U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers

Australian Exploration and the Introduction of the Aneroid Barometer


 Julian Holland

Macleay Museum, University of  Sydney


Reprinted with permission from the Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society, No. 61 (June 1999), pp. 24-26
and The Australian Metrologist, No. 18, August 1999, pp. 7-11

Note:  The techniques and problems detailed in this article directly parallel those encountered by members of the US Corps of Topographical Engineers



‘Take care of my Barometer, and as you observe its gentle rise and fall, so imagine your friend’s spirits rising or ebbing down during the daily progress of his enterprize.’(1)  So wrote the German scientist and explorer Ludwig Leichhardt to the Rev. W.B. Clarke on 4 December 1847. That evening Leichhardt set out from Sydney on an expedition intended to traverse the continent reaching Swan River in Western Australia early in 1850. The last news of the party arrived the following April. They never reached Swan River settlement and their remains have never been found. The Australian interior was a hazardous place for explorers then and remains so for ill-prepared travellers today.

Leichhardt had no use for his barometer on the expedition. After the deficiencies of the barometer on his first expedition he had relied on a boiling-point apparatus (hypsometer). As Clarke later commented, ‘Leichhardt, to remedy the inconvenience felt on his first journey, went out upon his present expedition, supplied by a friend with an apparatus for measuring heights by means of boiling water’.(2)  The friend was Clarke himself. He had lent it for Leichhardt’s previous venture in 1846-47 and the explorer was glad of it. ‘Mr Clarke’s boiling apparatus is very handy indeed and I hope to make an interesting series of observations with it’, Leichhardt had noted in November 1846.(3)   Eight months later, at the conclusion of the expedition, Leichhardt expressed his satisfaction: ‘The Boiling Apparatus has been of great service to me and I have determined the approximate elevation of the most interesting parts of my route’.(4)

Having left Clarke to watch the ‘gentle rise and fall’ of his mercurial barometer in Sydney, Leichhardt set off with Clarke’s boiling-point apparatus on his fatal expedition. On his way north he stopped at Capt. P.P. King’s property, Tahlee, where he made ‘comparative observations on the elevation of several hills, which Capt. King had measured with the Barometer. My Boiling Apparatus gives in all these observations very satisfactory results, not more out than 30-40 feet.’(5)

In exploring Australia, the supply, transport, maintenance and repair of scientific instruments posed many difficulties. No instrument was more at hazard than the mercurial barometer. A metre-long glass tube filled with mercury, even when encased in a metal outer tube, was very vulnerable on long inland journeys. Even getting instruments to Australia safely was not always possible.

The Surveyor General of New South Wales, John Oxley, encountered some of these problems. When he received a consignment of instruments from the London firm of Watkins & Hill in 1815 he found that an artificial horizon was ‘damaged by being improperly packed’. Watkins & Hill made a replacement.(6)  Oxley conducted two expeditions into the distant interior of New South Wales, made possible by the first successful crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813. Oxley left Sydney on his first journey in April 1817 equipped with several instruments, including mountain barometers (and an artificial horizon, perhaps the replacement for the broken one):

I have to lament that our mountain barometers were broken at an early stage of the expedition .... The conveyance of such delicate instruments is always attended with great risk, and in our case peculiarly so, our means being only those of horseback. I am afraid that a method of constructing those instruments, so as to place them beyond the reach of injury by carriage, will always remain among the desiderata of science.(7)

Sydney in the early nineteenth century did not have craftsmen who could repair the damage. When Oxley set off again in 1818, he had to make do without barometers. Altitudes had to be taken by estimation alone.(8)

Accidental damage to barometers was a recurring problem for explorers. ‘It is to such accidents that we owe the blanks in the journals of Strzelecki, Sturt, and Kennedy, respecting the elevations of the different points of the countries traversed by them’, Clarke observed in 1849. ‘Had they or Leichhardt had the advantage of carrying an instrument capable of detecting differences in elevation, without unwieldiness or difficulty of management, we might now have acquired some sufficient information respecting the actual condition of the interior of this continent, beyond what we now possess.’(9)  It was the arrival of just such an instrument in Sydney which prompted Clarke into print - the aneroid barometer.

