Francis Beaufort

Roald Amundsen James Clark Ross Beaufort scale


Francis Beaufort

Francis Beaufort (cropped).jpg
Beaufort c. 1851
Hydrographer of the Navy
In office
19 May 1829 – 25 January 1855 (1829-05-19 – 1855-01-25)
Preceded bySir William Parry
Succeeded byJohn Washington
Personal details
Born(1774-05-27)27 May 1774
Navan, County Meath, Ireland
Died17 December 1857(1857-12-17) (aged 83)
Hove, Sussex, England
Resting placeSt John's Church Gardens
  • Alicia Wilson (1815–1834)
  • Honora Edgeworth (1838–1857)
FatherDaniel Augustus Beaufort
OccupationHydrographer, mariner
Known forBeaufort cipher, Beaufort scale
Military service
Branch Royal Navy
Service years1787–1855
RankRear admiral

Sir Francis Beaufort KCB FRS FRGS FRAS MRIA (/ˈbfət/; 27 May 1774 – 17 December 1857) was an Irish hydrographer, rear admiral of the Royal Navy, and creator of the Beaufort cipher and the Beaufort scale.

Early life

Francis Beaufort was descended from French Protestant Huguenots, who fled the French Wars of Religion in the sixteenth century. His parents moved to Ireland from London. His father, Daniel Augustus Beaufort, was a Protestant clergyman from Navan, County Meath, Ireland, and a member of the learned Royal Irish Academy. His mother Mary was the daughter and co-heiress of William Waller, of Allenstown House. Francis was born in Navan on 27 May 1774.[1] He had an older brother, William Louis Beaufort and three sisters, Frances, Harriet, and Louisa. His father created and published a new map of Ireland in 1792.[2] Francis grew up in Wales and Ireland until age fourteen.[3][4] He left school and went to sea, but never stopped his education. By later in life, he had become sufficiently self-educated to associate with some of the greatest scientists and applied mathematicians of his time, including Mary Somerville, John Herschel, George Biddell Airy, and Charles Babbage.

Francis Beaufort had a lifelong keen awareness of the value of accurate charts for those risking the seas, as he was shipwrecked at the age of fifteen due to a faulty chart. His most significant accomplishments were in nautical charting.[citation needed]


Early naval career

Beginning on a merchant ship of the British East India Company, Beaufort rose to midshipman during the Napoleonic Wars, to lieutenant on 10 May 1796, and commander on 13 November 1800. He served on the fifth rate frigate HMS Aquilon during the battle of the Glorious First of June, when Aquilon rescued the dismasted HMS Defence and exchanged broadsides with the French ship-of-the line, Impétueux.

When serving on HMS Phaeton, Beaufort was badly wounded leading a cutting-out operation off Málaga in 1800; the action resulted in the capture of the 14-gun polacca Calpe. While recovering, during which he received a "paltry" pension of £45 p.a., he helped his brother-in-law, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, to construct a semaphore line from Dublin to Galway. He spent two years at this activity, for which he would accept no remuneration.[5]


Beaufort returned to active service and was appointed a captain in the Royal Navy on 30 May 1810. Whereas other wartime officers sought leisurely pursuits, Beaufort spent his leisure time taking depth soundings and bearings, making astronomical observations to determine longitude and latitude, and measuring shorelines. His results were compiled in new charts.[citation needed]

The Admiralty gave Beaufort his first ship command, HMS Woolwich. He sailed her to the East Indies and escorted a convoy of East Indiamen back to Britain. The Admiralty then tasked him with conducting a hydrographic survey of the Rio de la Plata estuary in South America. Experts were very impressed by the survey Beaufort brought back. Notably, Alexander Dalrymple remarked in a note to the Admiralty in March 1808, that "we have few officers (indeed I do not know one) in our Service who have half his professional knowledge and ability, and in zeal and perseverance he cannot be excelled."[6]


After the Woolwich, Beaufort received his first post-captain commission, commanding Frederickstein.[7]

Throughout 1811–1812, Beaufort charted and explored southern Anatolia, locating many classical ruins, including Hadrian's Gate. An attack on the crew of his boat (at Ayas, near Adana), by Turks interrupted his work and he received a serious bullet wound in the hip. He returned to England and drew up his charts.

In 1817, he published his book Karamania; or a brief description of the South Coast of Asia Minor, and of the Remains of Antiquity.

Hydrographer of the Navy

In 1829, Beaufort was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society,[8] and at age 55 (retirement age for most administrative contemporaries), Beaufort was appointed as the British Admiralty Hydrographer of the Navy. He served in that post for 25 years. Beaufort converted what had been a minor chart repository into the finest surveying and charting institution in the world.[citation needed] Some of the excellent charts the Office produced are still in use today.[citation needed]

During his tenure, he took over the administration of the great astronomical observatories at Greenwich, England, and the Cape of Good Hope, Africa. Beaufort directed some of the major maritime explorations and experiments of that period. For eight years, he directed the Arctic Council during its search for the explorer, Sir John Franklin, who was lost during his last polar voyage to search for the legendary Northwest Passage. As a council member of the Royal Society, the Royal Observatory, and the Royal Geographical Society (which he helped found), Beaufort used his position and prestige as a top administrator to act as a "middleman" for many scientists of his time. Beaufort represented the geographers, astronomers, oceanographers, geodesists, and meteorologists to that government agency, the Hydrographic Office, which could support their research.

