Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the National Weather Service

February 3, 2020, 10:22 PM EST

Above: Surface weather map from Jan. 1, 1871, produced by the newly established National Weather Service. (Library of Congress)

There are many points in American history where decisions were made, bills were passed, and laws were enacted that have gone a long way to protect the lives and property of our citizens. One of the most important in my mind was on February 9, 1870, when the U.S. Congress passed a resolution, and President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law, the establishment of a “national weather service”. This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the National Weather Service (NWS).

I was an NWS employee for roughly 1/5 of that time, serving in the office in Buffalo, New York—one of the 24 original NWS offices—for 32 years. So, I felt it would be a fitting tribute to go back and look at the beginnings of this important organization.

The daily weather has always and will likely continue to be a very important part of the lives of all Americans. Back at the time of our founding fathers, in an agrarian society, the weather was even more important to daily living.

Much of the information in this article was gleaned from a few very important sources that provide a wonderful story on the beginnings of the National Weather Service and the development of science through the 19th and 20th centuries. I encourage those wanting a more in-depth history to check out the following:

National Weather Service Heritage

NOAA 200th Anniversary Celebration

The Beginning of the National Weather Service: The Signal Service Years (1870 - 1891) As Viewed by Early Weather Pioneers (FTP download)

In this post, I revisit the early days of weather observing in the United States, and the period that led up to the formation of the NWS. Although there were dozens of individuals who contributed in one way or another to the birth of the agency, I am going to highlight the destiny of four individuals who were in the right place at the right time. The foundation they built was so strong that it continues to serve as the base for one of the most successful government institutions on record.

Before that, however, I would be remiss if I did not mention two of my favorite historical figures in American history. Our fascination with U.S. weather, and formal analysis of it, has its roots in two of our greatest Americans: amateur meteorologists/scientists Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Both of these Renaissance men contributed in significant ways to our weather history—Franklin with his tremendous insights into the science of weather and climate, and Jefferson in his curiosity about the weather that led to the formation of our first observing network.

Most of our American readers will know the story about Benjamin Franklin and his kite experiment. But Franklin’s interest in weather went far beyond lightning.

In 1743, Franklin compared weather observations in letters he received from friends in other colonies. He was one of the first to observe that North American storms tend to move from west to east, and predicted that a storm's course could be plotted. In the last years of his life, Franklin conducted studies on the effects that volcanic eruptions might have on weather patterns, cloud formation, and cloud electrification. He hypothesized that the severe Northern Hemisphere winter of 1783–84 was linked to the volcanic eruption occurring in Iceland in the summer of 1783. Franklin suggested that there was a reduction in the amount of solar energy received at the Earth's surface after the volcanic eruption due to the ash and other particles inserted into the atmosphere—a concept now well accepted.

Did you know that Franklin was also the first to plot the Gulf Stream? Although voyagers had known about areas of warmer water off the coast of America, Franklin’s precise measurements of water temperatures in his many voyages to France and England led to this map that he produced.

Thomas Jefferson kept a constant eye on the weather from his home at Monticello, He used an ingeniously designed wind vane, mounted atop the stately mansion and connected to a display in his window so he could instantly see the wind direction as he looked outside.

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson began to recruit volunteer weather observers throughout Virginia. By 1800, there were volunteers in five other states across the newborn nation. Today, one of the most prestigious awards in the NWS, and the top award for cooperative volunteer observers, is the Thomas Jefferson Award, which was launched in 1959 to honor unusual and outstanding achievements in the field of meteorological observations.

Weather observations grew in extent as the nation expanded westward. As early as 1814, the Army Surgeon General began a coordinated attempt to obtain weather observations from Army posts. Of course, as trained scientists, surgeons were also good at recording the weather.

One of the most important inventions on the road to a national weather service came in 1845, when the telegraph became operational. Think about it: with the telegraph, you could gather all those weather observations from distant points and very rapidly plot them on a map, then analyze them. Back at that time, James Espy was the federal government's first official meteorologist working primarily in the War and Navy departments. He was keen on using the telegraph for collecting weather observations.

By 1849, 150 volunteer weather observers, under the direction of Joseph Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, telegraphed daily observations to a central location, where weather maps were constructed and information was archived. By 1860, there were over 500 stations telegraphing daily weather reports.

