The concept that ‘decreasing atmospheric pressure predicts stormy weather’ was postulated by Lucien Vidie — and it’s the basis for a weather prediction device called a ‘storm glass’ or ‘Goethe barometer’ (who popularized it in Germany). It consists of a glass container with a sealed body, half filled with water. A narrow spout connects to the body below the water level and rises above the water level, where it is open to the atmosphere. When the air pressure is lower than it was at the time the body was sealed, the water level in the spout will rise above the water level in the body; when the air pressure is higher, the water level in the spout will drop below the water level in the body. A variation of this type of barometer can be easily made at home.
A mercury barometer has a glass tube of at least 33 inches (about 84 cm) in height, closed at one end, with an open mercury-filled reservoir at the base. The weight of the mercury actually creates a vacuum in the top of the tube. Mercury in the tube adjusts until the weight of the mercury column balances the atmospheric force exerted on the reservoir. High atmospheric pressure places more force on the reservoir, forcing mercury higher in the column. Low pressure allows the mercury to drop to a lower level in the column by lowering the force placed on the reservoir. Since higher temperature at the instrument will
reduce the density of the mercury, the scale for reading the height of the mercury is adjusted to compensate for this effect.
Torricelli documented that the height of the mercury in a barometer changed slightly each day and concluded that this was due to the changing pressure in the atmosphere. He wrote: “We live submerged at the bottom of an ocean of elementary air, which is known by incontestable experiments to have weight”.
The mercury barometer’s design gives rise to the expression of atmospheric pressure in inches or millimeters (torr): the pressure is quoted as the level of the mercury’s height in the vertical column. 1 atmosphere is equivalent to about 29.9 inches, or 760 millimeters, of mercury. The use of this unit is still popular in the United States, although it has been disused in favor of International System of Units (SI) or metric units in other parts of the world. Barometers of this type normally measure atmospheric pressures between 28 and 31 inches of mercury.
Design changes to make the instrument more sensitive, simpler to read, and easier to transport resulted in variations such as the basin, siphon, wheel, cistern, Fortin, multiple folded, stereometric, and balance barometers. Fitzroy barometers combine the standard mercury barometer with a thermometer, as well as a guide of how to interpret pressure changes. Fortin barometers use a variable displacement mercury cistern, usually constructed with a thumbscrew pressing on a leather diaphragm bottom. This compensates for displacement of mercury in the column with varying pressure. To use a Fortin barometer, the level of mercury is set to the zero level before the pressure is read on the column. Some models also employ a valve for closing the cistern, enabling the mercury column to be forced to the top of the column for transport. This prevents water-hammer damage to the column in transit.
On June 5, 2007, a European Union directive was enacted to restrict the sale of mercury, thus effectively ending the production of new mercury barometers in Europe.
An aneroid barometer uses a small, flexible metal box called an aneroid cell. This aneroid capsule (cell) is made from an alloy of beryllium and copper. The evacuated capsule (or usually more capsules) is prevented from collapsing by a strong spring. Small changes in external air pressure cause the cell to expand or contract. This expansion and contraction drives mechanical levers such that the tiny movements of the capsule are amplified and displayed on the face of the aneroid barometer. Many models include a manually set needle which is used to mark the current measurement so a change can be seen. In addition, the mechanism is made deliberately ‘stiff’ so that tapping the barometer reveals whether the pressure is rising or falling as the pointer moves. It also was invented by Blaise Pascal.
A barograph, which records a graph of some atmospheric pressure, uses an aneroid barometer mechanism to move a needle on a smoked foil or to move a pen upon paper, both of which are attached to a drum moved by clockwork.