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From The Curious Vault At The Miami Science Museum: J.P. Friez’s Electrical Sunshine Recorder

Dogan Arslanoglu

“I manufacture but one type of these Registers: THE BEST.” -Julien P. Friez

In the late 19th century, Julien P. Friez  (1850-1916) and his Baltimore based company began mass producing highly technical weather monitoring systems, and provided many technical instruments to the U.S. Government Weather Bureau. The company started in 1876, and was not focused purely on weather machines initially, yet in its first official catalogue (1893) Friez officially declared their direction. He was not the only manufacturer in this industry, and there was a great deal of competition at the time, however, in the catalogue he clearly states his intention to be the first manufacturer to provide tools for not only professional meteorologists, but also at-home amateur scientific enthusiasts.

The piece pictured above from The Curious Vault of the Miami Science Museum is not singular or particularly rare, but its provenance is intriguing. Friez’s Electrical Sunshine Recorder was donated to the Museum in 1984 by prominent Miamian, James Danielson Deering (1915-1991). Deering is the great nephew of James Deering, builder of the Vizcaya Estate, and grandson of Charles Deering, builder of the Deering Estate at Cutler. The Miami Science Museum is proud to be able to make this link to such  distinguished pioneers of the early South Florida community.

Label on the Electrical Sunshine Recorder

By 1900, many of Friez’s weather monitoring machines, like the Museum’s Sunshine Recorder, were electrified.  Given that this particular piece is labeled on its base, “J.P. Friez and Sons”, we can pinpoint its date of manufacture to between 1914 and 1929, when Julien’s youngest son, Lucien was with the company. A team of around 20 highly skilled professionals constructed this fascinating instrument by hand. It is a Quadruple Register, meaning it could measure four different meteorological phenomena: wind velocity and direction, rain, and sunshine. The apparatus pictured would have been attached through wires to a weather vane placed in a suitable location to record the conditions of the day.

Electrical contacts close-up

The machine itself was wound like a clock and the roll of paper traveled around as each reading was made. When the weathervane moved, a set of ball bearings rotated along with it, causing contact with a thin iron cylinder that was connected to the four wind direction contacts on the device through a series of wiring. It required a decent amount of technical skill to set up the apparatus correctly.

The rain gauge and the sunshine recorder were attached to the weather vane. The rain gauge was a simple measuring tube that worked on a circuit rigged balance beam, while the sunshine recording device functioned through the displacement of carbon black and a thin column of mercury in what was effectively a sunshine thermometer. Carbon black is a substance that absorbs sunlight and expands, pushing the mercury away from an electrical circuit causing a reading. When there is no sunshine, the mercury breaks the circuit causing a blank line.

Ink close-up
Purple ink
Printout roll close-up

Though it cannot be determined at this time where the Deering Family put the vane that attached to this particular instrument—whether at Vizcaya, the Deering Estate, or elsewhere—we can postulate that given the privilege it would have required to purchase such an apparatus, it was most likely put to use. One can hope that the great Deering family sat intimately around a dinner table and discussed the weather reading printouts.

The second Friez Weather Device

There is a second J.P. Friez and Sons piece in collection of the Museum that appears to be of the same time period and the Museum is now investigating the provenance of this unit as well. These two machines help underscore the scope of the collection of fascinating objects on hand in The Curious Vault. Amazingly, after 137 years, J.P. Friez and Sons is still in existence as Belfort Instrument making high quality modern day products, a testament to the lasting excellence and superb vision of Julien P. Friez and his weather monitoring devices.

This story was reposted with permission from The Curious Vault, a bi-weekly online cabinet of curiosities featuring objects from the collection of the Miami Science Museum, presented by writer Nathaniel Sandler and Kevin Arrow, Art & Collections Manager. For more information, email karrow@miamisci.org.

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