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!

by Rachel Black       on February 19th 2020



Robert Smith


L’anse au Loup, Labrador

Role at DRAW:

Creator and maintainer of the DRAW’s archival data rescue web application.

Favourite Part of DRAW?

My favourite part is working together to solve tough challenges as a team.

Favourite Season?


Favourite Weather Symbol?

Lunar Halo


Favourite Cloud Type? Why?

Cirrus because they are made up of ice crystals far up above the others and look really beautiful during sunsets.

                      cirrus clouds during sunset

Coolest thing you've learned while participating in DRAW?

I learned how to build a Ruby on Rails web application. I started developing this software as my independent study project at McGill during my final semester before graduation, and have been continuously designing and developing the software with the rest of the DRAW team ever since! Working on the software has led me to pursue an exciting career in software development and continues to be a source of creative expression to this day.

And of Course:

Sweet or Salty?


Star Wars or Star Trek?

Star Trek

Cats or Dogs?


Favourite Animal?

Mantis Shrimp

Favourite place in Montreal?

Mont Royal

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

DRAW February Funnies

by Rachel Black       on February 5th 2020

To help alleviate any February blues, this week on DRAW we are going to liven things up with some weather themed jokes! Let us know which one is your favourite or tell us your favourite weather themed joke/pun/story on Facebook or Twitter!

How do you prevent a Summer cold?

What do you call a month's worth of rain?

What do you call dangerous precipitation?

What do you call a wet bear?

Why does Snoop Dogg need an umbrella?

What did the thermometer say to the other thermometer?

You make my temperature rise!

What happens when fog lifts in California?


What's the difference between weather and climate?

You can't weather a tree but you can climate!

What do you call it when it rains chickens and ducks?

Fowl weather!

What do you call a cold ghost?


What day of the week has the most powerful gusts of wind?


Why do hurricanes travel so fast?

Because if they travelled slowly we'd have to call them slow-i-canes!

What are the hottest days during the summer?


What game do tornadoes like to play?


What do freezing rain and cake icing have in common?

Both are a glaze!

Why is the sky not happy on clear days?

It has the blues!

What is the opposite of a cold front?

A warm back!

What do lightning bolts do when they laugh?

They crack up!

How do meterologists say hi?

With a heat wave!

Who is it that everybody listens to but nobody believes?

The weatherman!

On This Day: Winter Carnival 1883

by Rachel Black       on January 22nd 2020

Did you know this Friday, January 24th, is the 137th anniversary of the first winter carnival held in Montreal? In honour of this anniversary, let’s take a look at what the weather in Montreal was like that day.

The Montreal Winter Carnivals were week long events focusing on local social and recreational activities. The Carnivals, which were held in 1883, 1884, 1885, 1887 and 1889, were held annually at the end of January, and hoped to showcase the unique Montreal winter activities as a way to foster a Canadian National Identity and of course benefit the local economy. Like the summer festivals held today in Montreal, the Winter Carnivals established the city as the winter wonderland spot in the nineteenth century.

1884 Montreal Winter Carnival program cover.jpg
By classicauctions.net, PD-US, Link

The planning for a carnival would begin the previous September and would include a beautiful program that detailed a schedule of events. Pictured below is the cover of the 1887 Montreal Winter Carnival program. A typical carnival included activities like curling, skating, hockey, snowshoeing, tobogganing and one year there was even lacrosse! Brr! The first hockey tournaments held at the Carnivals were the predecessor to the championship leagues later on. The highlight of the carnival though would be the ice palaces which would be created in Dominion Square and which would be the site of a great mock battle which would close the Carnival week with fireworks and a snowshoe walk up Mont Royal.

 Ice Palace photo 1884

Ice palace, Winter Carnival, Montreal, QC, 1884 (Alexander Henderson 1884, 19th century MP-1975.19, McCord Museum)

In our ledgers, January 24th 1883 was a Wednesday and it was cold. The first observation of the day, 3:13am showed that a lunar corona was observed. A lunar corona is a weather phenomena when rings appear around the moon and are caused by moonlight passing through thin clouds of ice crystals. The old wives tale about lunar coronas is that if you see one, prepare for snow or rain! In our case, this lunar corona did in fact predict snow and rain as later on in the day, snow was observed!

 lunar corona symbol

The minimum temperature observed at 7am and 11pm were the same - -18 degrees celsius. The maximum temperature wasn’t much better at -11.5 degrees celsius. With it being a snowy and windy day, it was a day you’d rather bundle up inside than go out and explore a winter carnival!

Let us know if you have attended any Winter Carnivals and if so, what your favourite events were and what the weather was like!

DRAW and Student Projects: ENVR 401

by Rachel Black       on January 8th 2020

Welcome to our first blog post of the new year! Everyone at DRAW hopes you had a happy end to 2019 and we are looking forward to bringing you more interesting and engaging content in the new year!

ENVR 401: Environmental Research is an undergraduate course offered by McGill’s School of Environment. Offered in the Fall Semester, the course has students “work in an interdisciplinary team on a real-world research project involving problem definition, methodology development, social, ethical and environmental impact assessment, execution of the study, and dissemination of results to the research community and to the people affected.” (Course Description)

Since 2015, a student team from the ENVR 401 course have been formulating research projects around citizen science, weather and more specifically the DRAW project. Past projects focused on:

  • How training can reduce errors in citizen science projects (2015)
  • How to improve the process of citizen science engagement (2016)
  • Testing validity concerns surrounding the transcription of citizen scientists vs. professionals (2017)
  • Testing if the transcribed data to date is fit for use (2018)

This latest Fall Semester, the ENVR 401 team chose to look at how to extract value from historical weather data. How is the data we are transcribing actually useful in analysis? Can it tell us anything about the environment and weather and how it has changed?

The students developed a method to detect and classify winter storm events from historical weather records in Montreal, allowing comparisons between winter weather in historic and modern time periods. To do so, they developed a method to detect winter storms using frequently recorded modern data and adapted the Local Winter Storm Scale (LWSS) into a Daily Winter Severity Index (DWSI), which gave a daily score between zero and six based on the amount of snow, freezing rain, and wind in a 24 hour timeframe. In addition, they examined reports in the media to find evidence of the social impact of winter storms.

