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Part I Four Centuries Of Surprises

July 2024
16min read

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.

Weather makes news headlines almost every day in some community in the United States. “The weather is always doing something,” said Mark Twain, “always getting up new designs and trying them on people to see how they will go.” On any day of the year, two or three weather systems are in action, dividing the country into distinct weather zones and producing what Twain called a “sumptuous variety” of conditions. A northeaster may be racing up along the Atlantic seaboard with gales and drenching rains, menacing ships and planes. At the same time, a stable high-pressure system might cause crop-threatening heat and drought in the Mississippi Valley. And a Pacific storm might be driving huge waves onto the fragile shoreline and hillsides of the West Coast, bringing flash floods and mudslides. Variety and violence are the usual fare offered by our weather.

Each daily weather change makes news, and that news is big business. USA Today devotes a full page of every issue to colorful weather maps and data. Radio stations broadcast weather reports throughout the day—often in a shrill and ominous manner. The “wind-chill factor” is a concept so misunderstood and so misused that an unthinking listener might hesitate to go abroad on a moderately cool spring evening. Television stations employ their own weather analysts or subscribe to a commercial service for forecasts; on cable the Weather Channel carries twenty-four-hour programming devoted exclusively to meteorological items. The National Weather Service, a government organization with five thousand employees, maintains several satellites in space to give global coverage of the weather every minute of the day and night. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (the parent of the National Weather Service) is coordinating a weather-forecasting system that should revolutionize weather prediction by the 1990s and provide more information than ever for weather addicts. They, meaning we, can’t get enough of it.

At the opening of the seventeenth century, however, the French and English who first established settlements in North America had little advance information about the geography or climate of their new country. Jacques Cartier had spent a brief winter at Quebec in 153536, and explorers and fishermen had sailed along the coast in summertime, but what extremes of heat and cold might be encountered remained a mystery. Many myths were to arise about the weather, particularly of the interior, and these were to influence the flow of settlers westward.

The first misconception about the American climate grew out of the belief then prevalent in Europe that temperatures along the same parallel of latitude were equal the world over. Since the angle of the sun’s rays was supposed to be the only governing factor, Europeans assumed that the climate of Newfoundland would be like that of southern England, and that Virginia and the Carolinas would enjoy Mediterranean weather. The experiences of the first colonists quickly disproved this notion. After enduring the severe winter of 1607-8, the members of Maine’s pioneer colony, Sagadahoc, at the mouth of the Kennebec River, gave up and returned to England. The settlers at Jamestown also suffered from what Capt. John Smith called the “extreme frost of 1607 … the extremity of the bitter cold.” After all but 32 of the original 105 colonists had died, the survivors embarked for home, only to be met near the entrance to Chesapeake Bay by supply ships arriving from England. Not long after, the explorer Samuel de Champlain complained of the lands to the north, “There are six months of winter in that country.”

This emerging awareness of what the American climate was really like did not spread immediately, thanks to the lies of propagandists for the colonial trading companies. Even with firsthand experience to the contrary, John Smith declared in 1614 that New England was a “most excellent place, both for health and fertility.” A nameless pamphleteer wrote in 1622 that the country “seemeth to hold the golden mean … the clime is found to be so temperate, so delicate, so healthful, both by reason and experience.” Actual conditions, however, soon gave rise to a harsher description: a rule of thumb stated that if a colonist could survive a full year in the New World, he was “seasoned” and should live for many more.

Some settlers kept diaries and entered a few words describing each day’s weather. Gov. John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony kept a log of winds and weather on the long voyage from England in 1630, and in his massive journal he described the outstanding weather events during the first twenty years of the colony. By 1631 Winthrop was able to generalize about the Boston climate: ”… when the wind blows twelve hours in any part of the east, it brings rain or snow in great abundance.”


Two prominent Bostonians maintained diaries during the last quarter of the seventeenth century and the first quarter of the next. Judge Samuel Sewall and the Reverend Cotton Mather mentioned outstanding windstorms, snowfalls, and periods of unusual cold or heat; these included the “terriblest winter” of 169798, the “Great Snow” of 1717, and the “High Tide and Flood” of 1723.

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.

Others entered the almanac field after the turn of the century, and practically all included weather forecasts in their texts. The name of Abraham Weatherwise appeared from time to time as a fictional weather adviser, and after 1792 Abe found a permanent home in The Farmer’s Almanac , published in Boston. He still makes an annual appearance in what is now called The Old Farmer’s Almanac , which celebrates its 194th anniversary in 1986.

