Shaw, William Napier

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(b. Birmingham, England, 4 March 1854; d. London, England, 23 March 1945)

meteorology, physics.

Shaw received his education at King Edward’s School in Birmingham and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he studied mathematics and natural sciences. After his graduation in 1876 he was elected to fellow of his college. In 1879, after a semester of study under Helmholtz at Berlin, he was appointed demonstrator at the Cavendish Laboratory, jointly with his lifelong friend R. T. Glazebrook. He became lecturer in experimental physics in 1887 and assistant director of the laboratory in 1898. His publications during this time dealt with experimental physics. He also began work on problems of ventilating buildings.

Partly on the basis of his work on hygrometric methods and instruments, begun in 1879, Shaw was appointed a member of the Meteorological Council in 1897. With his appointment as secretary in 1900, he forsook the opportunity of a university career at Cambridge. He became director of the Meteorological Office in 1905 and held this post until his retirement in 1920. In 1907 he became reader in meteorology at the University of London, and he was first professor of meteorology at Imperial College from 1920 to 1924. He was president of the International Meteorological Committee from 1906 to 1923.

Shaw’s contributions to meteorology were more far-reaching than his writings would indicate. Under his administration the Meteorological Office was transformed through the introduction of a trained scientific staff and the consequent emphasis on studies of the physics of the atmosphere. This activity complemented the customary statistical treatment of observations.

One of Shaw’s most important publications, The Life History of Surface Air-Currents, pointed the way toward air-mass analysis and the concept of fronts (later developed by the Norwegian school of meteorologists) by showing that trajectories of air converging toward various parts of mid-latitude storms originated in widely different regions. Shaw did not pursue these results, however, and his work had little influence on meteorological practice and theory. In association with W. H. Dines, he subsequently turned to the study of the upper atmosphere by means of kites and balloons. Shaw introduced the principle of isentropic analysis, later developed by C.-G. Rossby and his collaborators, and devised a thermodynamic diagram (the tephigram) that is widely used in meteorology. His enthusiasm for the observational and diagrammatic approach was based on the conviction, dating from his student years under Maxwell, that atmospheric problems should be handled by determining the dynamics from the observations of motion.

Shaw took a particular interest in educating the public on meteorology and related subjects, and served on a number of advisory committees. After his retirement he completed his four-volume Manual of Meteorology, a unique account of the historical roots and the physical and mathematical basis of the subject. His writings in general reflect a deep interest and insight into the historical development of meteorology.

Shaw was knighted in 1915 and was a fellow of the Royal Society and honorary or foreign member of many academise and societies. He received the Symons Medal (1910), the Buys Ballot Medal (1923), and the Royal Medal(1923).


I. Original Works. A complete bibliography of Shaw’s works is in Selected Meteorological Papers of Sir Napier Shaw (London, 1955). His publications included Practical Physics (London, 1885), written with R. T. Glazebrook; “report on Hygrometric Methods,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. A179 (1888), 73–149; “Ventilation and Warming,” in T. Stevenson and S. Murphy, eds., A Treatise on Hygiene and Public Health, 1 (London, 1890), written with R. G. K. Lempfert; Weather Forecasting (London, 1911); The Air and Its Ways (Cambridge, 1923); and Manual of Meteorology, 4 vols. (Cambridge, 1926–1931). Shaw’s MSS and correspondence are in the archives of the Meteorological Office, Bracknell, England.

II. Secodary Literature. Obituaries are in Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society of London, 5 (1945), 202–230, with selected bibliography; and Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, 71 (1945), 187–194. See also D. Brunt, “A Hundred Years of Meteorology (1851–1951),” in Advancement of Science, 8 (1951), 114–124.

Gisela Kutzbach