Instead of relying on a column of mercury to balance atmospheric pressure the aneroid barometer uses the expansion or contraction of a sealed metal bellows. The idea for such a device dates back to about 1700 but it was Lucien Vidie who developed a practical instrument in the 1840s. A prototype was tested with satisfactory results in an ascent of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1843. The invention was patented in England and France the following year. France was unresponsive to Vidie’s invention and it was through the London chronometer maker Edward Dent that aneroid barometers began to find a market. The instrument was being mentioned in various journals by 1848 and in 1849 was clearly attracting a market with three booklets on its use published in London.(10)


Australian Reception

The first indication that aneroid barometers were soon to be available to customers in Sydney came on Saturday 23 June 1849. The indication was very oblique: ‘J. Flavelle respectfully informs his friends and patrons that his brother has just arrived from Europe, with a splendid and varied assortment of useful, ornamental, and scientific articles, selected personally in Paris and London, all of the newest and choicest designs, among which are some new instruments now for the first time introduced to the Australian public.’(11)

John Flavelle, born in Dublin about 1816, had come to Australia about 1842 and worked as assistant to a Daguerreotype photographer, G.B. Goodman. In 1846 he established an opticians and watchmakers business in Sydney in partnership with Samuel Brush.(12)  This firm did well in the growing mercantile opportunities of Sydney in the 1840s and gave rise to two new firms. In announcing the dissolution of the partnership ‘by mutual consent’ in February 1849 the two tradesmen assured their public - ‘The business will be carried on in the same premises [488 George Street] by Samuel Brush, and at 478, George-street, by John Flavelle and Brother.’(13)  John Flavelle was joined by his brother Henry, and Samuel Brush soon entered into a partnership with his brother-in-law William MacDonnell. Both Flavelle Brothers and Brush & MacDonnell were significant retailers of scientific instruments in Sydney for several decades.

Flavelle opened his new premises in March and awaited the arrival of his brother accompanied by the ‘splendid and varied assortment’ of goods.(14)  The Chartley Castle, bearing ‘Mr. and Mrs. Flavelle and child’ had sailed from London, leaving the Downs on 8 February and finally arrived in Sydney on 18 June 1849. Among its cargo were ‘16 packages merchandise’ belonging to Henry Flavelle.(15)  Sixteen packages may be taken to indicate a considerable quantity of goods, sufficient to stock the Flavelles’ new shop. Soon afterwards an advertisement offered ‘The new ANEROID BAROMETER, £4 each’.(16)

Flavelle Brothers billhead

Flavelle Brothers billhead, 1851
(Courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales)

It was perhaps from the Flavelles’ new stock that Dr Kenworthy brought the first aneroid barometer to Tasmania where it came to the attention of Lieutenant Kay at the Royal Observatory, Hobart (Rossbank Observatory). ‘It may fairly be considered a matter of congratulation to find that one has so soon reached these shores’, thought Kay, who understood it had only come to public notice at the British Association meeting in Swansea the previous year. Kenworthy lent the aneroid to Kay who made a series of 120 comparisons with the Observatory’s standard mercurial barometer. The needle of the aneroid followed the movements of the mercurial barometer closely but with readings averaging 0.22 inch lower.(17)

Kay put the aneroid to another test in ascending Mount Wellington near Hobart. On reaching a point on the mountain known as the Springs, Kay paused a while and observed ‘a remarkable instance of [the aneroid’s] accuracy in relativechanges’. A slight fall in the reading there was found later to have been matched by the mercurial barometer at the Observatory. However, as Kay continued to ascend he reached a point where the aneroid indicated 25.87 inches and changed no further as he approached the summit some 500 feet higher. On descending to the same point, the needle once more began to move.

Kay presented his findings to a meeting of the Royal Society of Van Diemen’s Land on 11 July 1849. He recommended

the Aneroid as a useful instrument for all the ordinary purposes to which a barometer is applied, or where scientific results are not required. As a convenient and portable weather-glass it is valuable, as it may alike lay on the drawing-room table, or be carried in the coat-pocket without risk of injury.

Kay had maintained a rigorous series of precision measurements at the Observatory over a period of many years. He was therefore very cautious about the instrument’s potential for scientific work. There was a difficulty in adjusting the aneroid and this could only be done accurately in comparison with a reliable mercurial barometer. ‘Here it is that I conceive the principal of the instrument to be objectionable, and particularly so when employed in the mensuration of heights.’

