It had to be bad weather, of course, to finally establish a government weather bureau. Only some hit and miss attention had been given it prior to 1890 when the first weather service was organized by President Ulysses Grant. He assigned it to the U.S. Army Signal Corp in 1870, a place with which many were unsatisfied. It would be under military jurisdiction, a fact freedom-loving Americans did not condone. It might infringe upon their decision-making. But when many communities received the impressive tin flags to forecast the weather, minds were changed.
The illustrations here were patterns of the six foot tin flags used by the newly formed Weather Bureau’s organization in 1890. The Army Signals Corps was assigned the duty of the meteorological by Pres. Grant in 1870. Weather duties, when separated in 1890, was directed for awhile by the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce. The tin flags were displayed at the local depot. If a town had no depot or could not afford the “system,” a cooperative railroad engineer or a towns’ convenient factory would toot horn or whistle to alert the populace. Two-to-three seconds blast to be aware then one long meant FAIR; Two long—RAIN/SNOW; Three long—Local Rain; Three short—Cold Wave, etc., etc... Flags were available in 1891 and were to be installed by January, 1892. Lanark may have had flags in 1888 because the former blacksmith, Will Strang, was noted as being responsible for them ... A purse of $15 was taken up for him for his faithfulness! Other weather news, the fronts and affronts, are told in PDQ Me, the Book, June 25, 1986 with these flag patterns. Aren’t we happy to SEE weather in the newspapers, internet, TV channels, heart on radio instead of all that hooting & tooting from the Vinegar factory whistle?
The previous year, 1869, there had been a series of disastrous storms that ravaged the Great Lakes and Atlantic Coasts, destroying many marine interests with a great loss of trade in consequence. Entities and individuals clamored for some sort of system to give warning or, at least, pass the word along that storms were a brew.
What was needed was an office that would study, figure probabilities, make forecasts, assemble information from many locations, etc., etc. Great Britain and France had already organized such. Our military received basic crash courses on how to make weather observations. Key locations of the time were assigned the observers who would then transmit information three times a day to Washington D.C. where it was entered onto a national weather map to be published. Despite the furtherance of plans, the public still was not pleased that the military was running the show; they feeling that some secret reason would follow and weather forecasting might control the public or parts of it. As it turned out, you must admit, “weather” reporting helps so many facets of the nation, even if we don’t want to hear what the prognostication is. We learn from hearing what’s coming!
Actually the work of running the Weather Service was handled by a civilian, Professor Cleveland Abbe, a talented, kindly gentleman. He guided the organization and was with the Bureau for over thirty-six years leading it with creativity, imagination, acceptance of new ideas and equipment, gaining, meanwhile, an international reputation. Because the Bureau was new, perhaps, small and hardly prestigious so easily dominated by Congress. Abbe’s nickname was “Old Probabilities,” or “Old Prob,” because of his application of mathematical science to forecasting, long used by others and giving the Bureau a firm foundation.
Weather observation had only a sometime characteristic in Colonial America, a time when the individual household kept an informal record of rainfall, temperature and so forth. Few had thermometers or barometers and such. As the 1700’s advanced, however, we learn that four of the first six presidents were dedicated weather observers of the first rate. The group included Benjamin Franklin who wrote many a moralistic sentence concerning the weather in his “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” “Some people are weather wise; some are otherwise.”
Like Franklin who was a self-educated scholar, the presidents who were “weather wise” kept interesting, detailed journals and left for us today what was important to our ancestors. The presidential observers, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and John Quincy Adams used their own instruments in their recording.
As early as 1737 the first continuous records of weather observations were begun by Dr. John Lining at Charleston, S.C. while in 1741 Prof. John Winthrop at Cambridge, Massachusetts started a journal of weather observations. They, the first known in America.
Not until nearly a hundred years later was there what might be considered a “break through,” a technological breakthrough that allowed weather observers to communicate with one another. Not only was that important to share information but to warn or predict bad weather. Knowledge was broadened as a result of the telegraph. The Smithsonian Institute in D.C. was among the first to use the telegraph as a teaching tool and to use it to gather information.
In April, 1863 during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was accosted by a “practical meteorologist” saying he could save millions of lives if his Science was applied to War ... In an immediate case, it wouldn’t rain until the end of the month!
Lincoln, disgusted, said of the writer, Frances Capen, that he could spare him no more time because as it happened it had been raining steadily for at least ten hours. So much for Lincoln’s interest in meteorology.
