The Ocean Tide and the Port of Liverpool

A meeting called ‘The Ocean Tide and the Port of Liverpool’ was held at the Merseyside Maritime Museum on Saturday 11 May 2019 in order to mark the 100th anniversary of the Liverpool Tidal Institute (LTI). The LTI can be claimed to be the first component of the modern UK National Oceanography Centre (NOC). In addition, its buildings at Bidston Observatory in Birkenhead are a well-known local landmark. Therefore, the meeting attracted great interest with almost 200 people in the audience both from academia and the general public.

The LTI was founded at Liverpool University in March 1919 with funds from Sir Alfred Booth and his brother, Mr. Charles Booth, to “prosecute continuously scientific research into all aspects of knowledge of the tides”. This marked the start of Oceanography as an area of research and teaching at Liverpool University, which had the first university oceanography department in the UK. Professor Joseph Proudman became its Honorary Director and Dr. Arthur Doodson its Secretary. It was located initially in the Holt Physics Building and moved to Bidston Observatory on the Wirral in stages during the next decade. The LTI became the world centre for knowledge of the tides, with Proudman taking the lead in dynamical theories, and Doodson in the analysis of tidal information from around the world, and on tidal prediction. The latter included the construction of analogue computers called Tidal Prediction Machines. Proudman and Doodson were both Fellows of the Royal Society, a distinction that was later awarded also to Dr. David Cartwright, Director at Bidston, for his work on the global ocean tides. The LTI was renamed the Liverpool University Tidal Institute in 1961 and went through other name changes including the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory until it became a component of the present NOC in 2010.

Arthur Doodson
Joseph Proudman

One should not forget that research at the LTI took in many topics other than ocean tides. These included the numerical modelling of storm surges for coastal protection (what earlier people would have called ‘meteorological influences on the tides’), especially following the 1953 floods in the North Sea; long term changes in sea level (Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level); tides of the solid Earth; ocean modelling for studies of water quality, ecosystems and climate change; geodetic measurements; and renewable energy. In addition, the LTI hosted the British Oceanographic Data Centre and at one time a large community computer centre.

Bidston Observatory. Photo: Geoff Shannon (August2018)

The meeting at the Maritime Museum was organised by NOC and the University of Liverpool, in association with the Centre for Port and Maritime History (University of Liverpool, Liverpool John Moores University and Merseyside Maritime Museum) and the Liverpool Institute for Sustainable Coasts and Oceans (NOC, University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University). All the speakers came from NOC, Liverpool and John Moores Universities.

The meeting started with an introduction by Philip Woodworth containing a brief history of the Liverpool Tidal Institute. (More complete histories can be found in the book on the history of tidal science by David Cartwright and the PhD thesis by Anna Carlsson-Hyslop.) That was followed by a talk on the science behind the ocean tide by David Pugh, and then a discussion of opportunities for the UK in tidal energy by Judith Wolf.

After a coffee break (and a short pause for a fire alarm) there was a presentation on the tides and the oceanography of our neighbouring seas by Jonathan Sharples. The difficulties of the port of Liverpool in working with the large Mersey tides, even today, were explained by Simon Holgate. Chris Hughes then talked about tides and the Earth’s climate, focussing on the work of three scientists with a local connection (Jeremiah Horrocks, Edmond Halley and Reginald Street). Finally, Andy Plater and Jason Kirby gave an overview of how sea levels are measured using geological techniques, using measurements in Mersey salt marshes as examples, and how rising sea levels might impact the area in the future.

All the talks (pdfs and videos) mentioned above can be obtained via the meeting web page

I think everyone who attended the meeting enjoyed it (we were helped by the nice weather). Another reason for it was to test whether there was an appetite locally for science talks on a Saturday morning. It seems that there is, so we are now thinking how other topics can be discussed at the Maritime Museum on future Saturdays.

The so-called ‘Bidston Kelvin Machine’, one of the Tide Prediction Machines used at Bidston Observatory.

On the same day as the Museum event, there was also an open day at the NOC building itself in Brownlow Street. This was also well-attended, including by some people who took in both events. Some of the main things to see at NOC are the two historical Tide Prediction Machines on permanent display. These two machines were used by Arthur Doodson, who succeeded Proudman as Director of the LTI, one of them being used to make tidal computations for the D-Day landings in World War II. In case anyone has not seen them yet, they can be inspected by signing up at

Blog post written by Philip Woodworth, Emeritus Fellow, National Oceanography Centre Liverpool. For more information please contact:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s