A Brief History of Tide Observations

Coast-dwelling populations have always observed the tide. The earliest evidence for humanity’s interaction with the tide, implying some understanding, came with the discovery of a tidal dock off the Gulf of Cambay, near Ahmedabad, India, dating back to approximately 2450BC (1).

One of the first references to the observation of the tide in Britain is in “Opera de Temporibus”, by the early Christian monk (The Venerable) Bede, where he comments on the “union of the ocean with the orbit of the moon”. More importantly, he points out that high tide does not occur at the same time everywhere around the coast of Britain, but instead progresses round the country (2).

The first known written tide table for European waters is for “flod at london brigge” (High Water at London Bridge) and appears in a 13th Century manuscript, now in the British Museum, that originally belonged to the Abbey of St. Albans.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the British naval and commercial fleets significantly extended their territory. As British maritime interests expanded, correct tide tables, which require a correct theory of the tides, became essential. As technology advanced, self-recording instruments appeared. This coincided with an emphasis on quantitative measurement (3).

Sheerness tide gauge

Plate from the first volume of Nautical Magazine (1832)

The tide gauge at Sheerness was the first self-registering tide gauge to actually record data. It was constructed by J. Mitchell, a civil engineer. The earliest tide gauge data we in our archive comes from this gauge.

You’ll find more information on the history of tides and tidal observation in these books:

(1). Pugh, D. (1987) Tides, surges and mean sea level. John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
(2). Cartwright, D. (2000) Tides: A Scientific History. Cambridge University Press.
(3). Reidy, M. (2004) Gauging Science and Technology in the Early Victoria Era, in: Rozwadowski,H. & Van Keuren, D. (eds) The Machine in Neptune’s Garden: Historical Perspectives on Technology and the Marine Environment. Science History Publications, pp.1-35