By 1890, however, the records kept for twenty years by the Army’s Signal Corps in its assignment of being the weather bureau transferred the records to the Dept. of Agriculture to point out how vital “weather” was to the farmer and as the Weather Bureau became a separate unit of government, it acquired a new leader, replacing the affable Prof. Abbe, Mark Harrington, an astronomy teacher at the University of Michigan. Harrington had edited the American Meteorological Journal since 1884, emphasizing his interest in the science.
Unfortunately, the prestige of the new government agency led him to try to enforce a strong arm on staff and admirers alike. His strict discipline and unfriendly manner led to many a schism and he resigned. He first took a job as a college president for a short time and with health declining, he became a seaman and a laborer. Ultimately he was entered into a mental asylum where he died in 1926.
Weather Bureau history, like other history, is filled with personalities unique to itself. It is celebrating its one hundred twenty-third anniversary this year, having gone through immense changes due to those events and inventions going on in the world as well as the weather!
Weather observation has undergone about four hundred years of consideration, in depth or otherwise beginning probably at Jamestown or Plimouth. During that period climate has undergone two definite changes, the first being the so-called, “Little Ice Age” from about 1600 to approximately 1890 when degree days were two to three less in temperature than previous averages. This doesn’t sound as if it would matter enough to make a difference but apparently so. Years 1812 and 1816 were the coldest during that trend which occurred 1805-1920. Again 1835-1837 saw an “ice age,” 1836, especially being a memorable year. In 1836 Samuel Preston moved from Princeton to what became known as Preston Prairie Southwest of Mt. Carroll. His reminiscences are frightful even to read them in the comfort of the twenty-first century. That year, ‘36, was the coldest of the nineteenth century.
The 1880’s had cold winters but by about 1890 temperatures leveled off and the government’s Weather Bureau became a specific entity. There were regular fluctuations, 1900 to 1940 with a slight warming trend in the 1950’s, early and late into the 1960-70’s but cooling in the 1980’s, then some general warming. This all is added to show how weather/climate has constantly gone through ups and downs and will continue to do so as it has for millions of years. Global Warming isn’t a current event, it’s been here, off and on for eons despite what the former vice president attempts to scare us with!!!
Willis Moore took over the directorship of the Weather Bureau at the sad retirement of Mark Harrington. Moore’s tenure was marked by portent of the future, because in the early years of the twentieth century he believed that weather forecasting should include knowing what was going on in the upper atmosphere. The Space Age begun! Not only had meteorology changed with the coming of the telegraph but with the arrival of aviation, immense broadening of the science was opening up.
Military and commercial and private flight forced changes beyond belief. Appropriations for the Weather Bureau in 1923 stood at $1.5 million and by 1932 were $4.5 million. At its one hundredth anniversary, 1990, its budget was $330 million, employing 4,500 in staff at three hundred offices throughout the fifty states. Ten thousand volunteers, some of whom are your next door neighbors, assist with valuable contributions such as taking daily temperatures and precipitations amounts at their sites which will be compiled with others for the day.
Around 1930 the Weather Bureau was said to have become an “entrenched bureaucracy” needing new ideas and methods. It was apparently at the Meteorological Institute in Bergen, Norway where it began ... Cold fronts, warm fronts, air mass analysis became revolutionary in forecasting. Weather maps began to take on the appearance of war zones ... Polar fronts mixing with tropical currents. The United States was slow in accepting those ideas but in the 1930’s, two MIT students were reluctantly given a desk behind a screen where they plopped patterns of cold fronts and warm currents, encroaching, eventually those became familiar along with the mathematical probabilities which accompanied them ... Those figures made it easier to understand, eh!
WW II also revolutionized forecasting with the usage of compiling far-flung data, the immediacy of improving equipment and new “eyes” looking at age-old methods. Nineteen thousand men and women, yes, women, too, were assigned “weather duty” during the War.
From the 1950’s onward radar, satellites, rockets into space, cameras filming minute and alien places have given us an entirely new horizon. We learn about the “weather” among the stars.
Forecasting up to five days ahead with a fair amount of accuracy has become common.
This item regarding the Weather Bureau was discovered in an overstuffed file cabinet in an article by David Ludlum. Its newsiness diverted us from the local weather article we intended to assemble. Hmmm! Next week?