Radio communication: Meteorograph (1934 – 1939)


Meteorograph (1934 – 1939)

Atmospheric data are of great military importance for, for example, ground artillery and aircraft missions. In 1928, the Russian researcher Pavel Aleksandrovich Moltchanoff already used a radio probe to measure meteorological data (see: radiosonde). Because the Military Weather Forecast Service was also housed in the Meetgebouw (‘Measurement Building’, the name for the accommodation of the Committee of Physical Armourment) this may have been the cause for an Army assignment to the Meetgebouw in 1934. The question was to develop an as light construction as possible to be lifted by a hydrogen weather balloon with a maximum total weight of 2 kg (excluding the balloon); ascent to a height of 5 kilometres. When the height of about 5 kilometres was reached, the balloon exploded and the radio probe returned to Earth on a parachute. The temperature and barometer readings had to be automatically broadcast by radio. Only four months after the first assignment, the first incomplete probe went up. Ten copies of the first fully operating meteorograph were produced in 1935.

The constantly revised requirements and making them suitable for civil use delayed the development. Between 1934 and 1939, four successively improved meteorograph models were produced. In 1937, a series of 40 enhanced meteorographs was delivered. In the same year, at the request of the Dutch weather service KNMI, a hygrometer was added using bundles of women’s hair [imported by Fa. Van Baaren from Germany]. That meteorograph version was the basis for the 1939 production version.

Comparison with more than ten foreign designs of meteorographs from that time shows that the final model developed by the Measurement Building was an ingenious combination of a solid mechanically controlled scanning system with corresponding Morse coding for three electronic transmitter signals. The vertical rise of the balloon was initially used to set a propeller that would drive the coding mechanism. This drive proved to be unreliable, partly due to the high extra weight of the propeller. The propeller was therefore replaced by an electric motor.

A test with batteries and propellor
A test with batteries and propellor


Propeller to generate power for the meteorograph
Propeller to generate power for the meteorograph

The meteorograph hung between tensioned wires. Between the meteorograph and the parachute was the antenna that also functioned as the meteorograph’s lifting wire. The antenna wire was extended with an 8-meter-long rope to prevent measurement disturbances by the balloon.

The wire directly under the parachute acted as the antenna for the electronic transmitter. The battery for the electric motor and the transmitter hung on the wires under the meteorograph. The battery was protected from low temperatures by cork wrapping. That wrapping also protected the device against the impact when returning to earth. Before ascending to the stratosphere, the batteries were placed in a rubber bag; consideration was also given to the use of a Dewar.
Moreover, the meteorograph had a corrugated metal casing to protect the instruments against rain and direct solar radiation.

Schematic composition of the weather balloon with the meteorograph
Schematic composition of the weather balloon with the meteorograph

The Inspector of Artillery assumed on 21 February 1939 a wartime consumption of 6 meteorographs per day and a minimum stock of 84 pieces (14 days) at a unit price of fl. 65.-. Note that Van Soest’s 1937 estimate for building a unit was 71 1/2 Dutch Guilder (117 Reichsmark). The price estimate was a result of a technical and cost analysis of the meteorograph based on mass production of 42 to 45 pieces per week in wartime. For example, it was determined which parts could be produced using press moulds and stamp tools, and which parts, such as the thermometer, had to be purchased as an industrial product. The security of supply was also considered given the dependence of some parts on German suppliers. The Inspector stated in his letter that the Dutch development was very successful: the French meteorograph weighed 1,500 grams and required a lot of hydrogen and a strong balloon; the Finnish meteorograph worked with variable wavelength emissions, and the German meteorograph was very expensive.
Between the end of 1939 and the capitulation of the Netherlands in May 1940 approximately one hundred meteorographs were manufactured industrially.
There are still several meteorographs on display in our museum.

Foreign weather probes landed on Dutch soil with some regularity. From the outbreak of the first armed conflicts in Europe in 1939, these probes were no longer returned but stored at Waalsdorp. In  1940, at the time of the German invasion, there were about fifty probes in storage including many German probes. Those probes were immediately destroyed in a pit dug on the plain of Waalsdorp near the Measurement Building.

Opened radio probe of the meteorograph (with renewed cabling)
Opened radio probe of the meteorograph (with renewed cabling)


Meteorograph: interior and exterior casing
Meteorograph: interior and exterior casing (diameter 13 cm; height 12 cm)


Cork-wrapped battery of the meteorograph
The cork-wrapped battery of the meteorograph


Launch of a weather balloon with a meteorograph underneath
Preparation of the meteorograph before launching


Oplaten van de meteorograaf
Ready for release of the meteorograph


The release of balloons with meteorograph for experiments
The released balloons with the meteorograph for experiments


Technical details of the Meteorograph

The meteorograph records the temperature using a curved bi-metal thermometer, the humidity with a hair hygrometer, and the air pressure with a Bourdon-type barometer (an air-tight curved barrel that stretches or rolls in with changing air pressure). Each of these three meters moves a sensor via levers over a curved holder wound in parallel with two (barometer), three (hygrometer) and four (thermometer) wires of the automatic Morse coding system.

