Padre Faura and the Faura barometer
After lives are taken, when cities and towns are devastated by storm, flood, typhoon, or earthquake, Filipinos console themselves by harping on our built-in resiliency, and our patient, good nature.
But, in the aftermath of Typhoon “Ulysses,” shouldn’t we be angry and demand that something be done to address recurring calamities? Since typhoons and flooding visit the Philippines annually, is it too much to ask what has been done to minimize the destruction they bring? Better still, who should we hold accountable?
These questions came to mind after I posted online images of two paintings that are relevant to the recent calamity. In one, Juan Luna depicted a woman fleeing from a storm—a small work painted in Manila at the end of the 19th century. In the other, Fabian de la Rosa depicted people waist-deep in a Manila flood in the early 20th century. Over a hundred years old, these paintings resonate in our times not because history repeats itself, but because people make the present read like the past.
Over the years, I have come across “Faura barometers” in Ermita antique shops, but have never encountered one that works. I took a handful to the Manila Observatory and showed them to the Jesuit astronomer Fr. Victor L. Badillo, SJ (1930-2014), who had an asteroid named after him. Father Badillo would first knock on the face of the barometer to see if the indicator or needle was not stuck. If it moved, we would take the barometer up and down in the Observatory elevator to see if it could still read atmospheric pressure. I regret refusing his kind offers to repair and recalibrate the barometers, because these would have been useful as reference tools.
One time, I brought in an unusual barometer in a mahogany box. It almost brought Father Badillo to tears as he exclaimed, “I thought I would die without ever seeing one of these!” It was a rare “Barocyclonometer” that he had only seen in a museum in the United Kingdom. A two-in-one instrument, the box contained a barometer developed by Fr. Federico Faura, SJ (1840-1897), that used atmospheric pressure to predict not just the proximity but also the intensity of a typhoon; and a cyclonometer or wind disc developed by Fr. Jose Algue (1856-1930). I don’t remember much about the cyclonometer, but the barometer indicated the following: “Destructive Typhoon, Violent Typhoon, Typhoon Very Near, Typhoon Somewhat Distant, Changeable Weather, and North Winds.” The boxed deluxe set was probably used on ships, while the plain barometers hung in homes before the war and were credited with saving many lives from destructive typhoons.
The first and only working Faura barometer I know of was owned by the late Bernardo Ma. Perez, OSB, the longest-serving rector of San Beda College, who checked on it regularly before declaring class suspensions during the wet months. Father Perez had more faith in the antique Faura barometer than in Department of Education announcements.
Faura barometers were sold in Manila as late as 1955, based on a La Estrella del Norte [Levy Hermanos Inc.] advertisement that declared: “Prepare for the unexpected… with Padre Faura Barometer. Come storm, come sunny day… you’ll be prepared for any emergency if you’re equipped with a PADRE FAURA BAROMETER… because it forecasts weather conditions with perfect accuracy. Invented by Rev. Fr. Faura, world-famous Filipino meteorologist, for forecasting Philippine atmospheric conditions.”
The instrument was available either with an English or Spanish face, with accompanying weather indications. I wonder when these barometers fell out of fashion.
Padre Faura Street in Ermita was named to honor both the Manila Observatory that once stood there, and the Observatory’s most famous director, a teacher of Jose Rizal. All that history is now forgotten, and Padre Faura is just a busy street where the Supreme Court, Robinson’s Mall, and Solidaridad Bookshop are located.
But Father Faura should be remembered as the first to predict typhoons in the Philippines. Based on data gathered at the Manila Observatory, Faura announced the arrival of a typhoon on July 7, 1879, that hit the city two days later. This is considered the first typhoon warning in Asia, and from then till World War II, the government and even neighboring countries looked to Faura and his successors at the Manila Observatory for timely and accurate typhoon predictions.
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