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How the Weather Bureau Came About

Weather. People throughout time have always cared about the weather. It affects crops, businesses, travel, and personal plans. Sometimes, all that one needs is the next day’s forecast. But often, farmers and businesspeople want to hear about what they might expect in the coming weeks.

Government weather map from 2022

In this country, we need only look back to the Founding Fathers to find people who were intently interested in documenting weather. Benjamin Franklin ran kite experiments during lightning storms to learn more. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson took detailed notes in their journals. Benjamin Banneker, a free Black and a contemporary of these men, kept detailed records and published annual almanacs that contained his findings. 

And as Lewis and Clark traveled to explore the Northwest Territory, they were expected to take careful records of the weather. By documenting the topography, the flora and fauna, and the weather, it was hoped that future generations would be able to make sense of the new land.

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Military and Volunteer Networks

Because weather was important, two different avenues for collecting data in this country developed independently: the military and the new Smithsonian Institution.

As early as 1814, U.S. Army Surgeon General Dr. James Tilton ordered field surgeons to keep weather diaries. Some believed that there was a correlation between diseases and weather. No one expected a physician to predict the weather, but administrators felt there was value in records being kept and sent on to the office of the Surgeon General.

Some field surgeons were diligent about their weather diaries. Others were neglectful. However, at least there was a rudimentary system in place before the Civil War changed everything. 

Telegraph Was Vital Development

Weather Instrument

But even as meteorological information was gathered, there was a continuing problem with sharing the news in a timely fashion. Before the development of the telegraph (1835), a messenger was needed to ride horseback to a neighboring town with any sort of weather information. The news inevitably arrived too late to be much help.

The telegraph was valuable from the beginning. The challenge with it was that wires could not be strung fast enough!

Telegraph lines were strung along the railroad tracks. Because trees were cut away for the tracks, men were able to erect poles and string wires more easily. This also made the railway station a logical place for telegraph offices.  It still took time to connect towns.

By the late 1840s, scientists began to realize another benefit of the telegraph. In addition to sending out news about possible storms, they could also gather weather information from multiple sources. This sometime improved the accuracy of any predictions.

Smithsonian Collected, Too

The Smithsonian was founded in Washington, D.C. in 1846 with funds from James Smithson, a British scientist. Smithson wanted to establish an institution in America for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” He would have highly approved of the idea of gathering data about weather.

The first secretary of the new Smithsonian was a physicist named Joseph Henry (1797-1878). He created the first network of weather observers.

A hygrometer for reading humidity
A hygrometer reads humidity.

The Institution asked for volunteers in different parts of the country. The Smithsonian sent them a box of instruments with instructions on record-keeping and reporting. The weather collection boxes contained all the latest instruments available, including a barometer, a thermometer, hygrometer (measures humidity), anemometer (measures wind speed and wind pressure), a wind vane, a rain gauge, and a clock.

By 1860, Henry had 500 weather stations manned by volunteers who reported regularly. (Today the Smithsonian refers to this group as their first crowd-sourcing project.) 

Civil War

The Civil War brought any type of project like weather-gathering to a halt.

A sign to warn that the river level is too high and therefore the river is "closed."
During the Civil War, soldiers would have appreciated these warnings but the country was too big and too many changes were happening.

Generals on both sides of the War recognized how important weather news was. However, they were fully occupied recruiting men, locating weaponry, and figuring out uniforms and how to feed so many soldiers. There wasn’t any time for “extras.”

They knew a terrible rainstorm would slow troops down, might cause river overflows, and could knock out the few bridges that might have existed. Cold and snow slowed everything to a stop, and frostbite was debilitating. As a result, many men faced amputations because of toes that couldn’t be saved.

Even hot weather was no blessing. Heat wore out the men and animals. A soldier carrying a heavy pack on a hot day was very likely to leave behind jackets, sleeping bags, and many things that would have been helpful when the weather changed. 

Weather Issues During the War

War records indicate that in addition to brutal fighting, lack of equipment, and difficulty procuring food, weather, too, was a major obstacle. One soldier recorded in his journal what it was like for Union soldiers after Chancellorsville: The area was hit with a torrential storm that included fog that prevented the men from seeing each other.  They marched side by side but … “We took to shouting to our comrades that we were enabled to keep our places in the ranks.”

Weather also resulted in direct casualties. Ships sank; horses and men were killed by lightning; frost-bitten feet could become too painful to walk on.  The war experiences pointed to what many already knew—the country needed to develop a weather department.

Who Should Run a Weather Bureau?

