It's Belfort -- for good measure

Jacques Kelly

January 15, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

The basic weather instruments patented by an East Baltimore firm nearly 100 years are based on the same technology being used today by the Air Force and Navy in the Persian Gulf.

When U.S. troops plot wind speed and direction to guide a missile launch, chances are they will be using devices made in Fells Point by Belfort Instrument, the city's pioneer in the field of weather instruments.

"We are one of the best kept secrets in Baltimore," said Lawrence R. Burch, president of the 70-employee company that makes barometers, wind and rain gauges and humidity detection equipment.

A portrait of Julien Pierre Friez, who came to Baltimore in 1876 from Alsace, France, hangs in the 700 block of S. Wolfe St. headquarters of a firm he established that is very much still at work. Friez, who combined the skills of a machinist, clockmaker and electrician, was a fastidious scientific instrument maker who was fascinated by the weather. He also had a passion for accuracy.

His first fully established business was on Redwood Street. But by 1896, he'd bought the northwest corner of Baltimore Street and Central Avenue, where his Belfort Observatory rose. He is credited with establishing, three years later, the first meteorological instrument lab in the country. He also invented an early odometer that measured the distance a horse and carriage traveled.

"Many of the processes Julien devised are still at work today. One of them is the blond human hair we use in hygrothermographs. It's funny. People think that something better has been found than human hair. But it hasn't been improved upon," Burch said.

Actually, the firm's founder thought that unbleached red hair, in lengths of about 12 inches, was ideal for the device that measures humidity and temperature. As the humidity changes, the actual length of the hair expands and contracts. One of Burch's largest customers is the Smithsonian Institution, which buys the machines to record the humidity level around art objects. Today, Belfort pays $1,200 a pound for blond human hair that has never been artificially colored or permanent waved.

The Belfort Instrument Co. takes its name from a military victory at the citadel of Belfort in the Franco-Prussian War. To commemorate the French success, residents had a 70-foot lion carved in the mountainside. The Lion of Belfort became well known, and Friez, who was from that part of France, made the lion his personal trademark.

A stone Leo set in the facade of the old Central Avenue scientific instrument works' entrance remains in place today. The old Friez home (it faces Baltimore Street) and the original Belfort Observatory (facing Central Avenue) are part of the Baltimore Rescue Mission complex.

The observatory was a curious sight in the 1920s when its business was expanding and all manner of rain gauges, wind indicators and towers sprouted from the roof. By this time, the founder was dead, but his work continued through his sons.

An urgent call went out to the observatory when commercial trans-Atlantic air travel was begun by the Graf Zeppelin, the German-made lighter-than-air dirigible. The request for help came from the Naval air station in Lakehurst, N.J., that needed a massive ground-wind recording instrument. A wind gauge atop a tower at Belfort was quickly hauled down and sent off to Lakehurst.

Weather balloons, equipped with radio transmitters, were manufactured at the plant and regularly released across the country. Eventually, the balloons fell to Earth -- except for the one shot down shortly after Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" 1938 radio broadcast. The finder reported seeing the balloon tangled in a tree. He decided it was a Martian bomb and had State Police blast it down with rifles.

The founder of the firm loved roses and flowering shrubs and had the terraced garden around the old house brimming with color from the earliest days of spring through the frosts of the later fall. Old employees tell the tale that East Baltimore cats delighted in climbing and playing with the whirling wind cups and wires mounted atop the buildings. The nocturnal feline visitors broke the delicate instruments and annoyed the Friez employees, who baited the roof with catnip and set traps.

Persistent four-legged trespassers were executed and buried under new rose bushes. Some rogues said it was the secret of the garden's beauty.

By World War II, the mushrooming aircraft industry demanded more and more high-quality technical instruments, the original Central Avenue location became too small. The firm joined with the better capitalized giant Bendix and moved to Towson. But the core of old Friez workers remained loyal and via several corporate twists, remained true to its founders' vision. They even moved back to East Baltimore, about 12 blocks from the original observatory.

Today, Belfort Instruments, now a division of TransTechnology Corp., equips Navy ships and Air Force planes. It's also very much at work at building weather-reporting equipment. And, much to the delight of Fells Point cats, there are still wind gauges on the roof.

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