Based on this media coverage analysis, they determined a numerical threshold level for the DWSI value to detect the start and end of a storm event. When there were multiple consecutive days with a DWSI value above this threshold level, the team considered this to be one winter storm event. Then, a model was created to aggregate the separate elements to account for the total impact of the storm and rank the entire event using a numerical scale, the Storm Severity Index (SSI).

After developing this model, it was run for 6 Januaries between 1879 and 1884, using historical data available through the DRAW Project here in Montreal, as well as 6 Januaries between 2014 and 2019, using data collected at the Pierre-Elliot-Trudeau International Airport in Montreal by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC). When looking at their results, statistical analysis shows that there was no significant difference in frequency, intensity, or distribution of storms between the old weather data and modern data collected!

 Storm Chart showing SSI and the 12 Januaries

This year’s ENVR 401 Project was a neat look into whether or not claims that the weather is getting worse are justified. The students were able to create a method to detect and classify winter storms in Montreal that can be applied in the future, specifically to other Januaries in DRAW data, or even likely in other datasets around the world.

If you are interested in hearing more about the ENVR 401 classes, let us know! All of the past ENVR 401 Project abstracts are available here. We are also looking towards adding the final papers from each of the DRAW specific projects to our website in the near future - so keep an eye out!

On This Day

by Rachel Black       on December 18th 2019

 McGill Campus, Arts Building, Dec. 18 2019

For this week’s blog we are going to look at the weather this time 100 years ago: December 18th 1919. We won’t have time to fully immerse ourselves in what was happening 100 years ago, but to set the scene:

  • The First World War has been over for a year, with Canada signing the Treaty of Versailles over the summer to make it official
  • Influenza is running rampant and Alberta experiences an epidemic
  • In May, the Winnipeg General Strike begins
  • The Canadian National Railway is formed
  • Pierre Elliott Trudeau is born, and William Osler passes away
  • The Unionist Party is in charge federally and the Liberals are the official opposition
  • On the global scale, Russia is in the midst of a civil war
  • The United States officially bans alcohol beginning Prohibition
  • And the League of Nations is founded in January

In terms of weather, in our historic ledgers on this day three observations were taken at 7:45am, 3:00pm, and 7:45pm. To note is that the temperatures recorded in 1919 are likely in Fahrenheit as the switch to Celsius did not occur until the 1960s.

Thursday December 18th 1919 was cold and clear, with blue cloudless skies and a maximum temperature of -10.5 (-23.6 C) in the morning and 2.2 (-16.5 C) in the evening. The minimum temperature on the other hand for morning and evening was -12.0 (-24.4 C) and -11.8 (-24.3) respectively. The wind was South/South-West and while our ledgers do not record the unit of measurement, 16-18 was the recorded value. What is particularly interesting to note is that there is a column for ‘Sleighing’ and it was noted on this day that it was ‘0 - none’. My assumption is that this means there was very little to no snow on the ground and therefore sleighing was not in fact possible.

When comparing modern day weather, 100 years ago was definitely a colder December. Wednesday December 18th 2019 dawned with -4 C (24.8 F) feeling like -8 C (17.6 F), South-West winds and snow flurries. The sky is definitely not blue and clear as 100 years ago, but in fact overcast. This afternoon’s predictions are -3 C (26.6 F) feeling like -7 C (19.4 F) and scattered flurries (I assume more overcast skies as a result). This evening, around a similar 7:45pm observation time, is expected to be -8 C (17.6 F) feeling like -18 C (-0.4 F) with light snow. Already we have a few centimetres of snow on the ground and if we were recording our values in similar ledgers today, I think our likelihood of sleighing would be a 1 or 2 (bad or good), depending on if our snow continues to amass and stick around.

In the future, we will compare a single day over multiple years and see what sort of pattern emerges. A similar project has been completed with the McGill ENV 401 class who explored and compared storms in January 1879-1884 and January 2014-2019, using analysis to not only find instances of storms but to also compare whether there has been an increase or decrease in storm activity. Check back in January 2020 for a post on this topic!

And finally, we at DRAW wish you a happy and safe holiday, whatever you celebrate, and we will see you back for more interesting and informative content in January 2020!

Weather Symbols in Real Life: Part 2

by Rachel Black       on December 4th 2019

Weather symbols are important to the transcribing of weather data as they explain without words weather phenomena that is being experienced. We have dedicated a section of our website to exploring the different weather symbols we use in our transcription interface (Meteorological Observations) and a couple months ago looked at the history of weather symbols on this very blog (International Communication: Weather Symbols). But do we really know what the symbols mean when they are defined as ‘hoar frost’ or a ‘solar corona’?

This series will explore real life images of the weather symbols - taken by our own team!

Glazed Frost

Captured by team member Rachel

 Symbol for Glazed Frost

 Glazed frost in real life

"Ugly" Threatening Appearance

Captured by team member Rachel


 Ugly threatening appearance in real life

Flurries of Snow

Captured by team member Rachel>/p>

 Symbol for Flurries of Snow

 Snow Flurries in real life


Captured by team member Rachel

 Symbol for Thunderstorm

 Thunderstorm in real life

Show us your own examples of weather symbols in real life on Facebook or Twitter!

Introducing DRAW Members: Gordon Burr

by Rachel Black       on November 20th 2019



Gordon Burr



Role at DRAW:

Outreach and Workshop Coordinator

Favourite Part of DRAW?

Outreach, working with students, giving presentations - connecting with our users primarily

Favourite Season?


Favourite Weather Symbol?



Favourite Cloud Type? Why?

Cumulus - I like the fluffiness of them

                      cumulus clouds

Coolest thing you've learned while participating in DRAW?

That weather data models are only based on the data from the last 15 years - which means what we do is really important

And of Course:

Sweet or Salty?


Star Wars or Star Trek?

Star Trek

Cats or Dogs?


Favourite Animal?


Favourite place in Montreal?

