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The History of the Weather Service Forecast

February 19, 1946, was the 75th anniversary of the first regularly published weather forecast by the National Weather Service. The first forecasts, the publication of which began February 19, 1871, were called "probabilities" and were made three times daily for such elements and periods in advance as seemed warranted by the maps, and for eight geographical districts. In 1874 they began to be made for eleven districts and for four elements -- state of weather, wind, pressure, and temperature.



early photo of the weather bureau building in washington dc, 1912
The United States Weather Bureau Building in Washington, D.C. Frontispiece of "Meteorology" by Willis Milham, 1912


No material change was made in the method of issuing "probabilities" until 1885 when predictions were made for 32 hours in advance, and beginning with May 1886, they were made for States and parts of States instead of districts. In July 1888, the period covered was extended to 36 hours in advance, and beginning August 1, 1898, forecasts based on the evening reports were regularly made for 48 hours.

The term "probabilities" was changed to "indications" on December 1, 1876, and was again changed to "forecasts" on April 1, 1889, which term is still in use.

Official weather forecasts were made only at the Central Office in Washington until 1881. In that year and during part of 1882 the observer at New York was permitted to make and publish local forecasts. It was not until 1890, however, that the system of local forecasts began to be extended with the assignment of forecasters to St. Paul, Minn., and San Francisco, Calif., and the system of establishing district forecast centers was begun in 1894 when Chicago, Ill., was so designated.

It is pertinent to relate at this point that while the national meteorological service was under the Signal Service, later the Signal Corps of the Army, the work of observation and general administration was placed in the hands of the officers and enlisted men, but that the higher technical work, including weather forecasting, from the beginning was directed and performed in large measure by civilians, at the head of whom was Prof. Cleveland Abbe.

In 1890 the commerce, agriculture, and navigation interests of the country prevailed upon the Congress to set up a new organization under the Department of Agriculture, with a civilian scientific status and it is of historical interest to conclude this article by quoting the last paragraph of comments of General Greely on the eve of the transfer out of military status on June 30, 1891: (From signal Office, General Orders No. 25).

"In parting from the civil employees the Chief Signal Officer feels assured that the new chief in another department will receive from them the same loyal, faithful, and efficient service they have rendered the Government while serving under his orders. The scientific staff have in view important additional duties looking to the extension of the Weather Service in the interests of agriculture and still further development of the science of meteorology. The Chief Signal Officer will follow with deep interest the development along scientific lines of weather forecasting and the application of meteorology to agriculture, on which grounds this liberal reorganization of the Weather Bureau was planned and carried out."

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