Rooftop artistry – The Weather Vane

By Willa Wick in Arts & Music

The history of the weather vane spans many centuries and travels over many countries. To the ancient people of Greece and Rome the wind had divine powers. Archaeologists have discovered bronze vanes from as far back as the 9th century. They were usually surmounted by an animal or bird. Vanes were popular on Viking ships and Scandinavian churches.
According to folklore, many centuries ago the Pope decreed that every Catholic Church in Europe should show a cock on its steeple. This was to be a reminder of Jesus’ prophesy that the cock would not crow the morning after the last supper until the disciple Peter had denounced him three times (Luke 22:34). Because of this story “weather cocks” topped churches for centuries.
Roosters were used as a vane because the tail is a perfect wind catcher. The rooster, because it’s so high, is the first to catch the sun’s rays. He welcomes the day and wards off evil, a symbol of resurrection and the promise of the return of Christ on Judgment Day. Roosters enjoyed a long-standing reign as the predominant figure of choice for weather vanes in art, literature and culture.
When mankind realized that winds brought changing weather, he needed a ‘wind direction indicator’.
Banners flew from medieval towers in Britain and Germany (fabric pennants would show archers the direction of the wind). The simplest, a cloth pennant mounted on a pole was termed a wind vane. The word vane comes from the Anglo-Saxon word fane, meaning flag.
Then, a compass indicator was added when the wind was again important for more than just direction. A pilot will use a wind vane for wind direction, but a farmer will use a weather vane to predict oncoming and changing climate patterns.
America’s first weather vane maker, Deacon Shem Drowne, created the famous grasshopper vane atop Boston’s Faneuil Hall in 1742. The grasshopper is an ancient symbol of good luck.
Thomas Jefferson attached the weather vane on Monticello to a pointer in the ceiling of the room directly below – so he could read the direction of the wind from within his home.
In 1787 George Washington commemorated the end of the revolutionary War by commissioning a Dove of Peace weather vane for his estate at Mount Vernon.
In the early 1800s Americans favored weather vanes in patriotic designs i.e. eagles or famous racing horses modeled after popular Currier and Ives prints. By the 19th century there were many manufacturers mass producing vanes in dozens of designs (angels, cattle, sheep, fish, ships, horses, mermaids) – all with arrows or pointers. Typically it was an architectural ornament fixed to the highest point of a building, and often on barns.
How a weather vane works – the design is such that the weight is evenly distributed on each side of the surface but the surface area is unequally divided so that the pointer can move freely on its axis. The side with the larger area is blown away from the wind direction. The pointer is therefore always on the smaller side and points into the wind. If the vane is spinning it indicates a rapidly changing wind pattern.
Most vanes have geographic markers beneath the arrow and these are aligned as North, East, South, West indicators.
Weather vanes have been fashioned from a variety of material including iron, copper, zinc, tin, brass, and wood. Since the durability of wood, even when painted, was limited, collectors find the wooden vanes extremely rare. Most of the surviving oldest vanes were hammered from iron.
Copper soon replaced iron as the preferred metal – it was less expensive and more malleable. The process involved placing a thin sheet of copper over a wooden mold. The copper was then pounded with a wooden mallet till it assumed the shape and details of the mold. Later two halves were trimmed and soldered together to form a hollow weather vane feature.
Although the earliest vanes were influenced by European models, later designs were based on the livelihood of the owner, ie. a cow for a dairy farmer while a bull might reign over a cattle ranch.
Wind speed, direction, temperatures and barometric pressure are all taken into consideration when determining weather patterns and forecasting, especially for electrical storms.
In the 19th century another roof topper became popular as a decorative module as well as a useful motif. These were lightning rods and they were embellished with ornamental glass balls (the ornamental appeal of these balls has also been used in weathervanes).
As part of his groundbreaking explorations of electricity Benjamin Franklin invented the Lightning Attractor or Franklin Rod. This was merely a metal rod mounted on the top of a building, joined by a wire or cable which goes down and interfaces with the earth. If lightning targets the building it will hopefully strike the rod and be conducted to ground through the wire.
The main purpose of the glass balls was to provide evidence of a lightning strike. After a storm, if the ball is discovered broken or missing then the homeowner should check the building, rod and ground wire for damage.
How does lightning protection work? It’s a straightforward science. Lightning contains millions of volts of electricity. When lightning strikes, the protection system provides an easy and efficient path that the electricity can travel safely to the ground. The result is no damage to the building. One may never know the building was struck.
On a building without lightning protection those same volts of electricity will use your telephone, electric or cable wiring as a path to the ground. None of these elements are designed to safely carry that amount of electricity. The result is a build-up of resistance, which leads to fire or explosion.
A common misconception is that lightning rods attract lightning to a building, when in fact, installed properly they provide a safe passage for lightning to be dispersed to the ground.
Another myth is that lightning never strikes twice. It has been proven that a “hit” indicates a hot zone for strikes. Some buildings get hit so often that counters are installed. The Empire State Building gets struck by lightning on an average of 100 times a year, yet suffers no damage due to its lightning protection system.
Many old houses and barns still sport lightning rods. New buildings, if they have a lightning protection system, have them camouflaged.
Weather vanes, while not as popular as they once were for utilitarian purposes, are making a come-back as folk art and whimsical décor on small buildings, gazebos, and especially cupolas. They make great gifts for the person ‘who has everything’.
Churches do not normally now have weather vane adornments, however many do have finials or decorative conductors on their high points.
We take so many things for granted and they go unnoticed. Take a walking/driving survey – how many weather vanes or lightning rods can you find in your travels?


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