Four people who made a difference in creating a national weather service

The Civil War interrupted the progress toward a national weather service, but the effort picked up in earnest in 1868, just 3 years after the end of the war. Oftentimes, those whose leadership stands out in times of conflict will come together again at some point in the future to lead once again. Let’s look at four of those individuals who all played critical roles in the development of our NWS.

The first contributor was Dr. Increase Lapham (1811-1875), who was from all accounts another true Renaissance Man and “citizen scientist”. He worked early in his career as a surveyor and engineer along the Erie Canal in upstate New York. Although he had no formal training, Lapham became one of America's best-known naturalists and engineers.

After settling in Milwaukee, Lapham became chief geologist for the state of Wisconsin while maintaining a keen interest in the science of the weather. As early as 1850, he urged the “establishment of an observatory where forecasts could be collected at the lake ports” to help save lives on the Great Lakes. By 1860 he began work with Dr. Asa Horr of Dubuque, Iowa, to make a series of simultaneous observations three times a day to prove that storms could be tracked from west to east. His interest and decisions, based on the loss of life that extreme weather presented back in those days, played an integral role in the formation of a national weather service.

Some background here: Back in the 1860s, there was no train service yet into the heart of the nation. A main mode of transportation was by ship, and the Great Lakes were very busy with ships of all kinds, transporting passengers as well as cargo. Great Lakes storms were, and still are, notorious for producing extremely dangerous conditions with very little notice.

Lapham woke up one morning in December 1869 and read the following account in the morning newspaper: 3,078 shipwrecks had occurred and over 530 lives had been lost on the Great Lakes in a two-year period, mostly attributed to bad weather. This included 1914 sunk or damaged vessels and 209 fatalities in 1869 alone. Most of the casualties had occurred during the month of November.

Lapham had regularly sent clippings of maritime wrecks to our second cog in the wheel, General Halbert Paine, the representative in Congress who served the Milwaukee area. In a letter to Paine, he asked if it were not "...the duty of the Government to see whether anything can be done to prevent, at least, some portion of this sad loss in the future…"

Representative Paine responded by introducing a joint congressional resolution on February 2, 1870, that called for the Secretary of War to establish a meteorological observing network at military stations and to provide notice of "the approach and force of storms" on the Great Lakes and seacoast.

The resolution was passed by Congress and signed into law one week later by President Grant. In The Beginning of The National Weather Service, it is noted that “little attention was given to this short, 7-line resolution”, but an agency had been born that would directly affect the daily lives of most U.S. citizens to this day.

The third important cog in the wheel that formed a national weather service was General Albert J. Myer, Chief Officer of the U.S. Army Signal Corps during the time of the Civil War. Myer developed the “wig-wag” system of communication on a battlefield. He was quite a weather enthusiast as well. In 1869 he had traced the path of a winter storm from the Midwest to Washington and used this excellent account as an example of the possibilities for a national weather service.

Understanding the value of weather forecasts to a growing America, on February 9, 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant established a national weather forecasting capability "to provide for taking meteorological observations at the military stations in the interior of the continent and at other points in the States and Territories...and for giving notice on the northern (Great) Lakes and on the seacoast by magnetic telegraph and marine signals, of the approach and force of storms."

Within the Department of War, the responsibility was assigned to the Signal Service Corps under Albert J. Myer, who gave the embryonic weather service its first name: The Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce.

At 7:35 a.m. on November 1, 1870, the first systematized and synchronous meteorological reports were taken by observer-sergeants at 24 stations in the new agency. These observations, which were transmitted by telegraph to the central office in Washington, D.C., commenced the beginning of the new division of the Signal Service. The map at the top of this post is from just two months later. In an excerpt from the first entry in the logbook at the weather office in Buffalo, New York, dated November 1, 1870, I found it fascinating the respect accorded to General Myer, who was in Buffalo that day, when the weather observer noted that Myer “Genl. Myer in town, Ordered that we should correct any errors in our messages.”

By the way, Increase Lapham was soon appointed by General Albert J. Myer to assume warning responsibility for the Great Lakes region. His first forecast, issued on November 8, 1870, called for "high wind all day yesterday at Cheyenne and Omaha; a very high wind this morning at Omaha; barometer falling with high winds at Chicago and Milwaukee today; barometer falling and thermometer rising at Chicago, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo and Rochester; high winds probable along the Lakes."

