there is a layer of cumulus clouds to form Cumulo-stratus, Cu-St, or the most impressive of all, the towering thunderstorm clouds which all the way through the atmosphere to the top of the troposphere, Cumulonimbus, CuNi. All clouds with precipitation falling from them are nimbus clouds, so if while transcribing you see an entry for nimbus, check to see if there’s also some precipitation, usually in the form of ran or snow in the same observation time!

If you’re interested in reading more about the history of cloud classification, check out the free e-book of Luke Howard’s Essay on the Modification of Clouds (1865) available here. You can also check out our Meteorological Observations page for a full list of cloud types and their abbreviations!