After the war, there were several opinions about how to set up a weather bureau. Albert Myer had been among the surgeons who kept track of the weather in his area. He was now a colonel and saw that the military’s Signal Corps was in the best position to run a bureau. They had access to the telegraph wires and knew how to send out signals.  Myer felt the weather expertise could come from volunteers.

Others Fought For a Government Agency

Roadway flooding

But in the Great Lakes region, different views were held. There was little that was predictable about the weather in that part of the country, and catastrophes could happen. In 1869, a four-day gale raged through the area. Ninety-seven ships and countless lives were lost on the lakes alone.

Professor Increase Lapham (1811-1875) of Milwaukee observed this, and he urged for an independent separate weather bureau. 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?”

Congress Decides

decorative weather vane

Lapham’s representative, Congressman Halbert E. Paine, introduced legislation that offered the option of creating a civilian agency. After studying the issue, Congress determined that if the military could make use of the Smithsonian volunteers, then the suggestion of letting the Signal Corps run the service would be less expensive and perfectly workable. They vetoed the idea of a civilian service.

With the department assigned to the Signal Corps, the weather service was part of the War Department.  Surgeon Albert Myer, now a Brevet Brigadier General, was put in charge. He gave the department its first name: “The Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce.”

The plan involved recruiting some meteorologists to be part of the Signal Corps but to also rely on the Smithsonian network of volunteers. To increase the possibility of better forecasting, the country was divided into eight different districts.

The first synchronized weather reports came into the Washington office from 24 stations at 7:35 a.m. on November 1, 1870.

Forecasting

In the 1870s, the Smithsonian established a daily routine that they carefully observed:

One man received and digested all incoming telegrams. He then assigned them to the staff people in charge of different divisions of the country. They then did their best to interpret what was likely to happen in their region.  

The goal of the process was to create a daily weather map within a 2-hour window.

Printing plates were prepared so that the latest data could be added to the new maps.  Then these were sent out over the telegraph lines to weather stations and railroad offices.

Sometimes The Process Worked…

As we all know, weather is tricky to predict. Even today, the forecasters will give us several options of what we might expect. In those days, the equipment was less reliable and made predictions even more difficult. However, sometimes the weather forecasters did get it right.

In one particular case, data revealed that there would be a frost in Wisconsin that could affect the crops. This information was sent from Washington to Madison 36 hours in advance of the cold weather. If farmers had received the news in time, it might have been very helpful. Unfortunately, the telegraph officer either missed the incoming telegram or forgot about it. He never sent on the weather alert.

Many telegraph offices were not 24-hour operations, and this, too, led to problems. The weather information might have been received in a timely manner, but there was no one at the office to send it out.

People Wanted to Know

People of the past were just as curious about upcoming weather forecasts as we are today.  In 1873, rural post offices were the hub of every community, so the forecasts were sent to hundreds of local post offices.

The service instituted a flag system that they recommended to post offices. (The Signal Corps had its roots in signaling by flag.) Flags of different colors were designated to signal different types of weather. Townspeople did not need to walk into the post office or even be literate to understand the weather that was expected to come.

Some post offices even created a “Farmer’s Bulletin” with weather information that was posted on the community bulletin board.

Weather predictions were also sent to rail stations and to any news media of the day.

Other Challenges

Photograph showing damage from a tornado in Nashville.
Tornado damage near Nashville

Rain, sleet, snow, and hail were the types of weather that were generally the focus of weather reports. But unfortunately, there were plenty of other weather events that forecasters had little hope of pinning down. 

Tornadoes seemed to appear on the skyline out of “nowhere.” Though townspeople might see the swirling winds as they grew in force, there was little time to do much to protect one’s home or livestock.  Hurricanes were also difficult to predict. Would this be a heavy tropical rain, or would it develop into a full-blown hurricane, and how far on land would it travel?

Flooding is also a development of weather, but the scientists were challenged as to when heavy rain would mean riverbanks would overflow. These weather occurrences could be catastrophic, but the weather experts lacked ways to do much about them.

As state governments began to invest in weather services, the predictive powers of many types of weather improved. Even today, the more local the prediction, the better chance the chance the forecast will be right.

Inaccuracy Always A Problem

Just as today, people were quite annoyed when the weather predictions were wrong.

In 1904, one New Mexico newspaper came up with a way they felt increased their chances of being correct. Each day they printed the official weather forecast issued by the government.


windsock
Windsock along a highway

But they also sent a reporter out to check with Oliver P. Wiggins, a Civil War veteran and a protégé of Kit Carson. Wiggins had been injured during the war, and his leg still “acted up” before bad weather.  The newspaper saved space right next to the official weather report. There, they would print an update on how Wiggins was feeling and what he thought that meant for the local weather.

