Schematic drawing of a simple mercury barometer with vertical mercury column and reservoir at base
Old barometers from the Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris
Goethe's device

A barometer is a scientific instrument used in meteorology to measure atmospheric pressure. Pressure tendency can forecast short term changes in the weather. Numerous measurements of air pressure are used within surface weather analysis to help find surface troughs, high pressure systems, and frontal boundaries.



Although Evangelista Torricelli is universally credited with inventing the barometer in 1643,[1][2][3] historical documentation also suggests Gasparo Berti, an Italian mathematician and astronomer, unintentionally built a water barometer sometime between 1640 and 1643.[1][4] French scientist and philosopher René Descartes described the design of an experiment to determine atmospheric pressure as early as 1631, but there is no evidence that he built a working barometer at that time.[1]

On July 27, 1630, Giovanni Battista Baliani wrote a letter to Galileo Galilei explaining an experiment he had made in which a siphon, led over a hill about twenty-one meters high, failed to work. Galileo responded with an explanation of the phenomena: he proposed that it was the power of a vacuum that held the water up, and at a certain height the amount of water simply became too much and the force could not hold any more, like a cord that can support only so much weight.[5]

Galileo's ideas reached Rome in December 1638 in his Discorsi. Raffaele Magiotti and Gasparo Berti were excited by these ideas, and decided to seek a better way to attempt to produce a vacuum than with a siphon. Magiotti devised such an experiment, and sometime between 1639 and 1641, Berti (with Magiotti, Athanasius Kircher and Niccolò Zucchi present) carried it out.[5]

Four accounts of Berti's experiment exist, but a simple model of his experiment consisted of filling with water a long tube that had both ends plugged, then standing the tube in a basin already full of water. The bottom end of the tube was opened, and water that had been inside of it poured out into the basin. However, only part of the water in the tube flowed out, and the level of the water inside the tube stayed at an exact level, which happened to be 10.3 m, the same height Baliani and Galileo had observed that was limited by the siphon. What was most important about this experiment was that the lowering water had left a space above it in the tube which had had no intermediate contact with air to fill it up. This seemed to suggest the possibility of a vacuum existing in the space above the water.[5]

Torricelli, a friend and student of Galileo, dared to look at the entire problem from a different angle. In a letter to Michelangelo Ricci in 1644 concerning the experiments with the water barometer, he wrote:

Many have said that a vacuum does not exist, others that it does exist in spite of the repugnance of nature and with difficulty; I know of no one who has said that it exists without difficulty and without a resistance from nature. I argued thus: If there can be found a manifest cause from which the resistance can be derived which is felt if we try to make a vacuum, it seems to me foolish to try to attribute to vacuum those operations which follow evidently from some other cause; and so by making some very easy calculations, I found that the cause assigned by me (that is, the weight of the atmosphere) ought by itself alone to offer a greater resistance than it does when we try to produce a vacuum.[6]

It was traditionally thought (especially by the Aristotelians) that the air did not have lateral weight: that is, that the kilometers of air above the surface did not exert any weight above bodies. Even Galileo had accepted the weightlessness of air as a simple truth. Torricelli questioned that assumption, and instead proposed that air had weight, and that it was the latter (not the attracting force of the vacuum) which held (or rather, pushed) up the column of water. He thought that the level the water stayed at (c. 10.3 m) was reflective of the force of the air's weight pushing on it (specifically, pushing on the water in the basin and thus limiting how much water can fall from the tube into it). In other words, he viewed the barometer as a balance, an instrument for measurement (as opposed to merely being an instrument to create a vacuum), and because he was the first to view it this way, he is traditionally considered the inventor of the barometer (in the sense in which we use the term now).[5]

Because of rumors circulating in Torricelli's gossipy Italian neighborhood, which included that he was engaged in some form of sorcery or witchcraft, Torricelli realized he had to keep his experiment secret to avoid the risk of being arrested. He needed to use a liquid that was heavier than water, and from his previous association and suggestions by Galileo, he deduced by using mercury, a shorter tube could be used. With mercury, then called "quicksilver", which is about 14 times heavier than water, a tube only 80 cm was now needed, not 10.5 m.[7]