Bishop Street, with its variety of restaurants

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

Observing During the Wars

by Victoria Slonosky       on November 11th 2019

In commemoration of November 11, Vicky Slonosky talks a little bit today about the effect war has on meteorology.

Meteorology is an important aspect of war, and during the two World Wars in the 20th century, weather observing was affected in a number of ways. Weather forecasts and reports had military strategic value, and the international exchange of weather observations, so laboriously and slowly organized over the course of the 19th century, was stopped during the world wars.

The effect of the First World War on weather recording in Canada was mainly in the reduced number of observers, as so many students and young men having enlisted to fight overseas. This can be seen in the McGill records, where the records are in some confusion: observing times are a bit more inconsistent. Not usually by more than five minutes, but on some occasions observing times vary by up to 30 minutes.

For example, the photo below shows an inconsistency in our own ledgers. This is from the end of February/early March 1916 and shows that observations could be off 30-40 minutes or not recorded at all.

 inconsistent observations

Aviation became important towards the end of the First World War, and pilots discovered many of the upper air currents that determine large scale weather patterns. Norwegian meteorologists led by Vilhelm Bjerknes developed the weather front theory which led to a breakthrough in weather forecasting. Their thinking was inspired in part by the system of trenches that defined the Western Fronts stretching from Switzerland through France to Belgium in the First World War.

Aviation was a much more important component of the Second World War, and weather forecasting was critically important for aircraft to take off, fly and land safely. This led to an expansion across Canada of training grounds for Allied pilots, and associated weather forecasting for these new airports. Morley Thomas described this period in Canada in his memoir “Metmen in Wartime: Meteorology in Canada 1939-1945.” Despite the title, some women were trained as meteorologists. Meteorologists were deemed so crucial to the war effort that they were forbidden from enlisting as soldiers, to the disgruntlement of some.

Despite this increase in observations, the effect of the wars can be seen in the reduced number of world wide weather observations for the duration of the wars, most notably for the Second World War for sea surface temperatures. After the wars, however, data exchange resumed and after the Second World War especially, the number of stations increased dramatically.

If you are interested in further reading about this topic, check out the following links:

Weather in the History of Science

by Victoria Slonosky       on November 6th 2019

Today we will be taking a quick look at the intersection between the history of science and weather observations/meteorology.

The movie The Aeronauts was shown at the Toronto Film Festival last month, dramatizing the lengths meteorologist James Glaisher went to in his exploration of the atmosphere, taking instruments such as thermometers and barometers up in hot-air balloons. The first balloon ascents with meteorological interests in mind were made in 1784 by Dr John Jeffries and Jean-Pierre Blanchard. In 1804 French scientists Joseph Gay-Lussac and Jean-Baptiste Biot ascended above Paris with their barometers and thermometers to investigate the behaviour of the atmosphere, atmospheric gases, and the magnetic field at high altitudes. They later became renowned for their work in chemistry and physics, Gay-Lussac especially for his work on the gases laws and chemical composition.

                      Gay-Lussac and Biot in a hot air balloon

A collecting card from The United States Library of Congress Prints and Pictures division depicting Gay-Lussac and Biot in an hot air balloon.

At a museum on the history of science in Philadelphia, John Dalton, Biot, and Gay-Lussac were all presented as chemists, and indeed much of their work and legacy are in the fields of chemistry or physics. Most of us know Dalton through our high school chemistry class’ introduction to gas laws and as the proponent of atomic theory. But it’s not generally known that Dalton arrived at his atomic theory partly through his lifelong interest in meteorology. His first biographer, William Charles Henry, wrote that “Dalton grappled in his early years with several fundamental problems in the philosophy of heat and meteorology”. Dalton published the first edition of his Meteorological Observations and Essays in 1793, before his work on atomic theory. It was Dalton’s lifelong fascination with the processes of precipitation, evaporation and water vapour which led to his work on gases, which led in turn to his atomic theory and ground-breaking work in the field of chemistry, for which is is revered today by chemists as a founder of their field. But he was also a meteorologist, and he kept daily weather records his entire life.

In fact, it has been suggested that Blaise Pascal launched the modern scientific age when in 1648, he set up with his brother-in law Florin Perier a quantitative scientific experiment for parallel measurements of the atmosphere with two barometers, one ascending a mountain (the Puy-du Dome in Clermont, France), and one stationary at the bottom of the mountain. By recording that the barometer which ascended the barometer dropped while the one which stayed at the bottom remained constant, the experiment established the existence of the atmosphere, and the fact that it was finite. The dawn of the scientific age began with the establishment of the atmosphere, and the units we measure pressure in today are named after Pascal.

There are other examples of major scientific breakthroughs that came about as part of studying the weather, and which led to fruitful discoveries in other fields: Edward Lorenz and chaos theory comes to mind. One lesson this history seems to show is that the reason weather forecasting and climate prediction are still not perfect is not because smart people aren’t working on the problem, or because the weather is boring and people aren’t interested in researching it, but because weather and climate prediction are really, really hard. Weather and climate are complicated, non-linear systems, which are affected by many things and on many time scales, and climate especially ultimately involves almost all the branches of science in one way or another, from astronomy to microbiology. Nevertheless, incredible strides have been made in weather forecasting, and every bit of data we can put towards understanding past weather and climate helps us improve that understanding.

If you're interested in learning more, check out:

BOOK REVIEW: Climate in the Age of Empire

by Rachel Black       on October 23rd 2019

In today’s edition of the DRAW Blog we will be looking at the book Climate in the Age of Empire: Weather Observers in Colonial Canada. This book, written by our own Victoria Slonosky, looks at the history of weather observations in Canada between the mid 18th century and the early 20th century. This examination as a result also traces the development of meteorology (a branch of science concerned with the processes and phenomena of the atmosphere as a means to forecast the weather) and climatology (the scientific study of climate). It also inadvertently traces the history of Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto during this time, showing another facet of the history of Canada.

