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World's Earliest Tornado Photos

Liz Burlingame
Published: June 9, 2013

NOAA

One of the oldest known photographs of a tornado. It is probable this image has been "doctored" from the original. At this time, the oldest known photograph of a tornado was taken on April 26, 1884 at Garnett, Kansas.

Watching a livestream of a tornado outbreak has become the norm for many Americans in today's world of Doppler radar and instant communication. But for those living in the Great Plains in the 19th century, blows from Mother Nature often came without warning.

In the late 1800s, meteorology was still in its infancy. In 1883, the government had banned the word "tornado" from official forecasts because they were concerned the word would cause widespread panic.

Historically, the only extreme weather images were from eyewitness sketches. Very few Americans had actually seen a tornado until the 1880s, when photographers released the earliest known tornado photographs. Photographic evidence provided experts with valuable insight and proved fascinating to a public more familiar with legend than science.

(MORE: Storm Chasing Critical, Profitable and Dangerous)

These early photos also paved the way for the legions of storm chasers who would follow. Today social media, smartphones and more affordable technology have inspired a growing number of self-made and amateur storm chasers, the Huffington Post reports. Following the powerful twisters that swept through El Reno and Moore, Okla. last month, users uploaded more than 600,000 storm-related videos to YouTube.

"In the last couple of years, with the proliferation of cameras, it just became easier to go out after a storm," Mark Fox, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service told the Huffington Post.

In the late 1800s, early photographers relied on cumbersome box cameras, with exposure times ranging from two to ten minutes or more, to capture tornadoes. The first two known photographs of twisters emerged in 1884 — one in South Dakota and another in Kansas.

While there's mixed accounts of which photo was taken first, the most widely distributed of the two is a photo by F.N. Robinson. The photo was slightly retouched, a common practice in the era, and sold as a postcard, The New York Times reports.

Robinson's photo shows a massive storm cloud with a thick tornado descending to the ground, just outside of Howard, S.D. Two smaller tornadoes extend out from the cloud to either side like devils horns.

The tornado was part of an outbreak that killed at least six people and caused extensive property damage and loss of livestock, according to Weatherwise Magazine. Contemporary records and survivors' recollections indicate the storms were likely an EF3 or EF4 on the Enhanced Fujita scale.

The second photograph by A.A. Adams is less well known but is said to be taken a few months earlier, on April 26, 1884. Adams, who operated a photo gallery in Westphalia, a small railroad town in Kansas, took the photo of the storm from a downtown street corner. It shows a less-powerful but well-defined tornado in the rope stage, just as it was dissipating. Because of the tornado's slow progress, Adams had time to set up his camera, Weatherwise reports.

Advancements in technology have given people greater access to tornado photography, but being at the front lines of an unfolding disaster is extremely dangerous.

"Even today, it's almost impossible for a photograph or a movie to capture the true terrifying majesty of a tornado," Albert Theberge, the acting head of reference at the NOAA central library told Slate.com. "When you get up close and you see houses being ripped apart and debris falling into the sky and swirling around, you realize… these are pretty powerful forces that we're dealing with."

Check out some of America's most historic tornado photos and drawings on record in the slideshow above.


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