In 1646, Blaise Pascal along with Pierre Petit, had repeated and perfected Torricelli's experiment after hearing about it from Marin Mersenne, who himself had been shown the experiment by Torricelli toward the end of 1644. Pascal further devised an experiment to test the Aristotelian proposition that it was vapors from the liquid that filled the space in a barometer. His experiment compared water with wine, and since the latter was considered more "spiritous", the Aristotelians expected the wine to stand lower (since more vapors would mean more pushing down on the liquid column). Pascal performed the experiment publicly, inviting the Aristotelians to predict the outcome beforehand. The Aristotelians predicted the wine would stand lower. It did not.[5]

However, Pascal went even further to test the mechanical theory. If, as suspected by mechanical philosophers like Torricelli and Pascal, air had lateral weight, the weight of the air would be less at higher altitudes. Therefore, Pascal wrote to his brother-in-law, Florin Perier, who lived near a mountain called the Puy de Dome, asking him to perform a crucial experiment. Perier was to take a barometer up the Puy de Dome and make measurements along the way of the height of the column of mercury. He was then to compare it to measurements taken at the foot of the mountain to see if those measurements taken higher up were in fact smaller. In September 1648, Perier carefully and meticulously carried out the experiment, and found that Pascal's predictions had been correct. The mercury barometer stood lower the higher one went.[5]


Water-based barometers

The concept that decreasing atmospheric pressure predicts stormy weather, postulated by Lucien Vidie, provides the theoretical basis for a weather prediction device called a "storm glass" or a "Goethe barometer" (named for Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, the renowned German writer and polymath who developed a simple but effective weather ball barometer using the principles developed by Torricelli).

The weather ball barometer consists of a glass container with a sealed body, half filled with water. A narrow spout connects to the body below the water level and rises above the water level. The narrow spout is open to the atmosphere. When the air pressure is lower than it was at the time the body was sealed, the water level in the spout will rise above the water level in the body; when the air pressure is higher, the water level in the spout will drop below the water level in the body. A variation of this type of barometer can be easily made at home.[8]

Mercury barometers

A mercury barometer has a glass tube with a height of at least 84 cm, closed at one end, with an open mercury-filled reservoir at the base. The weight of the mercury creates a vacuum in the top of the tube. Mercury in the tube adjusts until the weight of the mercury column balances the atmospheric force exerted on the reservoir. High atmospheric pressure places more force on the reservoir, forcing mercury higher in the column. Low pressure allows the mercury to drop to a lower level in the column by lowering the force placed on the reservoir. Since higher temperature at the instrument will reduce the density of the mercury, the scale for reading the height of the mercury is adjusted to compensate for this effect.

Torricelli documented that the height of the mercury in a barometer changed slightly each day and concluded that this was due to the changing pressure in the atmosphere.[1] He wrote: "We live submerged at the bottom of an ocean of elementary air, which is known by incontestable experiments to have weight".

The mercury barometer's design gives rise to the expression of atmospheric pressure in inches or millimeters (torr): the pressure is quoted as the level of the mercury's height in the vertical column. 1 atmosphere is equivalent to about 760 millimeters of mercury.

Design changes to make the instrument more sensitive, simpler to read, and easier to transport resulted in variations such as the basin, siphon, wheel, cistern, Fortin, multiple folded, stereometric, and balance barometers. Fitzroy barometers combine the standard mercury barometer with a thermometer, as well as a guide of how to interpret pressure changes. Fortin barometers use a variable displacement mercury cistern, usually constructed with a thumbscrew pressing on a leather diaphragm bottom. This compensates for displacement of mercury in the column with varying pressure. To use a Fortin barometer, the level of mercury is set to the zero level before the pressure is read on the column. Some models also employ a valve for closing the cistern, enabling the mercury column to be forced to the top of the column for transport. This prevents water-hammer damage to the column in transit.

On June 5, 2007, a European Union directive was enacted to restrict the sale of mercury, thus effectively ending the production of new mercury barometers in Europe.

Aneroid barometers

Old aneroid barometer
Modern aneroid barometer

An aneroid barometer, invented by the French 19th century engineer and inventor Lucien Vidie, uses a small, flexible metal box called an aneroid cell. This aneroid capsule (cell) is made from an alloy of beryllium and copper.[9] The evacuated capsule (or usually more capsules) is prevented from collapsing by a strong spring. Small changes in external air pressure cause the cell to expand or contract. This expansion and contraction drives mechanical levers such that the tiny movements of the capsule are amplified and displayed on the face of the aneroid barometer. Many models include a manually set needle which is used to mark the current measurement so a change can be seen. In addition, the mechanism is made deliberately "stiff" so that tapping the barometer reveals whether the pressure is rising or falling as the pointer moves.