                      Climate in the age of empire

Slonosky’s book aims to provide not a complete history of meteorology or climatology in Canada or a detailed analysis of the climate of the past few centuries but instead aims to look at the people involved and their motivations, ideas of weather, and their record-keeping practices. And this goal really shines through as she focuses on the individuals who drove forward meteorology and climatology to what they are today: John Samuel McCord, John Bethune, Jean-Francois Gaultier, Alexander and William Skakel, Charles Smallwood, John Henry Lefroy, and John Herschel to name a few.

The book is structured thematically and chronologically, looking at specific topics, such as the impact which the military and medical practices/ideas at the time had on weather observations, and tying them into the timeline. Slonosky finds great pleasure in highlighting how the practice of taking weather observations was not taken in a vacuum. The individuals spoken about in this book kept up a healthy correspondence with others who were interested in taking observations, whatever their motivations may be.

This means that we get a good look at how colonial expansion, war, and religion affect the taking of observations and how individuals were influenced by ideas emerging in France, England, the United States of America, and parts of Canada at the time. This can be traced through the letters and equipment exchanged across the atlantic, but also in the attendance at conferences were individuals, such as Charles Smallwood, presented to their contemporaries on topics of interest. Smallwood, for example, presented in 1857 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference on ozone and its potential influence on disease as a disinfectant. It was always a delight when Slonosky would mention a new person who was influential to the story only to tie them to others we had already had the pleasure of meeting, showing how interconnected this network really was.

As mentioned, motivations were differing among the individuals taking the observations. Some were part of the colonial machine, reporting their observations to their mother country to help with the understanding of the new world they encountered, such as Jean-Francois Gaultier. This included the idea that by clearing the land the settlers would change the climate for the better. Others were clergy with a private interest in understanding another aspect of God in nature, such as John Bethune. Physicians were also interested in weather, as it was the belief that the weather impacted disease, like malaria, and there were efforts to determine whether this could be true.

You might think that observing the weather and jotting it down would be a relatively easy practice but in fact it was highly complex and contentious. War could stop the observations completely or the communication of observations to other parts of the world; there was much debate about when the observations should be taken, where they should be taken; funding was often scarce when derived from private sources or tied up in the colonial expansion and thus the military structures of the time; and the observations themselves were not standalone facts of figures – they were often used to try and prove (or disprove) theories of the time, like the storm controversy which was at its heigh in early 19th century USA. Slonosky weaves these elements into discussions on the individuals effortlessly.

Overall, Slonosky’s book is a good look at this often forgotten part of our history. She takes great effort in describing the individuals, networks, equipment and ideas which existed at the time. This includes a discussion and analysis in the last two chapters of whether climate change, the ability to change the environment to better change the climate, was in fact occurring at the time as observers believed. It was interesting to note that climate change as a theory is in fact not a new concept and had been around in Canada for almost four centuries! My only criticism would be how jam-packed this book is with information, which is wonderful, but hard to get through at times. It is definitely more suitable as a textbook that you read a chapter or two as needed, rather than as a pleasure novel you read from cover to cover. This is mostly due to the jumping we do in the timeline as a new theme is introduced. What is beneficial though is a detailed biographical index at the end, allowing readers to quickly reference who the new (or not so new!) name that is being referenced is.

In conclusion, Slonosky’s book is an excellent addition to the history of Canada and sheds light on a topic that is not often (if at all) taught in formal history classes today. I would highly recommend seeking out a copy and learning more about the history of weather observations, meteorology and climatology in Canada.

Check out the Goodreads for the book here or find the book on Amazon.

DRAWn into Education

by Rachel Black       on October 9th 2019

Bad puns aside, we’ve focused so far on historical weather, our ledgers and our members as well as the transcription process on the Blog so today we will explore other aspects of the DRAW project - namely fostering education and awareness.

DRAW, as you know, is a project dedicated to making the data from the old McGill Observatory ledgers available widely to the scientific community. We decided to do this by digitizing the pages of the ledgers and then making a platform in which the public (you!) can transcribe the data into datasets for further analysis. As part of this, we field questions about the process, troubleshoot any issues, and try to keep our users informed/interested in various topics through this Blog site. In addition, DRAW works with educators to inform students about not only the project, but to use the project as a case study in order to help students learn about not only weather but also the scientific process.

One such example is DRAW’s work with the Montreal CGEP Dawson College. As part of our efforts towards improving science literacy, DRAW has created a three week CGEP Course Module, where students utilize data transcription in DRAW to learn about citizen science, historical meteorology, and climate/weather research. You may remember a bit of our work with Dawson College discussed previously in Geoffrey Pearce’s guest post on Air Quality in July, as Pearce is the teacher for this module we developed.

To date there have been two iterations of this course, with the first in 2018 focusing more on social science research methods and the latter on environmental science and energy usage (2019). The students work in groups to utilize archival resources (i.e. historical newspaper archives, BANQ, first-hand published accounts) to match a specific day in history with the historical meteorological record from DRAW. This course helps to foster further interest in the sciences and helps us assess our transcription platform and processes to improve the site for our users.

DRAW is also focused on education at the post-secondary level. We will hear about it further in the coming weeks, but DRAW works with the School of Environment in the ENVR 401 Environmental Research Class as a topic for their interdisciplinary research project. Last year’s ENVR 401 group, for example, focused on determining how fit for use the DRAW archive data was based on both year and the columns within the ledgers.

This is just a peek at the work DRAW does in terms of helping improve scientific literacy and educational projects we are involved in. If you or your organization is interested in collaborating with DRAW please do not hesitate to get in touch!

Introducing DRAW Members: Rachel Black

by Rachel Black       on September 25th 2019



Rachel Black



Role at DRAW:

Records Management, Social Media, Outreach - Jack of all trades!

Favourite Part of DRAW?

The interdisciplinary nature! Its awesome to interact with several different disciplines and explore new ways to look at projects.

Favourite Season? Why?

Autumn - I love the colours, the smell and the crisp air.

Favourite Weather Symbol? Why?

As much as I hate dealing with it in reality, I love the Snow symbol.


Favourite Cloud Type? Why?