About this time another series of tests was being carried out in Sydney. W.B. Clarke had already read accounts of Vidie’s invention in the Nautical MagazineLiterary Gazette and Athenaeum. Clarke, ‘having learned that Messrs. Flavelle, of George-street, Sydney, had imported several of these instruments, obtained their permission to test them’.(18)

William Branwhite Clarke (1798-1878) was an Anglican minister with broad scientific interests. He had studied at Cambridge where he came under the influence of the geologist Adam Sedgwick and mineralogist J.S. Henslow. It was geology to which Clarke was particularly drawn and he was elected a fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1826. Following his emigration to New South Wales in 1839 he was an active member of the small scientific community in Sydney, being long associated with the Australian Museum and the Royal Society of New South Wales. As already noted Clarke had a hypsometer. He also had a number of other instruments, mainly associated with geology and mineralogy.(19)

Clarke borrowed four aneroids which he tested in ‘a series of measurements of an extensive character’. He published a table of 14 comparisons of ‘heights in feet of certain localities above the level of high water in Port Jackson’ (Sydney Harbour). These comparisons were variously made by lineal measurement, by leveling and with a mercurial barometer. ‘And it is nothing but justice to the importers, as well as to the inventor, to say, that so far as a close examination of four of these instruments has gone, there is no cause to consider (so far as these four are concerned) that there has been any exaggeration whatever in the statements made respecting the Aneroid Barometer.’

The possibilities of the instrument filled Clarke with enthusiasm. Supposing ‘that it does no more than measure heights as well as any other instrument, the saving of time, the portableness of the article, and the absence of risk of injury, are advantages which will readily outweigh many inconveniences to which other modes of measuring elevations are exposed.’ He could see the great advantages for the navigator and ‘the mere registrar of atmospheric changes’ of an instrument without fluid and therefore unaffected by the roll and pitch of a ship, ‘and as it indicates the atmospheric changes in all positions, however it may happen to be placed, face upwards or bottom upwards, or on its side, horizontally or vertically, it is the safest instrument of the kind ever invented’.

Clarke thought it probable that ‘English ingenuity will produce an Aneroid, that will be no bigger than a watch, and will be as easily carried; and it is not a too fanciful notion to imagine a young lady of the next ten years with her barometer about her neck, or in her reticule, measuring as she walks the undulations of her garden’. As far as the former claim was concerned, Clarke’s optimism was borne out. The London firm of Negretti & Zambra had produced an aneroid the size of a pocket watch by 1861.(20)

The tests had been carried out in winter. Clarke compared the four aneroids with three mountain barometers, ‘sufficiently often, and under a range of nearly an inch of pressure during the period of the experiments’ that he felt the aneroids indicated the changes of the atmosphere ‘with as much precision’ as the mountain barometers. He was aware that the effect of the high temperatures of an Australian summer had yet to be determined.

Unlike Hobart, Sydney does not have a mountain conveniently close by which Clarke could have employed to test the aneroids more extensively. The maximum height above high water given in his table is less than 400 feet. He was therefore unable to find the limit of action as Kay had done.

Who the customers for Flavelle Brothers’ first aneroids were is unknown but one might surmise that Clarke was among them.(21)  In the months following his initial account of the new instrument Clarke undertook further observations so that by December he could report that he had ‘tested it in about a thousand sets of observations at all elevations up to 2000 feet’. He could see how various improvements could make the aneroid very useful:

Having myself used extensively various Barometers of the Aneroid construction, in taking elevations in Australia, I wish here to point out, that, if a proper correction could be devised for the effects of temperature, and the instrument could be made equally portable as now with sufficient expansion of the interior vacuum box to allow of measurements up to 6000 or 7000 feet, and the addition of a vernier to enable accurate divisions of the inch into thousandths, to be read off, the Aneroid Barometer would be an invaluable assistance to surveyors in general and to explorers in particular. Some most remarkable coincidences between altitudes ascertained by leveling and by the Aneroid prove to me, that, in certain conditions of the atmosphere, this instrument, even now, used carefully, is perfect. But, for an extensive journey, over broken ground, in this variable climate, it is not always to be relied on.(22)



In practice, the aneroid barometer was not a substitute for other methods where accurate measurements were required. As Middleton comments on the aneroid barometer, as it had become standardized by the mid 1860s:

It was excellent as a domestic "weather-glass," and highly useful as a marine barometer under the conditions prevailing at the time. As a scientific instrument of precision, especially for the measurement of heights, it had a long way to go.(23)

While not quite so accurate as the mercurial barometer, the boiling-point apparatus remained preferable to the aneroid for altitude determination for explorers, surveyors and geologists.(24)  Nevertheless there must have been a ready market for aneroids for marine and domestic use. In 1852, Flavelle Brothers offered the ‘new aneroid barometers, with metallic plates and attached thermometers’.(25)   These were among a large assortment of instruments directed to ‘Gentlemen engaged in, or having a taste for, scientific pursuits’. Again Flavelle Brothers advertised aneroid barometers and also ‘Bourdon’s metallic ditto’ in 1854.(26)  In succeeding years the aneroid barometer underwent many improvements and modifications, including being mounted in wooden frames in the style of mercury wheel barometers. They became standard items for retailers of scientific apparatus. In 1872, for example, W. MacDonnell & Co. (successor to Brush & MacDonnell) offered full-size aneroid barometers from £3 and ‘Pocket Aneroid Barometers, best, with latest improvements, for ascertaining with ease and certainty the depths of mines, or heights of mountains; marked up to 8000 feet, £5 5s’.(27)

