We’re all supposed to be keen on blogging, they keep telling me. So I’m experimenting with it, in the all-too-short hiatus after teaching has finished, while the students are doing exams, and before a vast pile of those exams lands on my desk to be marked. And the most exciting thing to happen in that brief time was the arrival on my desk of a vast cardboard box, containing, in a mound of shredded paper, the results of some very lucky on-line shopping. Once several armfuls of paper spaghetti had been shoved into the re-cycling bin I unearthed a stout wooden box containing a classic Met Office pattern Hilger and Watts balloon theodolite for which I had paid less than £200 including delivery. Somewhat to my relief, given that I had bought it on the basis of a very small picture, it is in good working order, if a little grubby. It would have been routinely used on an air force base (RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, if the ticket in the case is to be believed) for tracking pilot balloons, in order to estimate the wind at various heights in the atmosphere.
You might ask why I want such a thing: the answer is that generations of University of Edinburgh students have done pilot balloon tracking as part of the first or second year general meteorology courses. But the two WWII-era theodolites that we have limit how many students can do the experiment at one time and don’t provide much redundancy in case of breakages. So it is good to have another instrument, and it is particularly good not to have to cough up the £11000 to £13000 that a brand new one would have cost us. That’s why I am feeling particularly smug this afternoon. I am particularly grateful to Martin Brenner (who produced this web site on pilot balloons) for tipping me off. I guess that the motto for bosses is that when you catch your employees shopping on the internet when they were supposed to be working, there is the very very small chance that they might be about to save you a barrowload of cash.