I really love Cirrocumulus - I was told by my grandfather as a child that they predicted rain coming and its stuck with me since.


Coolest thing you've learned while participating in DRAW?

The vast communication network that existed between Europe and North America. Its really fascinating to see the influences individuals had on each other and weather recording practices.

And of Course:

Sweet or Salty?

Sweet! Such a sweet tooth.

Star Wars or Star Trek?

Star Trek.

Cats or Dogs?


Favourite Animal?


Favourite place in Montreal?

Probably any natural space - I love how many parks, parkettes, and just neat little crooks and crannies there are in Montreal to be discovered. A close second would be the large variety of vegetarian/vegan restaurants to explore!>

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


by Victoria Slonosky       on August 28th 2019

It’s hot and humid outside, and has been another sizzling summer. But before we complain too much, we should remember the past winter…

All Montrealers agree that this past winter was a difficult one, with the freezing rain and freeze-thaw giving us lots of ice everywhere. This ice then hardened making walking a dangerous activity, with the risk of slipping and spraining or breaking a limb high. But how unusual was it in historical terms?

The first person to ask me this was Natasha Hall from CJAD this past winter, so I ran a few statistics to answer her. It was definitely unusual, with the fifth highest number of hours of freezing rain since 1954 – 83 hours of freezing rain or drizzle between November 2018 and March 2019. For comparison, there were 104 hours in 1998, the year of the famous ice storm, and 103 hours in 1983, another year with severe ice storms. The average since 1954 is 43 hours of freezing rain and drizzle per winter.

Freezing rain is hard to compare with historical records as past observers usually only noted if freezing fell during a day, not the number of hours as observers have done since the start of hourly observations at the Dorval Airport. They also seem to have only recorded strong events. This is one of the reasons the DRAW project is so important: we need the weather data from DRAW to bridge the gap between historical weather diaries and modern synoptic observations, and to be able to tell the difference between real changes in weather, and changes that come about because of the different ways people observed in different periods. Despite this, it does look like freezing rain has increased since the 18th and 19th centuries.

The freeze-thaw effect, where warm temperatures during the day melt snow into puddles of water, only for the cold nights have the puddles refreeze into lethally slippery smooth patches of ice, was not unusual this past winter. The average number of freeze-thaw days over the winter is 42, and the winter of 2018-2019 winter had 45 freeze-thaw days. The winter of 2017-2018 holds the record number of freeze-thaw days, at 67, followed by 2002 and 1880, both tied at 65. The vast puddles turned into lethal ice surfaces might, somewhat counterproductively, have had more to do with efforts to melt the ice from freezing rain than with the actual air temperature.

Until the mid-20th century, transport in Montreal relied on horses and carriages or sleighs. Sleighing conditions were important, and warm winters with frequent melting and refreezing were harder to get through than cold ones. When the temperature went below freezing and stayed there, rivers froze and became roads. Snow accumulated, packed down hard and made conditions perfect for horse drawn sleighs. With fur lined robes and dressed for the cold, transport was sometimes easier in winter than on muddy roads in spring and summer.

 Sleigh and Horse

Figure 1: Horse and Sleigh with passenger

After 1900, ironically the same year that the first automobile came to Montreal (clipping thanks to V. de Serres),a column marking “Sleighing conditions” was added to the weather register.

 McGill Register

Figure 2: Sleighing Condition was on the form, but rarely recorded!

Despite the ever increasing presence of motor vehicles, horse-drawn vehicles were still used for deliveries in Montreal well into the 1950s.

 La Presse 1899

Figure 3: Clipping from La Presse, November 23 1899

In warm winters, with frequent freeze-up followed by thaws, roads became impassable mires of frozen slush or mud. With each snowfall the sleighs had to be brought out; with each thaw they had to be replaced again with wheeled carriages, which tended to get stuck in the half frozen mud. Years with high numbers of freeze-thaw days include 1805 and 1825, 63 days each between November and March, 1807 and 1849. The winter of 1848-1849 was described in detail by Dr William Sutherland of Montreal, who recorded having to switch between his carriage and sleigh through the entire winter.

“Almost all the snow gone; wheels in general use today,” he wrote in his weather diary on December 30th. After a snowfall in early January, sleighs were taken out again but “wheel carriages were in use” again on January 17th 1848. There was another switch to sleighs soon after, with carriages back out on January 25th 1848. There was enough snow on February 2nd for “sleighing fairs”, but by February 22nd, “sleighing was hard in town” due to a lack of snow.

When we remember that the roads weren’t paved, and imagine the state of the streets after the snow melted and horses, sleighs and wheeled carts and carriages have passed over, we might reflect that difficult as it might often be to get around in winter in the 21st century, it could be worse.

 Saint James Street

Figure 4: Saint James Street by R.A. Spoule, McGill Rare Books and Special Collections, Lande Collection (Lande 32)

Introducing DRAW Members: Renée Sieber

by Rachel Black       on July 31st 2019

Ever interested in who is behind our project? In this series learn about our members!



Renée Sieber


Ontario by way of Michigan and New Jersey

Role at DRAW:

Multifaceted - To answer citizen science related questions ; to look at non-experts collaboration with scientists to influence science policy ; To get people interested in the site and remain interested in the site ; To assess the quality of contributions and broader value of the contributions within science ; science literacy to help individuals become more educated about the world


  • To conduct research
  • UX, UI Design
  • Translating goals of the project into software architecture
  • Part of the interdisciplinary glue of DRAW (Geography) - the value is to advance all fields, no one is treated like a technician, we encourage people to explore what is researchable at the outer limits of their discipline

Favourite Season? Why?

Spring - Spring in Quebec is explosive.

Favourite Weather Symbol?



Favourite Tree? Why?

Maple - because it has beautiful colours in the fall and many affordances (aesthetic in function - syrup)

And of Course:

Sweet or Savory?


You are on a deserted island - three things you have to have?

A way to make fresh water, unlimited power, a laptop that could access the internet

Star Wars or Star Trek?

Star Wars 4-6

Cats or Dogs?


Favourite Animal?


Favourite Music Genre?