By 1775 about twenty-five individuals had thermometers and were keeping records along the Atlantic Coast. Only two sets of readings, however, survived through the Revolution: Edward Hoiyoke’s at Salem, Massachusetts, and William Adair’s at Lewes, Delaware. Hoiyoke, son of a Harvard president, practiced medicine at Salem for almost eighty years, and he maintained a “Meteorological Journal” of the daily weather in New England from January 1,1754, until his death in 1829. Even on his hundredth birthday, in 1828, Holyoke read his thermometer and barometer as usual before walking down to the Essex House for a banquet given in his honor by his fellow townsmen.


Such records are of use today in reconstructing past conditions, but little was done with them at the time. Only two worthwhile publications in the eighteenth century analyzed the climate of a region by using actual meteorological observations. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785)—widely considered to be the outstanding scientific work by a colonial American—Thomas Jefferson made reference to his own temperature readings and those of his friend Rev. James Madison of Williamsburg. The other significant publication was The Natural and Civil History of Vermont , by Samuel Williams. His experiments on the temperature differences between forests and nearby plowed fields constituted a pioneering study of what is now termed microclimatology.

At the close of the eighteenth century, after almost two hundred years of English settlement along the Atlantic seaboard, the vast interior of the North American continent remained a terra incognita in all but its broadest outlines. The French had sent voyageurs, coureurs des bois , and Jesuit missionaries deep into the interior, but what they learned about these vast areas did not filter out to the coastbound British. And though the Appalachian Mountains had been crossed late in the eighteenth century, few scientific men had made the perilous trip westward.

The “Ohio Country Myth” was one of the best-known and most influential of the misconceptions that grew up around the virgin territory. Between October 1795 and June 1796, Constantin-François Chasseboeuf, Comte de Volney, traveled westward to Vincennes, on the Wabash River in Indiana. He became convinced, as Jefferson had speculated in his Notes on the State of Virginia , that the annual temperature in the “Ohio Country,” west of the Allegheny Mountains, was several degrees warmer than that of the same latitude along the Atlantic seaboard. Jefferson based his opinion on the different types of plants thriving on opposite sides of the mountains. Volney published his totally unscientific views in London and Paris in 1804, and settlers seeking cheap land in a mild climate flocked westward to this new paradise. The “by no means innoxious vulgar error,” as one naturalist termed it, proved all but indestructible. It was not until 1857 that the Ohio Country Myth was put to a final rest. In his comprehensive Climatology of the United States , the young statistician Lorin Blodget wrote: “The early distinction between the Atlantic States and the Mississippi has been quite dropped, as the progress of observation has shown them to be essentially the same, or to differ only in unimportant particulars.”

While observers were still arguing about the Ohio Country, information began to accumulate about the climate of the lands beyond the Mississippi River. The first concerted exploration of the Western country was mounted by President Jefferson shortly after he engineered the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In May 1804 a group of forty-five men under the command of Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lt. William Clark set out to ascend the Missouri River to its headwaters and find a way over the mountains to the Pacific Coast. One of their objectives was to describe “Climate, as characterized by the thermometer, by the proportion of rainy, cloudy, and clear days; by lightning, hail, snow, ice; by the access and recess of frost; by the winds prevailing at different seasons; the dates at which particular plants put forth, or lose their flower or leaf; times of appearance of particular birds, reptiles, or insects.”

The expedition reached the land of the Mandan Indians, near the present site of Bismarck, North Dakota, in late October 1804 and set up winter quarters. Twice a day, at sunrise and 4:00 P.M., the men recorded the temperature, sky condition, and wind. These were the first daily records characterizing a winter on the northern Great Plains, and it turned out to be a severe one, the temperature falling to minus forty-five degrees Fahrenheit, equal to the coldest registered there by the United States Weather Bureau in the modern period. Unfortunately the expedition’s thermometer was broken in the spring, but the explorers continued to make descriptive entries of the weather all the way to the Pacific.


The harsh conditions that the expedition encountered laid the foundation for another climatic myth, that of a “Great American Desert” between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains. Sgt. John Ordway, accompanying Lewis and Clark in 1804, declared that “this country may with propriety be called the Deserts of North America.” Lt. Zebulon Pike explored the headwaters of the Arkansas River a few years later and described “these vast plains of the western hemisphere [that] may become in time as celebrated as the sandy deserts of Africa.” Maj. Stephen Long wrote that “the great Desert at the Base of the Rocky Mountains … is almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable….” In the decades before the Civil War, the notion of a great Western desert spread widely and certainly had some effect in deterring westward migration.