Our last cog in the wheel was Professor Cleveland Abbe, who in 1871 also became part of the infant agency as Special Assistant to the Chief Signal Officer. Abbe was a well-rounded scientist who had studied at Harvard and headed the Cincinnati Observatory, where he experimented not just with plotting observations or analyzing maps of the previous day’s weather but with making weather forecasts. The NOAA History summary observes: “When he began his career with the Signal Corps, Abbe was the only individual in the country with any practical experience in weather forecasting based on scientific principles. Among his first tasks were setting up a systematic observing system, developing criteria and a system for training new personnel, and directing the scientific activities of the new bureau. Until he was able to train forecasters, Abbe was the sole source of forecasts, or as he called them ‘probabilities.’ He soon became known as ‘Old Probabilities’ or ‘Old Prob,’ a nickname that stuck with him for the rest of his life.”

By 1872, Abbe regularly sent over 500 sets of daily maps and bulletins overseas in exchange for European meteorological data. Abbe also performed the first verification of forecasts. Abbe noted that in the first year of operation, in 1871, his staff evaluated 69 percent of their predictions, and he even apologized for the 31 percent that were not evaluated, noting that time constraints contributed to the reason.

This agency was something new: it demanded that employees were familiar with taking observations and understood the basics behind theoretical and practical meteorology. The commissioned officers were required to “acquire meteorological knowledge by studying the available literature and consulting with and receiving instruction from leading meteorologists.”

Abbe taught theoretical meteorology at the agency headquarters in Washington, D.C. He was instrumental in gathering all sorts of foreign as well as domestic publications on the science of meteorology for the library. Abbe was the driving force who advanced the understanding of meteorological theory. As the NOAA History notes, “In doing this, he was among the first to recognize the interdependency of the three dimensions of meteorology–forecasting, climatology, and physical theory.”

1870-1880: Gen. Albert J. Myer serves as chief signal officer, directing the new weather service.

1880: Upon the death of Gen. Myer, Gen. William Babcock Hazen takes over as chief signal officer. He serves until his death in 1887.

1887: Upon the death of Gen. Hazen, Maj. Gen. Adolphus Greely takes over as chief signal officer. He serves until his death in 1891.

May 30, 1889: An earthen dam breaks near Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The flood kills 2,209 people and wrecks 1,880 homes and businesses.

October 1, 1890: The weather service is first identified as a civilian agency when Congress, at the request of President Benjamin Harrison, passes an act transferring the meteorological responsibilities of the Signal Service to the newly created U.S. Weather Bureau in the Department of Agriculture. [The name was again changed—back to the National Weather Service—in 1970, when the NWS was brought into the newly constituted NOAA.]

1891: The secretary of agriculture directs R.G. Dyrenforth to carry out rain-making experiments by setting off explosions from balloons in the air. The Weather Bureau becomes responsible for issuing flood warnings to the public; telegraphic reports of stages of rivers were made at 26 places on the Mississippi and its tributaries, the Savannah and Potomac Rivers. Professor Mark W. Harrington becomes the first chief of the Weather Bureau. He serves until 1895.

1894: William Eddy, using five kites to loft a self-recording thermometer, makes first observations of temperatures aloft.

1895: Secretary of Agriculture J. Sterling Morton appoints Professor Willis Luther Moore chief of the Weather Bureau. Moore served until his resignation in 1913.

1898: President William McKinley orders the Weather Bureau to establish a hurricane warning network in the West Indies.

Today the National Weather Service continues to serve the American public through its mission to “provide weather, water, and climate data, forecasts and warnings for the protection of life and property and enhancement of the national economy.” With the continually growing population exposed to so many types of impactful weather, and the concerns about ongoing climate change, the responsibility to strive for a “Weather Ready” nation has never been greater.

I, for one, am proud to support this amazing agency that impacts every individual in one way or another each and every day. Happy Birthday, National Weather Service: may you continue for at least another 150 years!

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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Tom Niziol

Tom Niziol recently retired as winter weather expert for the Weather Channel after a 32-year career as a forecaster, science and operations officer, and meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service office in Buffalo, NY. Tom has published several papers and taught forecasters around the world through the COMET Program. His keenest winter weather interest is lake-effect snow.

emailTom.Niziol@weather.com

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