How the U.S. Weather Service Began
April showers can bring May flowers but April can also feature snowfall, high winds, heavy rain, and in total contrast–summer-like days. This is a month where in most parts of the U.S. the weather is changeable enough that most of us do pay attention to the weather forecasts to know how to dress and to know what plans to make for the weekend.
Government, industry, and the public alike all pay attention to news of the weather, because it greatly affects day-to-day life which, in turn, affects the workings of business and government. While all Americans can cite times they altered plans because of a storm that never happened, over the last few years new radar systems have made weather prediction increasingly accurate, and today, if the weatherperson says a storm is expected, he or she is usually right.
Changes in Technology Have been Key to Weather Forecasting
Weather has always been of interest to man. From the Babylonians forward people have tried to predict the weather. We have excellent weather documentation from several of the founding fathers (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson among them) that show that the colonists were very concerned about what was to come.
Weather predicting became much more accurate with changes in technology, but surprisingly, weather technology was not the advance that made the greatest difference. The invention that contributed the most to advances in weather prediction was the telegraph in 1835.
Before the telegraph, there was no good method for communicating information about the weather in a timely fashion. With the advent of the telegraph, scientists could relay news of a coming storm, high winds, or extraordinary temperatures. By the late 1840s, scientists realized that sending the news was only one of the benefits; they could also gather information from several sources, in order to make an assessment about the weather.
The first fellow to create a network of forecasters was Joseph Henry, who was Secretary of the then-new Smithsonian Institution. By 1860, Henry had 500 weather stations manned by volunteers who reported regularly.
Progress in the Smithsonian system was interrupted by the Civil War, but after the war was over, a professor by the name of Increase A. Lapham (1811-1875) of Milwaukee began pushing for creation of a government agency for weather observation. Professor Lapham observed what happened during storms on the Great Lakes. He sent related news clippings to his Congressman, about the issue, noting in one: Is it not “the duty of the Government to see whether anything can be done [in the future] to prevent, at least, some portion of this sad loss?” Lapham’s representative, Congressman Halbert E. Paine, introduced the legislation that eventually brought about the weather service in 1870.
Because of the vast network that needed to be organized, the agency was placed under the Secretary of War because military discipline was felt to be the best way to secure the greatest promptness, regularity, and accuracy of reporting. Under the War Secretary, the department was assigned to the Signal Service Corps (organized in 1860 to convey wartime messages) and Brevet Brigadier General Albert J. Myer gave the weather service its first name: The Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce. The first synchronized weather reports came in to the Washington office from 24 stations at 7:35 a.m. on November 1, 1870.
The point of these observations, of course, was to forecast what was coming, and initially the country was divided into eight different districts with predictions made every 24 hours by scientists in Washington who assessed the incoming reports. Over time, the districts were made smaller and the forecasts were for more extended periods into the future.
Post Offices Key to Notifying the Public
The public in the nineteenth century was very interested in knowing the weather, so in 1873, the forecasts were distributed to thousands of rural post offices where the information was printed and posted outside the buildings as a “Farmers’ Bulletin.” Eventually, the service instituted a flag system. Different color flags were designated to signal different weather meanings, and so townspeople did not need to walk to the post office or even be literate to understand the weather that was expected to come. Weather predictions were also sent to rail stations and to any news media of the day.
Early forecasters lacked the general accuracy of today, but one scientist in the late 1800s noted: “While scientists cannot tell at what hours to carry an umbrella, they can tell when great storms and waves of intense heat or cold are coming so as to be of great value to all the industries of the land.”
Today weather predicting is a major industry, drawing the public to radio and television as well as providing information to business and government on what to expect; power companies predict usage based on weather; the travel and leisure industries are heavily invested in weather happenings, and agriculture and construction may alter schedules based on what is to come.
Today the Weather Service is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where it is united with the other government agencies that were originally dedicated to studying the physical sciences–the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey (formed in 1807) and the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, which dates to 1871, just one year after the Weather Bureau became a government agency.
Then and now, these agencies all have in common the application of science for the public welfare.