Besides sponsoring exploration of the Western lands, the federal government made several efforts in the first half of the century to study climatic conditions throughout the United States. What brought Washington into the pursuit of climatology was a supposed connection between weather conditions and certain diseases, a connection that assumed military importance during the War of 1812. In 1814 the appalling amount of sickness among the soldiers in the northern states bordering Canada led Dr. James Tilton, chief medical officer of the United States Army, to order hospital surgeons at military posts throughout the country to keep a “diary of the weather, together with an account of the medical topography of the country in which he serves, and [to] report to the commanding officer every circumstance tending to restore or preserve the health of the troops.”

Implementing Tilton’s order was difficult during the chaos surrounding the end of the war. It was not until 1820 that enough summaries had been received to permit the compilation of means and extremes for public distribution. Reports came in from points as remote as Fernandina in Florida and Fort Snelling in Minnesota. An 1831 report from Fort Crawford, Wisconsin, suggests a real if indirect connection between the weather and prevailing indispositions: “mean depth of snow during Quarter [Jan.Mar.] about 36 inches, principally falling between 4 o’clock P.M. and 7 A.M. —Season healthy—Diseases mild—complaints, most caused by Whiskey —symptoms, obstinance, vexations, and extreme subject to relapse—treatment various, but ineffectual.”

Twenty years later Gen. S. M. Baird reported glumly from his post in New Mexico: “Meteorology.—I have no observations of this character, more than, in the spring there are terrible winds, and in the summer terrible hails, and during the winter, in the mountains, terrible snows, and take it altogether, it is a terrible dry country.”

Between 1817 and 1822 the military records were supplemented by weather observations collected through the General Land Office of the United States by its director Josiah Meigs. By 1820 enough data were flowing in so that newspapers across the country could publish a table of means and extremes for points westward to the Mississippi Valley. With the Army weather reports—many from frontier posts located well beyond sizable settlements—these figures allowed the American people to appreciate for the first time the great variety of climatic conditions prevailing across their expanding nation.

Some states also collected weather information. The regents of the University of New York in 1825 offered to supply each of the state’s private academies with a thermometer and a rain gauge for keeping weather records. Library funds were ordered withheld from schools that chose not to take part. Eventually sixty-two institutions were participating, and the results were published in the Annual Report of the State Board of Regents .

The most ambitious undertaking to collect and study weather reports from all parts of the country centered in the Smithsonian Institution. Professor Joseph Henry of Princeton, a physicist, assumed direction of the newly created organization in December 1846. Among his first objectives was to establish a “system of extended meteorological observations for solving the problem of American storms.” Circulars were distributed by congressmen in their districts offering the loan of instruments to scientifically minded civilians. The first returns were received in March 1849, and by the end of 1851, there were 155 observers taking part.

From 1851 to 1854 Henry employed Lorin Blodget to aid in compiling and analyzing the data received in Washington. But Henry had misgivings about his subordinate’s scientific competence and was disturbed when Blodget began to publish maps made from the Smithsonian data under his own name. Dismissed in 1854, Blodget used his newfound leisure to write his book Climatology . It won immediate acclaim and a wide readership because its numerous maps displayed the climatic patterns of the nation in a clear and comprehensible form. “Isothermal” maps—essentially contour maps of average temperatures—showed graphically just how little correlation existed between lines of latitude and climate.

Many of the isothermal maps in Climatology were technically faulty, and many were drawn from insufficient data, but they had a wide influence. Their implication, for example, that lands on the Canadian prairie might be warmer and more hospitable than people had thought made Blodget, one historian has argued, “one of the actual openers of the Northwest to settlement.” Politicians in the 185Os debating the extension of slavery in the United States drew on the newly fashionable vocabulary of climatology to argue whether “isothermal laws” would prevent the northward spread of plantation agriculture, thought to be suitable only for. warm regions.

During the years just preceding the Civil War, the meteorologist William Ferrel outlined principles governing the global pattern of winds and climates that are still accepted today. With the coming of the war, in 1861, however, the organized collection of data in the South largely ceased. The importance of the weather to military operations did bring forth such individuals as Francis L. Capen, a self-styled “certified practical meteorologist and expert in computing the changes in the weather.” In 1863 he wrote Abraham Lincoln that “thousands of lives and millions of dollars may be saved by the application of science to War.” Lincoln later summed up their encounter in a memorandum: “He told me three days ago that it could not rain again till the 30th of April or 1st of May. It is raining now [April 28] & has been for ten hours. I can not spare any more time to Mr. Capen.”