If you'd like to find out more about Renée Sieber 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!

Horizontal and Vertical Montreal

by Victoria Slonosky       on July 17th 2019

This week on the DRAW blog : look at how the vertical and horizontal city can affect weather!

The urban heat island effect is one that’s well known to many city dwellers- the fact that heat tends to accumulate in large (and even not-so-large) built up areas, partly due to land use and partly due to heat sources from energy use by people. Roads, concrete, asphalt, buildings and other man-made structures all have different heat and water absorbing or shedding characteristics than do natural surfaces such as forests, grass and wetlands.

Large cities like Montreal have changed enormously in extent over time, starting from small centres, currently known as Old Montreal covering a few square kilometers in the early 19th century when continuous weather records began (Figure 1) to covering nearly two thousand square kilometers of urban conglomeration, suburbs and exurbs today (Figure 2).

 Island of Montreal

Figure 1: Annotated map of the Island of Montreal, 1834 (Original from Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec

 Island of Montreal

Figure 2: Island of Montreal, 2013

But not only has the horizontal extent of downtown Montreal changed, the vertical profile has as well.

For much of the 19th century, the Montreal skyline was dominated by churches, and most especially by the towers of the Notre-Dame cathedral. The cathedral towers could be seen from miles away and feature prominently in every landscape depicting Montreal (Figures 3-6).

 On the Saint Lawrence River

Figure 3: Travelling in winter on the St-Lawrence river, 1866 (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 2897892)

 Montreal from Saint-Helen's Island

Figure 4: View of Montreal from St Helen’s Island c.1830 (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 2837606)

 Ice road from LaPrairie

Figure 5: Montreal from the Road to LaPrairie over the Rapids (Philip John Bainbrigge (attributed to) 1837, 19th century M968.97, McCord Museum)

 St. Lambert's Road

Figure 6: St. Lambert's Road, Montreal, QC, about 1870 (Alexander Henderson about 1870, 19th century MP-0000.1452.59, McCord Museum)

With the development of Montreal as a major port, and especially the construction of the huge grain elevators from the turn of the 20th century, and the proliferation of skyscrapers from the 1930s onwards,the vertical profile of the city of Montreal changed as well. The Sun Life building, completed in 1931, was the largest building in the British Empire at the time, with 24 storeys (though the Royal Bank of Canada building, near the cathedral on St Jacques / Saint James Street, was several storeys higher). Today, it’s almost impossible to find the towers of Notre-Dame amidst the soaring building surrounding the cathedral (Figure 7).

 Recent Montreal photo of the Cathedral

Figure 7: This more recent picture is taken from approximately the same vantage point as Figure 5 (Vicky Slonosky)

What does this mean for the weather? As downtown residents and workers can attest, the tall buildings often act as wind tunnels, funneling icy cold blasts down the artificial canyons from Mount Royal to the Saint Lawrence. The presence of tall buildings can also affect convection, changing vertical air movement and leading to more cumulus clouds and thunderstorms around urban areas. Increased warmth in winter, as well as active measures to melt snow and ice, contribute to the formation of slush, which then freezes into icy surfaces overnight. The inhabitants of a city truly can create their own climate.

In addition - if you are interested in having a great look at the vertical and horizontal changes yourself check out the lookout at the top of Mont Royal, La Grande Roue de Montréal in Old Port, or Musée Point à Callière where there is an exhibit on the changes!

Handwriting Help

by Rachel Black       on July 3rd 2019

Old handwriting can be difficult to read and interpret, even for the experienced. Are you having difficulty reading the pages you are transcribing? Look no further - today’s post is about tips and tricks to reading old handwriting.

I wasn’t aware of this before, but the study of old writing in fact has its own name : Palaeography! This discipline focuses on the reading, deciphering, dating and context of old documents throughout history. It is crucial for historians and philologists to be familiar with this discipline because language and the way we write is constantly evolving over time - to understand a document you are studying you need to know how it was created! This of course, is not to be confused with Graphology, which is the study or analysis of a person’s handwriting in order to identify personality, emotional state, or the person itself. Graphology is a little more controversial and seen as a pseudoscience in some circles.

It can be difficult to read old handwriting for several different reasons. Is it a diary, ledger, administrative record, or personal correspondence? Or none of the above? Each of these documents might have different short forms, abbreviations, or different handwriting which could cause the document to be difficult to read. Our own weather ledgers have predetermined short-hand which might not be known to the general layperson and which might not be found in personal diaries or correspondence of someone unconnected to the weather world.

Or spelling could be an issue. In older documents the letter ‘i’ could be substituted with a ‘y’ or the letter ‘s’ with a ‘f’. In addition, there are types of ‘mirror writing’ that can occur. I have personally seen this in notes my grandparents have made where they have inverted their ‘n’ to look like a ‘u’, their ‘w’ to look like a ‘m’ and vice versa! This can make for some amusing or confusing reading!

Or they could have used a technique such as cross-hatching (also known as cross letters or crossed writing) which was used to save paper and thus postage in the 19th century. By writing overtop of an existing part of the letter, in the same ink in one sitting, it can be difficult to distinguish specific letters or words without practice. This requires a little more patience to decipher and luckily it is not common practice in ledgers.

 Cross-hatched letter

Here is an example of a cross-hatched letter (Wikipedia Commons).

Overall, learning how to navigate older handwritten primary source documents is extremely beneficial and takes practice, so don’t get discouraged! Here are some helpful tips and tricks on how to deal with handwriting on our weather ledgers:

  1. If you find something you can’t read - don’t panic!

  2. Even the most experienced historians can have difficulty reading older documents. Take a deep breath, or a break, and carry on.

  3. Check the resources available

  4. Under Meteorological Observations there is a handy chart for symbols, including those which are single letters or combinations of letters - check here to get an idea of what might be the closest to what you are seeing on the page Or check out the drop down menus that are available in the Transcription Panel - these have little images showing the options that could present in these cases - like cloud types or wind directions!

     Transcription panel dropdown

    The drop down menu for Clouds in the transcription panel has images to help!

