Rare Georgian Barograph Acquired by London’s Science Museum in Private Sale Negotiated by Sotheby’s

By Sotheby's

A rare Georgian Barograph made by the renowned 18th-century London clockmaker Alexander Cumming and used by the father of modern meteorology Luke Howard was acquired for the nation by the Science Museum in a sale negotiated by Sotheby’s Tax, Heritage & UK Museums earlier this year.

It was Alexander Cumming who successfully combined an accurate timekeeper with a barometer and revolving disc capable of continuously recording changes in atmospheric pressure. Of the four longcase barograph regulators made by Cumming, only three retain their mechanisms. Of those, two remain within the collections of their original owners.


Alexander Cumming FRSE was born in Edinburgh circa 1733. Little is known of his early life but it is said that he was apprenticed to an Edinburgh watchmaker. He was clearly extremely talented as, by the early 1750s, he and his brother John were engaged by the Duke of Argyll to supply an organ and clock for his new castle at Inveraray.  Later, King George III commissioned Alexander Cumming to design and build the first practical recording barometer (barograph). This spectacular instrument combined a longcase regulator with a mercury barometer to record the daily trend in barometric pressure on an annual chart and was housed in an elaborate ormolu-mounted case designed by Sir William Chambers, architect to George III. The barograph remains in the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace.

In 1766 Cumming built the present barograph regulator for his own use and it remained in his possession until his death in 1814. It is interesting to speculate why the barograph ring of this instrument bears the King's cypher and it may be that there was some overlap in the construction of all of the regulators. In the same year that he built this barograph, he published his great work; The elements of clock and watch-work, adapted to practice, in which, along with his many other horological findings, he described in detail both his gravity escapement and his improvements on John Ellicott’s pendulum. This work was dedicated to the King stating “Your bounty has afforded me the leisure to pursue my researches”.

In October 1777 Thomas Bugge (1740-1814), professor of mathematics and astronomy at the University of Copenhagen, visited Cumming at his premises in New Bond Street. In the journal of his of his travels that year [1] he describes how Cumming showed him his barograph clock and he also sketched details of the dial and barograph mechanism.


Luke Howard FRS (1772-1864) was born in Red Cross Street, London, the son of Robert Howard, a successful Quaker tin plate manufacturer and his second wife Elizabeth.  At the age of eight Luke was sent to the Quaker school at Burford, Oxfordshire for seven years  where, according to his own account, he learned more Latin than he was able to forget but little science or mathematics.  It was whilst at school in the spring of 1783 that his attention was drawn to the “Great Fogg”. This was a haze of dust in the atmosphere caused by volcanic eruptions in Iceland and Japan that created dramatic skies and cloud formations. From that moment, at the age of just eleven, Luke was hooked and, for the rest of his life, the study of clouds and weather patterns was an abiding passion.

In 1795 Luke set up business as a pharmaceutical chemist in Fleet Street. In 1796 he married Mariabella Eliot, the daughter of Quakers John and Mary Eliot. However, shortly after his marriage, a serious accident caused him to abandon his business enabling him to resume his study of botany and the weather. He became friends with William Allen, one of the founders of the Askesian Society, and in 1798 they became business partners, with Luke managing a new manufacturing laboratory in Plaistow.

One of the rules of the Askesian Society, a scientific debating club, was that members had to present a paper or pay a fine. Little did Luke Howard realise at the time that his own paper, ‘On the Modification of Clouds’ presented to the Society in 1802, would define many of the cloud names still in use in the twenty first century and forever link his name with meteorology. Despite his misgivings regarding his knowledge of Latin, he had clearly retained enough to use it for his cloud names of Cirrus, Cumulus and Stratus. He later combined these into four further types of Cirro-cumulus, Cirro-stratus, Cumulostratus and Cumulo-cirro-stratus or Nimbus.


From 1806 he kept a strict record of barometer and thermometer readings combined with a narrative of weather observations which he published in The Climate of London, Vol 1, 1818, Vol 2, 1820 and re-published with a third volume in 1830. He was clearly delighted that, on the death of Alexander Cumming in 1814, he was able to purchase the barograph regulator that provided him with a constant record of barometric pressure.  In Volume 1 he writes:

“I have possessed for some years an eight-day astronomical clock, having a barometer connected with it, made in 1766 by Alexander Cumming, and which, on the decease of that excellent mechanic, his family allowed me to purchase by valuation. This curious instrument records, by means of a pencil supported on the quicksilver, and traversing a revolving scale, the movements of the barometer throughout the year; requiring for this purpose little more attention than the regular winding up of the clock.  When I bought it, there was a latent defect in the bearings of the escapement, which for a long time gave me considerable trouble, the false beat which it occasioned coming on at uncertain intervals, during which the going was incorrect. This I have at length discovered and remedied; as I can now put full confidence in the reports of this automaton, I shall probably give them to the public at intervals, with remarks.”

In 1847 Luke Howard published Barometrographia, a lavish folio of prints taken from the circular charts of the Cumming barograph regulator and annotated with meteorological observational comments for London and Ackworth.

On 8 March 1821 Luke Howard was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and he joined the British (now Royal) Meteorological Society on 7 May 1850, only one month after it was founded.

In April 2002, the BBC weather presenter Michael Fish unveiled an English Heritage blue plaque on the house simply titled “Luke Howard, 1772-1864, Namer of Clouds, lived and died here”. His name may now be little known outside meteorological circles but his legacy in the names of the clouds has certainly endured.

The acquisition of this barograph was a unique opportunity for the museum to acquire a vital piece of scientific history.

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