Meteorograph model 1939 B(arometer), H(ygrometer), en T(hermometer)
Meteorograph model 1939 B(arometer), H(ygrometer), en T(hermometer)


Electric schematic of the radio probe electronics
Electric schematic of the radio probe electronics
Z(transmitter), V(vibrator-transformer), W(rotating coding switch)
Z(transmitter), V(vibrator-transformer), W(rotating coding switch), M(otor)

The principle for automatic Morse code coding by Moltchanoff was applied, only the design and implementation are different. One of the wires of these holders uses a connecting roller for the electric connection with a cylindrical switching roller. This cylinder, which is driven by an electric motor (0.7-0.8 watts) via a worm gear rotates with one revolution per second. The drum of the cylinder is made of insulating material and is covered on the outside with a conductive pattern for Morse coding. Contacts have been placed on this cylinder, the so-called givers. The cylinder and motor weigh 50 grams.

The scanners of the various instruments control the contacts of the roll shown above
Switching sequence: The scanners of the various instruments control the contacts of the roll shown above.


Schematic coupling scanners with scan wires
Schematic coupling scanners with scan wires


Coupling three measurements with scan wires
Coupling three measurements with scan wires

The weather balloon rises by approx. 5 m / sec. There is a more or less exponential relationship between the barometer reading and the height of the measurement. The measurement moments for the air pressure are also exponentially distributed over the contacts on the rotating cylinder. In this way, the air pressure is measured during the ascent at fairly regular times. An accurate interpolation of the measured value can take place afterwards. Only after the 4th, then after 15, 32, 63 and so on scan moments, the barometric pressure indication is transmitted via contact 8 of the cylindrical roller. The hygrometer measurements follow the possible varying values (e.g. rain showers) of the humidity in precise steps. The hygrometer is subsequently connected to the sliding contacts 6, 5 and 7 of the cylindrical roller. Because the temperature can vary fast in the different air layers that the weather balloon passes, it has to be recorded as accurately as possible. As indicated, the switch roller rotates at one revolution per second. For each revolution, two Morse-coded connections are subsequently made with the transmitter.

The hygrometer, in combination with the barometer, preceded by that of the thermometer, gives the following Morse code:

  Morse Switching roller connection   Morse Switching roller connection
D _ . . 8 and 5 S . . . 9 and 5
K _ . _ 8 and 6 U . . _ 9 and 6
G _ _ . 8 and 7 R . ­_ . 9 and 7

Morse codes for transmitting the temperature:

  Morse Switching roller connection
I . . 1
A . _ 2
N _ . 3
O ____ 4

To be able to distinguish the course in temperature, both ascending and decreasing, the following order of Morse signs for continuously rising temperature is included in the contact sequence: o, i, a, n, i, a, n, o, a, n i, a, n, i, o, n, i, a, n, i, a, o, i, a, n, and so on according to the following switch rolling figure. So a sequence of i, a, n wherein each seventh coding the i, a, or n is replaced by an o (4 – line in figure below).

Order of Morse coded characters for continuously rising temperature
Order of Morse-coded characters for a continuously rising temperature

Transmission of the code to the transmitter is realised by a vibrating transducer which turns the battery voltage of the single triode transmitter tube on and off in the rhythm of the Morse code transmission. The primary winding of the vibrating transducer is switched to earth in that rhythm. The frequency of 600 Hz of the vibrating transducer is fed to the grid of this triode (Philips B406). Using a transmitting frequency of 50 MHz (wavelength is 6 meters), the Morse code is transmitted amplitude modulated at 600 Hz.
A frequency band was nationally reserved for this application:   48-51 MHz (6,249-5,882 m).

The one-tube transmitter and the motor-driven coding cylinder (1939)
The one-tube transmitter and the motor-driven coding cylinder (1939)

The thermometer and barometer, after being mounted in the meteorograph, were calibrated in an evacuated and cooled vessel. The thermometer sensor was positioned in such a way that it could be controlled both forward and backward by the bi-metal thermometer to cover the entire expected temperature range.
The hygrometer was tested separately. The total weight of the meteorograph with a 4.5 V flashlight battery (2 to 3 Watt) was 465 grams which allowed ascents up to five kilometres. To reduce weight, even the valve socket was disassembled. For measurements at even higher heights, up into the stratosphere at 17 kilometres, two batteries were used, one for the anode and filament feeding and the other for the electric motor. The extra battery increased the total weight of the meteorograph to 585 grams.

Signal reception on the ground took place with a simple super-regenerative receiver. Measurements up to 100 kilometres of distance were possible. A special directional antenna was also developed to determine the map angle (azimuth) of the broadcasting weather balloon. The measurement data were recorded and processed by the Military Weather Service. After reaching the stratosphere, the balloon cracked. The radio device would come down connected to a parachute. After the return of the meteorograph on Earth, a finder could hand over the remnants to the laboratory against a reward of fl. 7 1/2.-, a high amount for that time. In practice, 80% of the radio probes were returned.

A Dutch article by J.L. van Soest about the radio probe was published just a month before the outbreak of WW II.

Directional antenna of the receiver for direction determination on the roof of the Military Weather Service
Directional antenna of the receiver for direction determination on the roof of the Military Weather Service
    • J.L. van Soest (1937). Die  niederländische Radiosonde, in: Über RadiosondeKonstruktionenDenkschrift. [Hrsg.: Internationale Meteorologische Organisation. Internationale Aerologische Kommission. pp 43-44
    • J.L. van Soest (April 1940). Tijdschrift van het Nederlandsch Radiogenootschap. (pdf) [in Dutch].
    • C.M.A. Insje and J.L. van Soest (1940), A Dutch Radio-Meteorograph, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, 66 (1940) 286, pp 317-322.