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birth of the national weather service

On February 9, 1950, the National Weather Service reached the age of 80 years. It was on February 9, 1870, that Congress approved a joint resolution creating a weather service as part of the Signal Service (later Signal Corps) of the Army. This undertaking had largely grown out of the efforts of Prof. Cleveland Abbe (1838-1916), who was at that time director of the Cincinnati Observatory. With the assistance of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and the Western Union Telegraph Company, Professor Abbe had in 1869 organized a system of telegraphic weather reports, daily weather maps, and weather forecasts. It was the first undertaking of its kind in America, and was the prototype of the service established the following year by the Federal Government. What has happened to the National Weather Service since is history, but the circumstances of its inception are perhaps less well known. Let Professor Abbe's own words, written only a few months before his death describe these beginnings.

"My boyhood life in New York City has impressed me with the popular ignorance and also with the great need for something better than local lore and weather proverbs. The popular articles in the New York daily papers by Merriam, Espy, Joseph Henry and others -- notably Redfield and Loomis -- had by 1857 convinced me that man could and must overcome our ignorance of the destructive winds rains. It was in the summer of 1857 that I read the beginning of the classic article by William Ferrel in the MATHEMATICAL MONTHLY. I realized that he had overcome many of the hidden difficulties of the theories of storms and winds. From that day he was my guide and authority. During 1859-1864, in the practice and study of astronomy with Brunow at Ann Arbor and Gould at Cambridge, Mass., I was impressed with the unsatisfactory state of our knowledge of atmospheric refraction. Two years later, my experience at Poulkova, Russia, and at our Naval Observatory, Washington, seemed to justify my conclusion that astronomer who would improve their meridional measurements must investigate their local atmospheric conditions more thoroughly, and to this end must have numerous surrounding meteorological observations. In my inaugural address at Cincinnati on May 1, 1868, I stated that with a proper system of weather reports much could be done for the welfare of man, and astronomy also could be benefited.

"This suggestion was taken up by Mr. John Gano, president of the local chamber of commerce; a committee met me, approved my plans and promised the expenses of a first trial. I had the total solar eclipse of August 7, 1869, on my hands, but immediately began to arrange for 40 voluntary meteorological correspondents. On my return from the eclipse at Sioux Falls City I stopped at Chicago and formally invited the Chicago Board of Trade to join in extending the Cincinnati system to the Great Lakes, but this invitation was declined by the Chicago Board of Trade.... I returned at once to Cincinnati, issued the first number of the Cincinnati Weather Bulletin promptly, as promised, on September 1, 1869; it contained only a few observations telegraphed from distant observers and announced "probabilities" for the next day ....

My forecasts were treated very kindly by all. I had anticipated a slow increase in accuracy; I ventured to write my father in New York City; `I have started that which the country will not willingly let die." I wrote a short note to the NEW YORK TIMES (or TRIBUNE) telling them ho useful we could be to their shipping. On September 3, 1869, I even ventured to offer a daily telegram by the French cable to Le Verrier, as founder of the BULLETIN HEBDOMADAIRE DE L'ASSOCIATION SCIENTIFIQUE, and who could fully sympathize with my hopes and plans .... My daily telegram from Milwaukee came from the well-known Smithsonian observer and author Prof. Increase Allen Lapham. He had known and appreciated the works of Espy, Loomis, and others, and although he had become absorbed in other studies he urged the local Milwaukee society to do something for Lake Michigan. His friends were just about to go to the Richmond meeting of the National Board of Trade; there they met William Hopper and John A. Gano. These merchants of Cincinnati found that they had the same idea as H.E. Paine of Milwaukee, i.e., that the Federal Government should develop the Cincinnati enterprise and make it useful to the whole country. The National Board of Trade endorsed this idea; Professor Lapham of Milwaukee drew up some statistics of storms and destructions on the Lakes; the Hon. Halbert E. Paine prepared a bill; each put his shoulders to the wheel, and behold, on February 9, 1870, the Secretary of War was authorized to carry out this new duty.

[Weather Bureau Topics, February 1950]

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