Buys Ballot, Christoph Hendrik Diederik

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Buys Ballot, Christoph Hendrik Diederik

(b. Kloetinge, Netherlands, 10 October 1817; d. Utrecht, Netherlands, 3 February 1890)

meteorology, physical chemistry.

The son of Anthony Jacobus Buys Ballot, Dutch Reformed minister, and Geertruida Françoise Lix Raaven, Buys Ballot attended the Gymnasium at Zaltbommel and the Hogeschool (now University) of Utrecht, where he was active in student affairs before receiving his doctorate in 1844. He became lecturer in mineralogy and geology at Utrecht in 1845, and in 1846 he added theoretical chemistry. In 1847 he was appointed professor of mathematics, and from 1867 until his retirement in 1888 he was professor of physics. In 1854 he founded the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (K.N.M.I), a world center for atmospheric research, whose chief director he remained until his death. A deeply religious man, noted for his proverbial modesty, Buys Ballot became a prominent lay leader of the Walloon church. He was twice married; five of his eight children survived him. He was elected to the Royal Academy of Sciences of Amsterdam in 1855 and to the Royal Belgian Academy. He was decorated by the Dutch, Austrian, and Prussian governments. As a teacher he wrote textbooks in chemistry, mathematics, and physics.

Although he is best known for the law to which he gave his name, Buys Ballot’s principal accomplishments were the shape he gave (with others) to the field of meteorology in its formative years. He started as a chemist and shifted to meteorology when his speculations on the relation between molecular structure and the properties of matter (put forward in 1843 but not published until 1849) were badly received by his teachers for lack of experimental foundations. In meteorology, which was growing in importance as the spread of the telegraph made synoptic observations possible, Buys Ballot labored unceasingly for the widest possible network of simultaneous observations, which he published in a series of yearbooks beginning in 1851. He was a leader of the international meteorological cooperation that began with the Brussels Conference in 1853, and he served as chairman of the International Meteorological Committee from its founding at the Vienna Congress in 1873 until 1879. He also was responsible for Dutch participation in the International Polar Year.

His contributions to meteorology were twofold. First, he suggested that only the deviations from the mean state were important for understanding. Second, in spite of his stated devotion to the motto Sine hypothesi scientia nulla, his research consisted chiefly of examining long time series for regularities that he was more concerned to establish than to interpret. This overwhelming preoccupation with data gave his papers a strongly Baconian flavor; he left to others the development of the theoretical side of meteorology, to which his training might have led.

In 1857, noting that on his synoptic charts of the Netherlands the wind blew at right angles to the pressure gradient, Buys Ballot published the fact, later stating it in the form now known as Buys Ballot’s law: “When you place yourself in the direction of the wind,… you will have at your left the least atmospheric pressure” (British Association for the Advancement of Science, Transactions, 32 [1863], 20–21). In this he had been anticipated by James Henry Coffin and William Ferrel, and he failed to explain, as Ferrel had, that the law results from the deflecting force of the earth’s rotation. Although his theoretical understanding did not go much beyond Dove’s, Buys Ballot left his mark on the science of meteorology as one of its chief organizers.


A complete list of Buys Ballot’s works is an appendix to the biography cited below. On his meteorological work, see his Beredeneerd register van het Koninklihk Nederlandsch Meteorologisch Instituut (Utrecht, 1882). His law is first stated in “Note sur les rapports de l’intensité et de la direction du vent avec les écarts simulanées du baromètre,” in Comptes rendus de l’Académie des sciences, 45 (1857), 765–768. His ideas in physical chemistry were expanded in “Über die Art und Bewegung welche wir Wärme und Electricitat nennen,” in Annalem der Physik, 103 (1858), 240–259.

A biography is Ewoud van Everdingen, C. H. D. Buys Ballot 1817–1890 (The Hague, 1953), by one of Buys Ballot’s successors at the K.N.M.I.

Harold L. Burstyn