A barograph, which records a graph of some atmospheric pressure, uses an aneroid barometer mechanism to move a needle on a smoked foil or to move a pen upon paper, both of which are attached to a drum moved by clockwork.[10]

More unusual barometers

The Galaxy Nexus has a built-in barometer[11]

There are many other more unusual types of barometer. From variations on the storm barometer, such as the Collins Patent Table Barometer, to more traditional looking designs such as Hooke's Otheometer and the Ross Sympiesometer. Some, such as the Shark Oil barometer,[12] work only in a certain temperature range, achieved in warmer climates

An unusual location of a barometer is its location in the new Samsung Galaxy Nexus smartphone,[13] which is included to provide a faster GPS lock.[14]


Digital graphing barometer.
Barograph using five stacked aneroid barometer cells.

Using barometric pressure and the pressure tendency (the change of pressure over time) has been used in weather forecasting since the late 19th century.[15] When used in combination with wind observations, reasonably accurate short-term forecasts can be made.[16] Simultaneous barometric readings from across a network of weather stations allow maps of air pressure to be produced, which were the first form of the modern weather map when created in the 19th century. Isobars, lines of equal pressure, when drawn on such a map, gives a contour map showing areas of high and low pressure.[17] Localized high atmospheric pressure acts as a barrier to approaching weather systems, diverting their course. Atmospheric lift caused by low-level wind convergence into the surface low brings clouds and potentially precipitation.[18] The larger the change in pressure, especially if more than 3.5 hPa, the larger the change in weather can be expected. If the pressure drop is rapid, a low pressure system is approaching, and there is a greater chance of rain . Rapid pressure rises, such as in the wake of a cold front, are associated with improving weather conditions, such as clearing skies.[19]



The density of mercury will change with temperature, so a reading must be adjusted for the temperature of the instrument. For this purpose a mercury thermometer is usually mounted on the instrument. Temperature compensation of an aneroid barometer is accomplished by including a bi-metal element in the mechanical linkages. Aneroid barometers sold for domestic use typically have no compensation.


As the air pressure will be decreased at altitudes above sea level (and increased below sea level) the actual reading of the instrument will be dependent upon its location. This pressure is then converted to an equivalent sea-level pressure for purposes of reporting and for adjusting aircraft altimeters (as aircraft may fly between regions of varying normalized atmospheric pressure owing to the presence of weather systems). Aneroid barometers have a mechanical adjustment for altitude that allows the equivalent sea level pressure to be read directly and without further adjustment if the instrument is not moved to a different altitude.


Table of Pneumaticks, 1728 Cyclopaedia

See also


  1. ^ a b c d "The Invention of the Barometer". Retrieved 2010-02-04. 
  2. ^ "History of the Barometer". Retrieved 2010-02-04. 
  3. ^ "Evangelista Torricelli, The Invention of the Barometer". Retrieved 2010-02-04. 
  4. ^ Drake, Stillman (1970). "Berti, Gasparo". Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 2. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 83–84. ISBN 0684101149. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f "History of the Barometer". 2002-01-21. Retrieved 2010-02-04. 
  6. ^ "Torricelli's letter to Michelangelo Ricci". Retrieved 2010-02-04. 
  7. ^ "Brief History of the Barometer". Retrieved 2010-02-04. 
  8. ^ Jet Stream. Learning Lesson: Measure the Pressure – The "Wet" Barometer. Retrieved on 2007-05-05.
  9. ^ How Products Are Made: Aneroid Barometer. Retrieved on 2007-05-05.
  10. ^ Glossary of Meteorology. Barograph. Retrieved on 2007-05-05.
  11. ^
  12. ^ Shark Oil Barometer Barometer World Retrieved on 2009-09-26.
  13. ^ This Is the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Google's New Official Android Phone. (2011-10-18). Retrieved on 2011-11-15.
  14. ^
  15. ^ USA Today. Understanding air pressure. Retrieved on 2008-05-25.
  16. ^ USA Today. Using winds and a barometer to make forecasts. Retrieved on 2007-05-05.
  17. ^ Edward J. Hopkins, Ph.D. (1996-06-10). "Surface Weather Analysis Chart". University of Wisconsin. Retrieved 2007-05-10. 
  18. ^ Robert Penrose Pearce (2002). Meteorology at the Millennium. Academic Press. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-12-548035-2. Retrieved 2009-01-02. 
  19. ^ Weather Doctor. Applying The Barometer To Weather Watching. Retrieved on 2008-05-25.

