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arrow Stories and Tales of the Weather Service
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Table of Contents
  Evolution to the Signal Service Years (1600 - 1891)
  Professor Cleveland Abbe
  Isaac M. Cline
  H. B. Boyer
  D. G. Benson
  Henry Calver
  Ford A. Carpenter
  Norman B. Conger
  Henry J. Cox
  John P. Finley
  H. C. Frankenfield 
  Glynn Gardner
  John S. Hazen
  C. F. von Herrmann
  J. W. Smith
  Richard H. Sullivan
  Wilford M. Wilson

Signal service years


In 1870, the United States was attempting to recover from the most devastating war in the history of the country. The Civil War remained fresh in the minds of the U.S. citizens, especially in the ruins of the Confederacy, where reconstruction was drawing to a close. Ulysses S. Grant was President and most of the country's population was concentrated in the northeast from Chicago to New York.

During the 1870's, American Indians were still creating havoc in parts of the country and cowboys wore guns in the wild west. The country was beginning to expand to the west and it was becoming more united in the east.

Following the Civil War, the Army began a process of systematic reduction as the budget was slashed from about $80 million in 1869 to $57 million in 1870 to $40 million in 1871. During this time, the size of the Army was reduced to discharging "indifferent soldiers," and raising the qualifying standards for recruits.

It was in this environment that a Joint Resolution was unceremoniously passed on February 2, 1870, and signed by President Grant on February 9th, authorizing "the Secretary of War to take observations at military stations and to warn of storms on the Great Lakes and on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts." With this modest beginning, an agency was born under the Signal Service which would become one of the more popular and well known federal agencies. Later names of this agency would be "Weather Bureau" and "National Weather Service."

Today, the National Weather Service is poised on a massive modernization and associated restructuring which will forever alter the way in which its employees perform their jobs. To perceive the future requires that we understand our roots. The success of the agency through the years has been the result of the dedication and motivation of its people, and this will be especially true in the modernized National Weather Service.

This document will attempt to describe life in the Signal Service from 1870 through 1890 as viewed by early employees. In 1922, a Weather Bureau employee named Henry E. Williams, recognizing that early Signal Service employees were coming to the end of their lives, asked selected weather pioneers to document their impressions of the Signal Service years. Approximately 30 people responded.

Unfortunately, it appears that the personal perspectives of the Signal Service employees were never published, and their stories eventually became lost in the mountains of material at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Research into the history of the National Weather Service (for the Celebration of American Weather Services) uncovered this vast resource of material and, although almost 70 years late, it seemed fitting to finally publish the testimonies.

This publication is comprised of two broad sections. The first section contains basic information regarding the advancement of meteorology from the settling of the U.S. to the formation of the Signal Service in 1870. This historical information is provided to give the reader an understanding of the culmination of events which eventually led to the formation of the weather service within the War Department. The first section also broadly describes conditions in the Signal Service from 1870 to 1890 to "set the stage" for the weather pioneers' own stories which follow.

To obtain a "feel" for government policies and conditions during the late 1800s, considerable reliance was placed on Annual Reports of the Secretary of War from 1870 through 1890. Personal stories of the pioneers also provide considerable insight.

Most of the material was collected from the National Archives; however, the testimonies by Cleveland Abbe and Isaac M. Cline were taken from their books (see the Bibliography). Text provided by the pioneers was not modified except in those rare instances to improve clarity. Since writing and punctuation during the late 1800s was different from current versions, several readings may be required of a few sections. The editorial philosophy was not to make significant text changes which might alter meanings. Editorial explanations are placed in brackets.

Approximately 30 percent of available material is included in this document. The question then arises as to what should be published. The basic philosophy was to include that material which would provide a historical and personal view of the beginning of the National Weather Service, as well as provide an understanding of operational meteorology of the time. The story is told through the eyes of different individuals which may result in contradictions and discrepancies. Since in many instances the "absolute" truth may not be known, discretion will be left to the reader.

It is hoped this publication will provide an insight into the personal side of the Signal Service over 120 years ago. Life as a forecaster or observer during that time was exciting and challenging. It also was dangerous as witnessed by the experiences of Isaac Cline in Abilene, Texas, during cowboy gunfights and the experiences of C.F. von Herrmann in Arizona. As the National Weather Service moves into operations of the modernized era, it is appropriate to remember the Signal Service pioneers which began the rich heritage of this great agency.


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Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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