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Part I Four Centuries Of Surprises
We talk about it constantly and we arrange our lives around it. So did our parents; and so did the very first colonists. But it took Americans a long time to understand their weather—and we still have trouble getting it right.
June/July 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 4
The records of these early weather observers were entirely verbal. The principle of the barometer was first announced in Europe in 1644, and spirit (as in wines and spirits) thermometers were not available there until some decades later. As far as it is known, no meteorological instruments were in use in this country until 1717, when Dr. Cadwallader Golden of Philadelphia returned from his native Scotland with a bride and a thermometer-barometer combination. Ten years later, Harvard College received a gift of laboratory apparatus from James Hollis, a London merchant and philanthropist. With the barometer and thermometer that were included, John Winthrop VI, a direct descendant of the first governor, started a regular “Meteorologie Diary” in 1742, the first American scientific weather document that has survived in its entirety. He kept records of temperature, pressure, and precipitation almost every day for the next thirty-seven years, until his death in 1779. The area weather conditions on the days of the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the British evacuation in March 1776 can be checked in Winthrop’s valuable record. His entry for April 19,1775, reads: “6:00 a.m. very Fair. 1:00 p.m. Fair with clouds. BATTLE of Concord will put a stop to observing.”
During the first years of settlement on the Atlantic seaboard, no newspapers existed to report the weather. Weather observers worked in relative isolation from one another, and a knowledge of distant meteorological events came from letters to and from the homeland. Several times during the eighteenth century, individual observers suggested sharing their information. In 1726 Cotton Mather encouraged his friends to make observations throughout Massachusetts and send them to Boston. Later in the century, Benjamin Franklin, when postmaster general of the colonies, and Rev. Ezra Stiles of Newport, Rhode Island, urged the establishment of a network of observers, noting the existence of thermometers at Cambridge, Newport, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, Williamsburg, Charleston, and New Bern, North Carolina.
On October 22,1743, Franklin planned to witness an eclipse of the moon at Philadelphia, but a strong northeast gale prevented him from doing so. Franklin wrote his brother in Boston expressing his disappointment. He had assumed that the northeast storm had hit Boston earlier, and thus was surprised to hear that his brother had seen the eclipse, but that a heavy storm had set in several hours later, also with a strong northeast wind. The gale was actually a late-season hurricane moving up from the tropics, and Franklin correctly concluded that the storm was going from south to north along the coast despite the seemingly opposing northeast winds. That storms might have circulatory wind systems and travel in a direction contrary to the winds in their advance provided the first clue to how storms moved—and the only morsel of scientific information on the subject suggested by anyone until years later.
Other meteorological writings of the colonial period are most interesting for what they tell us about our social history. In the days before the War of Independence, when books were scarce and magazines almost nonexistent, the almanac was considered a household necessity. Among the helpful scientific items the almanac provided were a calendar for keeping track of the passage of days, weeks, and months; a table giving the phases of the moon, the sun’s rising and setting, solar and lunar eclipses, and the position of the planets for astrological purposes; tide tables for mariners; and a forecast of the weather.
The first printing press in the British colonies of North America arrived in Massachusetts Bay in 1638, and one of the first volumes printed was an Almanack Calculated for New England . This work resembled those issued in England at the time, except that it did not contain any weather forecasts: the Puritan authorities frowned on such predictions as attempts to usurp the province of the Almighty.
Not until a second press was established in Boston in 1675 did an almanac appear that deviated from the Puritan line. John Foster, a Harvard alumnus, published a series of almanacs that contained greatly expanded astronomical information and also blank pages opposite each month’s data so that one could keep a diary. Finding that people were using these pages to keep notes on the weather, Foster began adding weather “Prognostics,” which included paragraphs on “Signs of Rain …Wind … Storm … Hot Weather … Cold Weather … and Fair Weather.”
The next important series of almanacs was launched in 1687 by John Tulley, a mariner, of Saybrook, Connecticut, who deserves recognition as America’s first weather forecaster. It was Tulley who introduced the now-venerated practice of inserting predictions for each month and, according to Charles Evans, the bibliophile of American almanacs, “became noted—almost notorious for his skill in weather prediction.” All the same, most almanac forecasts were not very precise. Based on astrology, they were vaguely worded generalities that provided little real assistance to the reader.