The postwar years finally saw the establishment of a national weather service with observing and forecasting missions. The catalyst was the weather itself, in the form of a series of destructive storms that swept the Great Lakes region and the Northeast coast in November 1869. A resolution for a weather service passed Congress in February 1870 and received President Grant’s approval. The task of organization went to the U.S. Army Signal Service because of its experience in communications, so vital to the quick relay of weather information. A number of people protested putting a scientific enterprise under military control, but the Signal Service moved quickly, opening offices in the major shipping cities on the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts, as well as along the shores of the Great Lakes.

Forecasts for one or two days in advance were issued at Washington under the direction of Professor Cleveland Abbe, former head of the Cincinnati Observatory, who became known affectionately as “Old Probabilities,” or “Old Probs” for short. The opponents of military control kept a sharply critical eye on the new weather service, and eventually even the director of the service, the Arctic explorer and hero Maj. Gen. Adolphus Washington Greely, advocated converting it into a civilian agency. In 1891 the United States Weather Bureau, operating under the Department of Agriculture, took over all the weatherrelated functions of the Signal Service. With the establishment of a large network of cooperative citizens during the 189Os, practically every county in the United States had a volunteer who made standard observations of local temperature and precipitation data so that truly national climate maps could be constructed.

Meteorology in our century has built on the achievements of the past to gain an unprecedented grasp of the workings of the atmosphere. Its heroes have been less the colorful innovators of earlier days than the new technologies that have broadened and elevated the weather observer’s horizon.

The limitation of meteorological measurements to a two-dimensional plane seriously restricted any study of storm movement and weather forecasting at the outset of the twentieth century. A platform capable of raising instruments for sensing temperature, humidity, and wind conditions of the upper air, and a means of transmitting their readings automatically to a ground observer, were needed in order for data to arrive soon enough to be useful in making a current forecast.


By means of small balloons that could be sent aloft and tracked by a theodolite on the ground, the speed and direction of wind currents in the lower atmosphere were easily calculated. The development of larger and more durable balloons allowed flights up to an altitude of one hundred thousand feet. Instruments attached to the balloons recorded upper-air conditions, but the lack of an instantaneous communication system made them useless for immediate forecasting.

A technical breakthrough came with the invention and perfection of the vacuum tube, so that wireless communication could be established between the balloon-borne instruments and the weather observer on the ground. During the 1930s small packages containing lightweight instruments and radio transmitters, which could be carried aloft by balloons, were perfected and produced on a mass scale. By 1940 a number of upper-air sounding stations were in operation along the airways, sending twicedaily flights of radiosondes, as the combined package was called, to measure temperature, humidity, and pressure conditions aloft. The third dimension of the atmosphere had been conquered.

The weather observer’s ability to actually see beyond the horizon became a reality in the 1940s with the perfection of radar. Practical radars were originally developed from efforts to track lightning discharges by electrical triangulation, and by 1940 it was known that raindrops would reflect radar beams, meaning that it was possible to see falling precipitation and storm formations at a distance of about two hundred and fifty miles beyond the horizon. The uses of radar have increased steadily, and today the Doppler radar makes possible the detection of wind shear and turbulent downbursts so dangerous to landing aircraft.

Despite the enormous growth in the number of weather stations and the expansion of communication facilities, observations of surface weather conditions in 1960 were available from only about one-fifth of the world’s land and water surfaces. The uncovered areas lay mostly over the oceans, where tropical storms went undetected until they neared land or crossed a shipping lane. The development of rocketry after World War Il and the improvements in television and transitors enabled a “seeing-eye” camera to be carried aloft and launched into orbit, and the first successful weather satellite went to work on April 1, 1960. The TIROS series (Television Infrared Observation Satellite) was followed by much more sophisticated space vehicles. Placed over the equator in stationary orbit, these probes provide almost complete global coverage of existing weather conditions. Now the weather observer can literally see around the world.

Other technologies have also extended our reach. SODAR (Sound Detection and Ranging) is a sounding technique employed to measure cloud heights, temperature variations at various levels, and wind movement in the lower atmosphere. LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) utilizes laser beams to gauge visibility and cloud height from automatic weather stations placed in remote areas on land and sea. But the most important technical breakthrough for weather forecasting came with the development of the electronic computer, which can produce a prediction by receiving a mathematical model of a current weather pattern and projecting it into the future.

Meteorologists can now boast that their predictions are on target about 80 percent of the time. Their performance should improve even further as we draw closer to a full understanding of the vast atmosphere that makes life possible on our planet. But no conceivable future will spare us the caprices and buffetings that the first settlers complained about in their letters home.

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