Further reading

  • Burch, David F. The Barometer Handbook; a modern look at barometers and applications of barometric pressure. Seattle: Starpath Publications (2009), ISBN 978-0-914025-12-2.
  • Middleton, W.E. Knowles. (1964). The history of the barometer. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. New edition (2002), ISBN 0801871549.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Barometer — Ba*rom e*ter, n. [Gr. ba ros weight + meter: cf. F. barom[ e]tre.] An instrument for determining the weight or pressure of the atmosphere, and hence for judging of the probable changes of weather, or for ascertaining the height of any ascent.… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Barometer — (barometer; baromètre; barometro), Instrument zur Ermittlung des an einer Stelle herrschenden Luftdrucks. Da sich aus der Luftdruckdifferenz zweier Punkte ihr Höhenunterschied berechnen läßt, so findet das B. auch zu Höhenmessungen bei… …   Enzyklopädie des Eisenbahnwesens

  • Barometer — Smn Luftdruckmesser erw. fach. (17. Jh.) Neoklassische Bildung. Neubildung des englischen Chemikers R. Boyle (1665) aus gr. báros n. Schwere, Druck , zu gr. barýs schwer und gr. métron n. Maß, Maßstab . Das Prinzip des Gerätes selbst wurde von E …   Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen sprache

  • Barometer — (griech., »Schweremesser«, Baroskop, Wetterglas, Torricellische Röhre; hierzu Tafel »Barometer« mit Text), von Torricelli 1643 erfundenes Instrument zum Messen des Druckes der Luft (das Wort B. wurde zuerst 1666 von Boyle gebraucht). Das… …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • barometer — [bə räm′ət ər] n. [ BARO + METER] 1. an instrument for measuring atmospheric pressure, esp. an aneroid barometer or an evacuated and graduated glass tube (mercury barometer) in which a column of mercury rises or falls as the pressure of the… …   English World dictionary

  • Barometer — Barometer, Lustichweremesser, Wetterglas, ist ein physikalisches Instrument, welches dazu dient, die Schwere der atmosphärischen Luft zu messen. Die Luft ist nämlich, so wie jeder andere Körper, schwer Dieses sieht man sogleich, wenn man eine… …   Damen Conversations Lexikon

  • Barometer — Barometer: Die seit dem 18. Jh. bezeugte Bezeichnung für »Luftdruckmesser« ist aus engl. barometer entlehnt. Das engl. Wort ist eine gelehrte Neubildung (1665) des englischen Physikers R. Boyle (1627–1691) für das von Torricelli 1643 erfundene… …   Das Herkunftswörterbuch

  • barometer — ► NOUN 1) an instrument measuring atmospheric pressure, used especially in forecasting the weather. 2) an indicator of change: furniture is a barometer of changing tastes. DERIVATIVES barometric adjective. ORIGIN from Greek baros weight …   English terms dictionary

  • Barometer — (v. gr., Schweremesser); 1) zu Bestimmung des atmosphärischen Luftdrucks dienendes Instrument. Die meisten B. beruhen auf dem Gesetz, daß zwei Flüssigkeiten in communicirenden Röhren einander das Gleichgewicht halten, wenn ihr Druck gleich ist,… …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Barometer — Barometer, Instrument zur Messung des Luftdrucks, im engeren, gewöhnlichen Sinne gleichbedeutend mit Quecksilberbarometer (s.d.), im Gegensatz zu den gleichem Zwecke dienlichen Aneroidbarometern, die man kurz Aneroide oder Federbarometer (s.d.)… …   Lexikon der gesamten Technik

  • Barometer — Baromēter (grch., d.i. Druckmesser), ein von Torricelli 1643 zur Messung des Drucks der atmosphärischen Luft erfundenes physik. Instrument, besteht aus einer mit Quecksilber gefüllten luftleeren, am obern Ende geschlossenen Glasröhre, deren… …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

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