  5. Look for clues on the page - words/letters/numbers

  6. Is there anything else on the page that can help you identify it? Compare other letters or words or numbers to see if they are similar and hazard your best guess.

    Check your numbers against others on the page - is this 7 similar to that 7? Or is it actually a 1?
    Also, if you are looking at temperature, cross check it against the time of year! A temperature of 73F is not odd for the summer, but in the winter? Probably actually 13F!

     Example of number comparison

    Is this a 2? A 7? Checking other parts of the page can clear up this confusion.

  7. Spelling

  8. If it’s an issue of spelling getting you down, sound out the word. No spell-check can create some pretty interesting spellings so think phonetically!

  9. Ask for help

  10. Ask around! Ask your friends what they think; if you are at a DRAW event, ask those around you; Ask us via Facebook, Twitter or email what we think!

Or if you are truly stumped and no one else is sure, feel free to mark it as illegible! This will let us know that something wasn’t clear and we can get back to it for further review.

 Illegible option

Feel free to select illegible.

Check out these interesting reads on palaeography, graphology and other tips of the trade when reading old handwriting!

Wikipedia - Graphology
Wikipedia - Palaeography
Graphology Handwriting Analysis
WikiHow - How to Read Old Handwriting
Ancestry.com - Tips for Reading Old Handwriting
UK National Archives - Palaeography
Find My Past Blog - 11 Tips for Reading Old Handwriting
Wikipedia - Mirror Writing

Guest Post: Air Quality in Montreal

by Geoffrey Pearce       on June 19th 2019

Please join me in welcoming Geoffrey Pearce to the DRAW Blog!
Geoffrey Pearce has been teaching in the department of geography at Dawson College since 2011. Prior to that he completed a master's degree in planetary science at the University of Western Ontario with a research focus on the geology of the northern plains on Mars. His attention has since shifted to Earth and helping students to engage in urban field studies and citizen science projects. Today he will be talking about Air Quality in Montreal

 Ste. Catherine and St. Laurent Blvd, 1875

Figure 1: An engraving showing a shoe factory at the corner of Ste. Catherine and St. Laurent Blvd in 1875, with smoke being released from chimneys (source: Canadian Illustrated News, Dec. 1875/BANQ)

In the opening of his landmark 1897 study ‘The City Below the Hill’, the sociologist Herbert Ames draws a contrast between living conditions in the well-to-do Montreal neighbourhood of Ville-Marie, ‘The city above the hill’, and living conditions in the poor and industrial areas along the Lachine Canal, ‘The city below the hill’:

“Looking down from the mountain top upon these two areas, the former is seen to contain many spires, but no tall chimneys, the latter is thickly sprinkled with such evidences of industry and the air hangs heavy with their smoke.”

Ames’s text provides detailed insight into economic and social conditions in neighbourhoods along the Lachine Canal, but there is only vague mention of the smoky air. A similar sense of ambiguity recently struck me when looking at the DRAW website and seeing the word ‘smoke’ written in the margins of a meteorological entry made on McGill campus in June of 1878. Was this smoke from a distant forest fire, or from people in the city burning coal and wood? Was it a localized phenomenon or did it span the city?

 Smoke in the Ledgers

Figure 2: remark about smoke from an entry at McGill's observatory on June 15, 1878, taken from DRAW website

This spring I put the challenge to students in an Environmental Studies course at Dawson College, where I teach geography, to describe how air quality in Montreal has changed since the late 19th century.

Students had trouble finding discussion of Montreal’s air quality in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and connecting entries of ‘smoke’ from the DRAW page with other sources proved challenging. This is related to the nascent state of public health science at the time, but is probably also influenced by the fact that air quality was so persistently poor that heavy smog was not newsworthy. Wood and coal were the main sources for cooking and heating, and a variety of industries that have since disappeared from the city landscape added to the unhealthy atmospheric mix. At the end of the assignment, several students expressed gratitude that the city smells much better than before. I suppose that this is one way to appreciate our heritage!

Today, the Air Quality Health Index is displayed on screens while waiting for the metro, and chasing up data from specific monitoring stations is relatively simple. A quick Google search yields peer-reviewed studies about risk factors for particular boroughs, and controversies surrounding air quality - such as debate about the fate of wood burning ovens in pizzerias and bagel shops - are regularly covered in the news. The challenges that students encountered in describing the current state of air quality in the city were related to the abundance of data, rather than its paucity.

With the semester over and the assignments graded, I was left reflecting on how difficult it is to create a succinct answer about the how, where, and why of Montreal’s changing air quality. The shift from coal to hydroelectricity beginning in the mid 20th century reduced smoke substantially, but globalization and the local disappearance of many industries was also significant, as were emissions regulations shoehorned by property developers in the 1930s. Many students were surprised to learn that coal-fired power plants in Ontario made significant contributions to pollution in Montreal until they were phased out a few years ago. And these are only a few of the main variables. While neighbourhood differences in inequality and exposure to environmental hazards in 19th century Montreal are striking, some students compared this with the current contrast in air quality between uphill and affluent areas, such as Westmount, and lower income communities bordering industrial sites, such as Montréal Est.

 Smoke graph

Figure 3: the graph shows the # of smoke days recorded at Dorval Airport for each year between 1953 and 2018; the drop in smoke days was strongly influenced by the shift to hydroelectricity (graph courtesy of Victoria Slonosky)

The general trend for air quality in Montreal in recent decades is one of significant improvement, but I have found that students are much more aware of harmful but short-term events then they are long-term trends. One of the drivers of science is to understand and respond to things that were formerly invisible or misunderstood. In this sense, increased awareness and measurement of smoke, and concern about its health effects, can be seen as reflective of impressive and hard-won progress. We can look to the past to understand how progress occurred and to help guide us as new challenges occur.

Weather Symbols in Real Life

by Rachel Black       on June 5th 2019

Weather symbols are important to the transcribing of weather data as they explain without words weather phenomena that is being experienced. We have dedicated a section of our website to exploring the different weather symbols we use in our transcription interface (Meteorological Observations) and a couple months ago looked at the history of weather symbols on this very blog (International Communication: Weather Symbols). But do we really know what the symbols mean when they are defined as ‘hoar frost’ or a ‘solar corona’?