Tornaghi barometer

Wiesener barometer

Aneroid barometer retailed in Sydney by Angelo Tornaghi about 1870
(Macleay Museum)

Aneroid Barometer retailed in Sydney by
T.F. Wiesener about 1890
(Macleay Museum)

If in the second half of the nineteenth century the aneroid barometer did not prove to be a complete substitute for mercurial barometers for precision scientific purposes, there were by then established retailers of scientific instruments in Australia who could undertake repairs or replace instruments they were unable to repair.




1.  Ludwig Leichhardt to Rev. W.B. Clarke, 4 December 1847, in M. Aurousseau (ed.), The Letters of F.W. Ludwig Leichhardt (Cambridge, 1968), vol. III, p. 977

2.  W.B.C., ‘Aneroid Barometer’, Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), 28 July 1849, p. 4

3.  Leichhardt to Capt. P.P. King, 28 November 1846, in Aurousseau (note 1), p. 920. Leichhardt had made ‘several interesting observations’ with the apparatus a few weeks earlier: ibid., p. 912

4.  Leichhardt to King, 2 August 1847, in ibid., p. 937

5.  Leichhardt to John Mackay, 19 December 1847, in ibid., p. 979

6.  Colonial Office, 201/81. Alison Morrison-Low kindly brought this reference to my attention

7.  John Oxley, Journals of Two Expeditions into the Interior of New South Wales (London, 1820; facsimile repr. 1964), p. xiv

8.  ‘The accident which had befallen our barometer during the former expedition not being repaired, we are of course deprived of means to make any observations on the height of the country above the sea, otherwise than by the several falls or rapids.’ The party was following the course of the Macquarie River. Ibid., p. 214

9.  Clarke (note 2)

10. W.E. Knowles Middleton, The History of the Barometer (Baltimore, 1964; repr. Trowbridge, 1994), pp. 398-409; Anita McConnell, ‘The Aneroid Barometer comes to London’, Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society, No. 38 (1993), pp. 20-22

11. SMH, 23 June 1849, p. 1

12. For an account of the firm and its successors see Julian Holland, ‘Useful, Ornamental and Scientific: An Irish Contribution to Australian Retail History’, The Australian Antique Collector, 51st Edition, April-October 1996, pp. 184-87

13. Notice dated 24 February, SMH, 27 February 1849, p. 1

14. SMH, 8 March 1849, p. 1 (premises)

15. SMH, 19 June 1849, p. 2

16. SMH, 2 August 1849, p. 1

17. Lieut. Kay, ‘On the Aneroid Barometer’, Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Van Diemen’s Land, Vol. I, Part II (1850), pp. 83-87 and graph

18. Clarke (note 2); Clarke’s report is dated 23 July 1849

19. Some of these instruments, including a Dent’s dipleidoscope, are held in the Macleay Museum, University of Sydney

20. Negretti & Zambra, A Treatise on Meteorological Instruments (London, 1864; facsimile repr. 1995), pp. 54-55. The second prediction is not a unique example of the view that the use of scientific instruments by middle-class women represents the zenith of domestication of those instruments. An anonymous reviewer of a book on the adulteration of food in 1857 did ‘not despair of seeing the time when it shall be deemed a necessary accomplishment of every good housewife to be enabled to test the quality of all articles of food by the aid of the microscope’; Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science, 5 (1857), p. 229

21. Unfortunately there is no aneroid barometer among Clarke’s instruments held in the Macleay Museum

22. W.B. Clarke, ms introduction to Edmund Kennedy’s 1847 journal, printed in Edgar Beale, Kennedy: the Barcoo and beyond, 1847 (Hobart, 1983), pp. 261-62. Clarke commented on the etymology of the word ‘aneroid’ in his article of July 1849 (note 2): ‘The word "Aneroid" being a French mode of writing Aneuroid’.

23. Middleton (note 10), p. 408

24. Thomas Walker Fowler, ‘The Determination of Heights by Barometric Methods’, in A. Liversidge (ed.), Report of the Seventh Meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science (Sydney, 1898), pp. 702-08

25. SMH, 13 January 1852, p. 3

26. SMH, 2 November 1854, p. 6

27. Sydney Mail, 13 April 1872, p. 476


The author is Curator of Scientific Instruments for the Macleay Museum, University of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia 2006.  The author's email address is:  julian@macleay.usyd.edu.au


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