In 1758 William Hutchison became the Dock Master of the Old Dock at Liverpool. As a former ship’s captain he was well aware of what could happen if you misjudged the tides, and so when he swapped his life as a ship’s captain for the steady job ashore he decided to find a better way of predicting the tides. His main job of course was to oversee the arrival and departure of the ships using the Dock, and of course to do this the ships needed to come and go on a high tide.
The suggestion for taking tidal measurements came from James Ferguson, an astronomer and maker of tidal clocks, who Hutchinson met at a regular gathering of the local scientific society. Liverpool’s tidal range was quite large and very variable, and Huchinson soon saw that if he could predict the tides he could run a much more efficient organization. In 1764 he embarked on his twice daily ritual. He had a set of markings carved into the stone dock to provide accurate measurements, and as well as measuring the rise and fall of the tide he also measured the wind direction and strength, the barometric pressure and the general weather conditions, which all have a bearing on the height and timings of the tides.
His dedication soon showed positive results. His first four years of records played a vital part in producing Britain’s first accurate set of tide tables. In 1767 he gave the first three thousand entries in his log to the Holden Brothers who were mathematicians. They were working on a new way of predicting the tides and used Hutchinson’s data to prove their accuracy. In1770 they published the tide tables for Liverpool, and they were so good that all the Pilots had to use them, or pay a fine of five pounds.
Meteorology has come along way since then, but even today Huchinson’s observation are still used by modern day scientists, and modern methods have shown that his measurements were spot on.
This was not his only achievement. In his spare time he set up the world’s first lifeboat station, founded a charity to support the women and children of destitute seamen, and developed an oil fired lamp to replace the fire basket in lighthouses. A truly remarkable man.