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Steel Weathervanes: History and Usage

Weather vanes may also be called wind vanes and they were invented as a means of determining the direction of the wind. Forecasting the weather is a highly technical process today that involves computers and satellites. Many years ago, people couldn’t forecast the weather as accurately as we can today, and they used weather vanes to keep track of the wind. Weather vanes may be made of wood, copper, brass, zinc, and steel.

To work properly, a weather vane has to be installed high enough to indicate the true direction of the wind. Weather vanes also have to be installed away from trees and other buildings that would interfere with the wind flow. A weather vane has a horizontal rod that spins around a stationary vertical rod. The arrow or character on the weather vane must have equal weight on both sides of the vertical rod. One side must be larger to catch the wind, though. The smaller side points into the wind to show the wind direction. So when the smaller arrow side points north, a north wind is blowing from north to south. Some weather vanes also have direction letters attached to the vertical rod that indicate north, south, east, and west. The directional letters make it easier to tell the wind’s direction at a glance.

The first weather vanes were recorded in 48 B.C., and historians think that an astronomer named Andronicus built the first weather vane that may have been up to six feet long. The weather vane was installed on the Tower of the Winds, and it was shaped like Triton, a Greek god. The common theme of these weather vanes was to design them to replicate Greek or Roman gods, such as Mercury, Hermes, and Boreas. In the ninth century A.D., Pope Nicholas I decided that roosters should be used on weather vanes, and the weather vanes should only be installed on church steeples. This may have been because roosters were a symbol of Christianity when Jesus prophesied that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed. Roosters became a common feature of weather vanes in America and Europe, and their large tails were well-suited for catching the wind, too.

In European communities, there may have just been a single weather vane sitting on the highest building. All of the people in the community used the same weather vane because they lived close to each other in a small area. People in the United States tended to be more spread out without clusters of communities. So, every farm and homestead often had a weather vane sitting atop the barn. Farmers relied on weather vanes to help them anticipate the weather. Colder air is usually located in the north and warmer is located in the south. So, a weather vane showing a north wind would indicate that colder air is moving in, which could also be a sign that a cold front has passed through an area.

George Washington had a weather vane made to commemorate the end of the Revolutionary War. This weather vane was made by Joseph Rakestraw in 1787, and it featured the dove of peace with an olive branch in its beak. Washington had the weather vane installed on the cupola at the top of Mount Vernon. This weather vane is still sitting on Mount Vernon today.

Modern weather vanes may just have a directional pointer that shows the direction the wind is blowing. These weather vanes may also feature an anemometer, which measures wind speed. Having a weather vane and an anemometer on the same device provides more information that can be used to report current weather conditions and predict future weather.

Learn more about weather vanes by visiting these resources:

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