Gordon Smith, who guided the historical side of oldWeather from the beginning, died on 16 December 2016 after a long illness: he was 75.
Gordon joined oldWeather in April 2010. He was brave enough to team up with a group of scientists planning a citizen science project rescuing historical climate observations. His job was to broaden the scope of the project – to teach us to value and use the ship logbooks we were reading as historical records, not just sources of pressure and temperature observations.
Gordon was a serious scholar, the author of two books on naval history, but he also had the vision to see that writing books was no longer the best way to communicate his subject, and the courage to try something new. He founded a website (naval-history.net) and, with a group of collaborators, built it into a valuable resource for both professional and amateur historians.
The thousands of volunteers contributing to oldWeather offered a flood of new material for naval-history.net, but that material needed to be checked, collated, and edited, to be useful to researchers. Gordon dealt with this by engaging unreservedly with the volunteers reading the logbooks; advising, encouraging, and teaching anyone interested. Some of the volunteers became sufficiently expert and enthusiastic to take on the necessary editing work, and this group of new naval historians is now playing a major role in the ongoing development of naval-history.net.
The success of oldWeather as a history project has also helped our work in climate science. Expanding the project in this way has been vital in sustaining the public interest that has kept oldWeather going for six years; now 20,000 people have contributed, generating millions of additional historic weather observations for use by researchers.
Gordon was able to do all this because he was not trying to write a book, or build his personal career as a historian. Instead he was willing to build naval-history.net as a public service, and to train and support a large number of amateur historians working with him. This long period of innovative and unselfish work has not only produced a valuable historical resource, but has also been of material assistance to climate science. oldWeather is both bigger and better for his contributions, and we’ll go on building on what he started.