Weather vanes have been an important weather instrument since very ancient times. Also called a weathercock, the weather vane usually includes a figure that revolves on a vertical rod that is mounted on a rooftop to indicate the direction of the wind. The word "vane" comes from the Old English "fane," which means flag or banner. We have sophisticated weather instruments today, but the weather vane remains as a decorative collector's item that many homeowners continue to use for both style and function.
Ancient writings from Mesopotamia, around 3500 B.C., give us the first mention of weather vanes. In ancient Greece, the god Triton was depicted on the first weather vane to be recorded. It sat atop the Tower of the Winds in Athens, built by Andronicus, an astronomer in 48 B.C. This early weather vane was a combination of a man and a fish and is thought to have been 4 to 8 feet long.
History in the United States
Deacon Shem Drowne was the first known weather vane builder in the United States. We can still admire his creation of a grasshopper weather vane, which he built in 1742, on Faneuil Hall in Boston. At the end of the Revolutionary War, George Washington commissioned a weather vane in the shape of the dove of peace for his home at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson enhanced the design of his weather vane by extending its pole into his home, which enabled him to see the wind's direction from indoors.
Who Was the Inventor?
If the weather vane was invented in Mesopotamia around 3500 B.C., we do not know the name of its inventor. Perhaps the person belonged to the Chaldeans, who were the creators of astronomy, astrology and the first zodiac. Perhaps Andronicus, in ancient Greece, embellished the design. Surely, American weather vane maker Shem Drowne contributed to the design, as did Thomas Jefferson through his ingenious invention that allowed him to "see" his weather vane inside his home.
Importance as a Weather Instrument
Weather instruments include the hygrometer, which measures moisture and humidity; the rain gauge, thermometer and barometer. Others include the ombroscope, or rainfall recorder, and the mechanical anemometer, or wind speed indicator. The weather vane has served as an equally important tool for farmers and scientists alike allowing them tell at a glance the direction the wind is blowing. Today, we have weather satellites and sophisticated equipment that help weather forecasters know not only what direction the wind is blowing, but much other important data.
Weather Vanes Today
Weather vanes seemed to be on nearly every building in the United States by the late 1800s. The figures ranged from farm equipment to animals from foreign countries. Today, weather vanes are prized as collectibles. In 2006, a molded copper weather vane depicting an Indian chief, made by J.L. Mott around 1900, was sold at auction for almost $6 million. Old and newer weather vanes continue to adorn the roofs of many buildings---although their purpose is primarily decorative, they remain a reminder of a bygone era.