Predicting the weather with 4mb of memory

Television weather reporting would never be the same again. 1985 saw the launch of a slick new computerised presentation system, developed by the BBC Computer Graphics Workshop, and running on systems with a combined memory capability of a whopping 4MB. Grant Powell, Assistant Editor, checks his barometer and dons his waterproofs to investigate.

Weather forecast (Before)BBC Television’s new weather presentation system, developed in-house and launched on 18 February 1985 allowed ‘the familiar and popular weathermen to construct and display very high quality computer graphic sequences’, using the very latest techniques to illustrate, for the first time, the changing weather across the UK and Europe.

Developed by the BBC Computer Graphics Workshop using data from the Meteorological Office at Bracknell, and drawing on previous BBC experience gained on earlier projects, such as the 1983 General Election system, the combination of icon and mouse-based control with ‘a unique video blackboard’ allowed presenters to easily interact with live graphic elements.

Technical spec

At the time of implementation, BBC Television Centre was running a Digital Equipment Vax 11/750 minicomputer with 2MB of main memory, linked to two Apple Macintosh XL (formerly known as the Apple Lisa) micros with 1MB of memory each.

The software running on these machines allowed weather data to be received from Bracknell (data from the Meteosat geostationary satellite, forecast products and statistics on the previous day’s sunshine and rainfall), for weather reporters to plan their broadcast and view new material, and for the final video frames to be exported to a Quantel display subsystem. The broadcast was controlled in the studio by the weather reporter using another Macintosh XL.

Challenges

Weather forecast (After)The biggest challenge was that the system had to be capable of one-person operation. Weather reporters were able to view and edit a graphical representation of all digital weather products and an updated version of the familiar and iconic weather symbols; clouds, sunshine, snow, hail, etc. together with isobaric charts.

The system was well received by the general public, and was reported to have performed flawlessly since its introduction. At the time of writing the new system was expected to provide approximately 40 hours of television in the coming year, and it was anticipated that new ‘rain radar’ products would be added into the mix for even more accuracy.

Full article written by Bill Gardner, BBC Television sourced from BCS Computer bulletin, Dec 1985.

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