Beaufort trained Robert FitzRoy, who was put in temporary command of the survey ship HMS Beagle after her previous captain committed suicide. When FitzRoy was reappointed as commander for what became the famous second voyage of the Beagle, he requested of Beaufort "that a well-educated and scientific gentleman be sought" as a companion on the voyage. Beaufort's enquiries led to an invitation to Charles Darwin, who later drew on his discoveries in formulating the theory of evolution he presented in his book The Origin of Species.

Overcoming many objections, Beaufort obtained government support for the Antarctic voyage of 1839–1843 by James Clark Ross for extensive measurements of terrestrial magnetism, coordinated with similar measurements in Europe and Asia. (This is comparable to the International Geophysical Year of our time.)

Beaufort promoted the development of reliable tide tables around British shores, inspiring similar research for Europe and North America. Aiding his friend William Whewell, Beaufort gained the support of the Prime Minister, Duke of Wellington, in expanding record-keeping at 200 British Coastguard stations. Beaufort gave enthusiastic support to his friend, Sir George Airy, the Astronomer Royal and noted mathematician, in achieving a historic period of measurements by the Greenwich and Good Hope observatories.


Beaufort retired from the Royal Navy with the rank of rear admiral on 1 October 1846, at the age of 72. He became "Sir Francis Beaufort" on being appointed KCB (Knight Commander of the Bath) on 29 April 1848, a relatively belated honorific considering the eminence of his position from 1829 onward.

Personal life

He married Alicia Magdalena Wilson. Their son, Francis Lestock Beaufort (1815–1879) later went out to India and served in the Bengal civil service, from 1837 to 1876. He was for many years judge of the twenty-four Purgunnahs,[clarification needed] Calcutta. He was the author of the well-known Digest of the Criminal Law Procedure in Bengal (1850), and died in 1879. Beaufort's youngest daughter Emily Anne Smythe was a hero of Bulgaria, a writer, illustrator and advocate of change in the training of nurses.[9]

Alice Beaufort died on August 27, 1834 (1834-08-27). Francis Beaufort married again in 1838, to Honora Edgeworth, the daughter of his brother-in-law Richard Lovell Edgeworth and his second wife. (Francis' sister Frances Beaufort had married Edgeworth as his fourth wife years earlier in the 1810s.)

Beaufort's extant correspondence of 200+ letters and journals contained portions written in personal cipher. Beaufort altered the Vigenère cipher, by reversing the cipher alphabet, and the resulting variant is called the Beaufort cipher. The deciphered writings have revealed family and personal problems, including some of a sexual nature. It appears that between 1835 and his marriage to Honora Edgeworth in November 1838, he had incestuous relations with his sister Harriet. His diary entries, in cypher, show that he was tortured by guilt over this.[3][page needed]

The Beaufort family tomb in St John's Church Gardens, London

He died on 17 December 1857, at age 83 in Hove, Sussex, England. He is buried in the church gardens of St John at Hackney, London, where his tomb may still be seen. His home in London, No. 51 Manchester Street, Westminster, is marked by an historic blue plaque noting his residency and achievements.[10]


Wind force scale

During these early years of command, Beaufort developed the first versions of his Wind Force Scale and Weather Notation coding, which he was to use in his journals for the remainder of his life. From the circle representing a weather station, a staff (rather like the stem of a note in musical notation) extends, with one or more half or whole barbs. For example, a stave with 3½ barbs represents Beaufort seven on the scale, decoded as 32–38 mph, or a "moderate Gale".

Geographical legacy

Beaufort, like other patrons of exploration, has had his name given to many geographical places. Among these:

Cryptographic legacy

Beaufort created the Beaufort cipher. It is a substitution cipher similar to the Vigenère cipher.


  1. ^ Mollan, R Charles (2002). Irish Innovators. Royal Irish Academy. p. 49. ISBN 978-1-874045-88-5.
  2. ^ "A new map of Ireland : civil and ecclesiastical". Library of Congress. Retrieved 7 July 2017.
  3. ^ a b Alfred Friendly, Beaufort of the Admiralty, Hutchinson, 1977
  4. ^ Image:BeaufortTomb.JPG
  5. ^ Royal Naval Biography (1828), p. 85.
  6. ^ John de Courcy Ireland. "Francis Beaufort (Wind Scale)". On-line Journal of Research on Irish Maritime History. Retrieved 29 November 2014.
  7. ^ Courtenay, Nicholas (2002). "8". Gale Force 10 – The life and legacy of Admiral Beaufort. Review.
  8. ^ Hume, Robert (17 March 2014). "Why wind guru Beaufort had to hide a stormy personal life". Irish Examiner. Retrieved 16 March 2016.
  9. ^ Elizabeth Baigent, ‘Smythe, Emily Anne, Viscountess Strangford (bap. 1826, d. 1887)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 2 May 2015
  10. ^ "Francis Beaufort Blue Plaque". Retrieved 13 May 2013.