The scientists at the weather bureau saw this as “disrespectful” of the science. A meeting was held between the newspaper editor and a representative of the weather bureau. The bureau representative made it very clear that Oliver Wiggins’s predictions needed to be a thing of the past.

Department of Agriculture

As the country grew and the network of telegraph lines exploded across the country, farmers and businesspeople became the primary audience for weather news. The time had come to switch the weather service away from the military.

In 1890, at the request of President Benjamin Harrison, Congress passed an act transferring meteorological responsibility from the Signal Corps to the Department of Agriculture. It was retitled the “Weather Bureau.”

Weather Kiosks

The United States observed that in the early 1900s, Germany added kiosks on busy streets in their major cities. Pedestrians could walk by and learn almost anything they wanted about the weather.

A weather kiosk provided instruments and weather maps that would show local pedestrians what kind of weather to expect.
Weather kiosk in the U.S.

The U.S. government began sending out the materials for weather kiosks in 1908. By 1910, kiosks were built in 29 cities.

Buffalo’s newspaper headlined the news by pointing out that this would reduce phone calls to the beleaguered local weather person: “It Will Save You Calling Up Davy Cuthbertson [local forecaster] to Ask About the Weather.” 

The Buffalo newspaper ran a great article on the excitement surrounding the kiosk. It was described as a “highly ornamental iron booth, four feet square by ten feet high, with plate glass windows on the sides. The reporter continues: “Three of the windows will feature weather maps and other documents.  In the fourth window will be placed a maximum and minimum thermometer, a mercurial thermometer, a thermograph to record the temperature for 2 weeks back, a hygrometer to give the relative humidity, and a self-recording rain gauge.”

Those who strolled by would be able to find out everything except wind velocity, which was too changeable to report on reliably.

But there were misunderstandings about the purpose of these governmental structures. In Pittsburgh in September of 1909, an article explained that the kiosks were NOT mailboxes. They were just kiosks so those who were leaving letters and post cards on top if the kiosk were going to be sorely disappointed.

Communication Methods Changed

Some of us may actually remember when there was a phone number to call for the correct time, weather information, and road reports during the winter.

a photograph of a more modern style of wind sensor.
More modern form of wind sensor

This “information by phone” started very casually. In the days when telephone operators worked switchboards plugging in calls, chances were good that they knew most people in town. If you knew that “Mabel” was already at work, you might well decide to call her and ask if you needed to wear a jacket or if the kids should wear boots.

If the operators thought weather was changing, it was certainly easy enough to connect a caller with the local weather man in town. He would be able to give his friends and neighbors an up-to-the-minute report.

As late as the 1930s-‘40s, weather offices often received up to one hundred calls a day. Some time after that, phone systems automated weather reports and traffic reports. There was often a specific line where you cold call for the correct time.

Improving Weather Study

Those analyzing the weather knew that the ability to measure the upper atmosphere was very helpful. But how to gather that data was more problematic. Weather kites were a failure, so in 1909, when the U.S. began trying weather balloons, there was great excitement. By the 1920s, the balloons could be equipped with radio transmitters.  This permitted real-time observation of the stratosphere so that forecasters understood the width of a weather system and also its height.

Using radar for weather information was a result of the Second World War. During the war, radar operators observed patterns of interference on their screens that aligned with bad weather.

After the war, radar meteorology became a major field of study.

Weather Prediction

Today weather predicting is a major industry, drawing the public to the internet, and radio and television. Many businesses specifically sign up to receive regular weather reports. For example, 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.

A photograph of a television newsperson reporting on a recent snowstorm
A local newsperson reporting on the weather.

Today’s Organization

A photograph of a weather station in the Mojave Desert in California.
Doppler weather station near the Mojave Desert in California.

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.

*** To read about a terrible snowstorm that blew into the Great Plains with little warning, read about “The Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888.

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2 thoughts on “How the Weather Bureau Came About”

  1. Hi Kate
    Interesting news about the weather. I laughed when reading about Oliver P. Wiggins. When in highschool in Aabenraa in 1966 our teacher in physics, Miss Lindballe, asked me to join her in an experiment including “something” ( marble?) and HCl.
    Boom – explosion!! I got a few scars and to this day my right digital finger is aware of any change in the weather .
    Love, Didde

  2. Hi Didde,
    That’s a great but unfortunate story! Then, everyone just went on with their business. Today can you imagine what might happen…? At least here in the U.S.

    Take care!

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