The National Weather Service: 150 years of reporting

A man stands in a rain gage at U.S. Smelting Co. cooperative weather station in Midvale, Utah. Courtesy of NOAA Photo Library

By Mikayla Heiss
BU News Service

An anemometer spun in the wind. Sergeant A.C. Dobbins took note. On this morning, Nov. 1, 1870, the National Weather Service began its first synchronous weather accounts. The ‘stiff breeze’ in Wyoming wouldn’t go unnoticed. “It is provoking to have a chief failing,” The Cheyenne Daily Leader wrote, “breezy atmosphere, heralded to the world so publicly, on this, the first day of the reports being sent out.”

On Feb. 9, 1870, President Ulysses Grant signed a resolution enabling the War Department to observe storms and report them via telegraph and signal. The Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce, now known as the National Weather Service, would prevent countless shipwrecks and property damage. With the help of scientists, army personnel and an enlightened Congressman, the weather division thrived, creating an invaluable public service. 

“The main good, initially, was reducing shipping losses on the Atlantic seaboard and the Great Lakes,” says Dr. Erik Craft, a University of Richmond professor who studied the economic history of the National Weather Service.

An early Signal Service weather map from Sept. 1, 1872. Courtesy of NOAA Photo Library

Professor Increase Lapham, a scientist of the times, recognized the value of a weather service. Dispatching an extensive list of lost ships, lives and property damage, Lapham appealed to Congressman Halbert Paine.

“I take liberty of calling your attention to the accompanying list of disasters to the commerce of our great lakes during the past year,” Lapham wrote to the Wisconsin congressman in December 1869, “and to ask whether its appalling magnitude does not make it 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.”

Paine, who encountered meteorological theories in college, introduced the resolution for the storm-warning system. By the mid-1870s, it had reduced Great Lakes shipping losses by about one million dollars annually, according to Craft.

In its beginning, however, the service didn’t provide forecasts, nor did it display cautionary signals. Tracking the storm’s progress alone acted as a warning to stations in its potential path, according to military reports. 

Maps in the Board of Trade and/or Chamber of Commerce aided in the visualization of storms. Pins held paper communicating numerical information, disks color-coded to the weather conditions and an arrow for wind direction. A New York Times correspondent expressed interest in the visual display, suggesting the image could be furthered by altering the arrow’s length for wind intensity.

The first telegraphed storm warning occurred on Nov. 8, 1870. Ships heeded the warning, sparing a large amount of property damage, The Chicago Tribune reported. However, it was not until October 1871 that a formal cautionary signal system was established. When a red flag with a black square center materialized or a red light illuminated the night sky at offices and other city landmarks, trouble was in the forecast.

Forecasts, which began in early 1871, appeared slightly different than today. A published forecast in The New York Times read, “It is probable that the storm will continue on the lakes…Cloudy and rainy weather is probable for the Atlantic coast.” Out of all forecasts published, 69% were fully verified, according to a governmental report from 1871.

Clocks ticked as the weather reports spread across America. It typically took about 85 minutes before observations reached the press, according to military documents. Sometimes the press waited for reports that would never arrive.

Missing the reports for two days, a citizen implored The New York Times to include the meteorological record in November 1870.

“We publish these reports as often as they reach us, and without any delay,” The Times replied. “Sometimes they are not forwarded from Washington, and then it is not our fault that they are not published.”

The National Weather Service didn’t invent weather reports. The Smithsonian Institution employed the telegraph to forecast the weather in the 1850s, according to Joseph Henry, then secretary of the institution. After the Civil War, telegraph companies refused to send messages for free. The financial burden drew this project to a close. However, the Smithsonian continued collecting weather reports from hundreds of observers.

The Weather Bureau Forecast Office in Washington, D.C., pictured in 1926. Courtesy of NOAA Photo Library

Although the Smithsonian had prior experience, Congress charged a branch of the army, the Signal Service, with weather reporting. Military discipline, valued to deliver promptness and accuracy, made the War Department an appealing candidate, according to a publication by the National Weather Service. Weather observers, operating as a domestic surveillance tool, would later double as spies, reporting worker strikes and conflicts with Native Americans, according to an article by Dr. James Fleming.

In the 1880’s, scandals, including embezzling and a debate about the Signal Service’s autonomy within the army, rattled the weather service. The situation boiled over, and the weather service was transferred to the Department of Agriculture, adopting a new name, the Weather Bureau.

The service made life in the 1800s more bearable. Shipping losses decreased, and a new bond developed among citizens miles apart. Chicago winters, for a Tribune writer, became slightly more bearable in light of the weather records.

“The thermometrical record is of value because it shows that, while it has been cold, and severely so, in Chicago, it has been colder elsewhere,” they wrote. “Though it does not mitigate the cold which we are enduring, our hearts, are, nevertheless, warmed with sympathy for those who are suffering in a more rigorous climate.”

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