This series will explore real life images of the weather symbols - taken by our own team!

Lunar Halo

Captured by our developer, Rob

 Lunar halo symbol

 Lunar halo real life


Captured by team member Rachel

 rainbow symbol

 rainbow real life

Solar Halo

With two small “mock suns” or “sun dogs” on either side, captured by team lead Vicky

 solar halo symbol

 solar halo real life


Captured by team member Rachel

 overcast symbol

 example of Overcast sky


 Example of Clear sky


Show us your own examples of symbols in real life on Facebook or Twitter!

Who Were the Observers?

by Victoria Slonosky       on May 22nd 2019

This week we will explore a little about the individuals who were taking the observations we are transcribing.

The McGill observatory was originally founded by Dr. Charles Smallwood. An emigrant from England, Smallwood arrived in Montreal in the 1830s and set up a country practice in St Martin on the island north of the island of Montreal, then called Ile-Jesus, and now called Laval. By the 1840s, he had built an observatory with an impressive array of home-made instruments and arrangements for automatic recording. In 1863, he was invited to move the Observatory to McGill College. For some time it was known as the Montreal Observatory.

 Dr. Smallwood

Dr. Charles Smallwood

Smallwood had an honorary position as Professor of Meteorology, but he wasn’t paid to be a Professor or a weather observer, and although the observatory had some subsidy from the Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC) for instruments and for student assistants, he continued to earn his living as a doctor, living in Montreal on Beaver Hall Hill. One of his student assistants, Clement McLeod, was given permission by the College to room in the main building to make it easier for him to take observations in the adjacent Observatory.

 Clement 'Bunty' McLeod

Clement "Bunty" McLeod

Smallwood died in November 1873, without an obvious meteorological successor. After some consultation with the Director of the MSC, George Kingston, McLeod, who had just graduated in Civil Engineering, was nominated to take over the observations. MacLeod was dispatched to Kingston in Toronto with a number of the instruments for a crash training course, and observations resumed in January 1874.

McLeod was the Director of the Observatory for the next 40 years, until his death in 1917. Letters from 1875 show that salaries were paid for the Superintendent and two assistants. In 1880, McLeod applied to have a “the desirability and necessity” of residence built at the Observatory for the observer consider; this was granted and a house was built onto the Observatory building, where McLeod and his wife raised their family.

 McLeod with his students

McLeod with surveying students

We know one student assistant was James Weir. Another, A.J. Kelly, graduated in 1911, served in the Princess Patricia regiment in World War I, and returned to McGill, where he eventually became Superintendent of the Observatory in turn.

A budget for 1937-39 has listed the salaries of the Observer, A.J. Kelly, Weather Man, J.C. Kelly, and Day Clerk, C.L. Henry. Further wages are listed “for exposure of Sun Card”. A later document describes Charles Henry as having been the Chief Observer in 1958 “for over twenty years”.

If you'd like to learn more about the observers and the history of the observatory itself, don't hesitate to contact us!

Communicating Weather: Storm Warnings and Telegraphs

by Victoria Slonosky       on May 8th 2019

This week we will look at how weather, especially dangerous weather, was communicated in a time before telephones, cell phones and the internet. It is no surprise that weather observations played a significant part!

Space and Time: the Observatory, The Transit Telescope and Longitude

One of the most important functions of the McGill Observatory, and one which brought in much needed revenue to help pay for the meteorological and other scientific observations, was timekeeping. Timekeeping is fundamental to any kind of observing. In the 19th and early 20th century, timekeeping relied on observing the transit of certain stars. Midnight was defined as the moment certain stars, depending on the season, passed overhead. The transit telescope was one of the most important instruments in the observatory, although for timekeeping purposes it didn’t need to be as sophisticated and powerful as for astronomical discovery.

                      transit telescope

Accurate time was important in the age of railways to co-ordinate schedules, but was also crucial in determining longitude, both for ships in an Empire connected by sea and across the North American continent being surveyed, mapped and settled. Time and space are linked by the Earth’s rotation; the Earth rotates through 15 degrees of longitude every hour. With an accurate clock, the difference in time between two places can also be translated into the difference in longitude between those two places, and location can be determined. Somewhere 4 hours west of Montreal is also somewhere 60 degrees west of Montreal.

Clement McLeod, the Observatory’s second Director, used time and the exchange of telegraph signals with Waterford, Ireland in 1891 to obtain the most precise determination of longitude in North America for the McGill Observatory. McGill’s time signal was communicated to Montreal’s harbour, then one of the busiest in Canada, and by telegraph to Ottawa and westwards across the country. Once telegraph lines were laid under the Pacific, the time signal travelled across the ocean as far as Australia.

Storm warnings and telegraphs

Time was also very important for weather observations, both for exchanging weather observations across many time zones and for tracking fast moving weather like storms. Before the telegraph, storms moved faster than any human communications could. If a storm developed on the Great Lakes and passed up the St Lawrence towards the Atlantic, it moved faster than a rider on a horse or a ship could travel to warn people downstream in the path of the storm that danger was on the way- to say nothing of the hazard of trying to travel in a storm. With the invention and widespread use of the telegraph in the second half of the 19th century, for the first time there was a means of communication which could travel faster than weather systems, and so storm warnings became possible. It was to develop storm warnings, and to try to lessen to terrible losses of life from shipping at sea, on the St Lawrence and on the Great Lakes that the Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC) was first started. For many years, the MSC was a part of the Department of the Marine.

This is the reason the observations times in the McGill records tend to be at odd, but precise times such as 7:48 am or 11:13 pm. It’s partly to allow for synchronous observations across many longitudes, and partly to allow for the weather observation collators at a central observatory such as Toronto or Washington enough time to receive all the reports by telegraph, plot them all on a map, analyze the results and then issue a storm warning or forecast at, say 9am or midnight.

We will see you next time with more information on the principal observers at the McGill Observatory!

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 Stratus. 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 rain 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!