We take many things for granted, including weather forecasts. With the quickly changing elements in New Hampshire, there have been
times I’ve felt badly for our local meteorologists. How can they possibly predict conditions that change from minute to minute. And why the heck do they call them that anyway–meteorologists? Is it because they particularly good at predicting when large objects “impact” our state? (Just a little weather humor here!)
The Weather Channel has over 110 professional meteorologists (aka weather persons). Does having more make them better at forecasting? Can we foretell the weather better than we did say 100 years ago? I decided to investigate how weather has been foretold in New Hampshire.
I came across the following story, in the newspaper, Farmer’s Cabinet, of Amherst NH (Issue 10, page 1), dated Tuesday, September 10, 1878:
How the Weather is Fortold (sic)
In former times the chief herald of the weather was the almanac, which ambitiously prophesied a whole year of cold and heat, wet and dry, dividing up the weather quite impartially, if not always correctly.
But the almanac, good as it was now and then, and the weather-wise farmers, correct as sometimes they might have been, were not always able to impart exact information to the country; and they have been thrown quite into the shade of late by one who is popularly known under the somewhat disrespectful title of “Old Prob,” or “Old Probabilities.” He has become the Herald of the Weather to the sailor near the rocky dangerous coasts; to the farmer watching his crops, and waiting for good days to store them; to the traveler anxious to pursue his journey under fair skies; and to the girls and boys who want to know before they start to the woods for a picnic what are the “probabilities” as to rain.
Every one who reads the daily papers is familiar with the “Weather Record,” issued from the “War Department, office of the Chief Signal Officer,” at Washington. These reports give a general statement of what the weather has been for the past twenty-four hours all over the country, from Maine to California, and from the Lakes to the South Atlantic States; and then the “probabilities” for the next twenty-four hours over the same broad territory. The annual reports of the Chief Signal Officer show that only in comparatively few instances do these daily predictions fail of fulfillment.
The reason these prophecies are so true is simple and yet wonderful. The weather itself tells the observer what the weather is going to do, some time in advance, and the telegraph sends the news all over the country from the central signal office at Washington.
We shall see presently how the weather interprets itself to “Old Probabilities.” Although it has proved such a fruitful subject of discourse in all ages, yet I am afraid many people who pass remarks upon it do not really think what the weather is made of. Let us examine its different clements.
The atmosphere has weight, just as water or any other fluid, although it seems to be perfectly bodiless. We must comprehend that the transparent, invisible air is pressing inward toward the centre of the earth. This pressure varies according to the stare of weather, and the changes are indicated by an instrument called a barometer. Generally speaking, the falling of the mercury in the tube of the barometer indicates rain, and its rise indicates fair weather. Sometimes the rise is followed by cold winds, frost and ice. What these changes really indicate, however, can be determined only by comparing the barometric changes at certain hours, in a number of places very far apart. This is done by the Signal Service. Observations are made at about one hundred and forty stations, in different portions of the country, at given hours, and the results are telegraphed at once to Washington, where our faithful “weather clerk,” receives them, reasoning that from them the “probabilities” which he publishes three times in every twenty-four hours.
But the atmosphere varies not only in weight but also in temperature. The thermometer tells us of such changes.
Besides this, the air contains a great amount of moisture, and it shows as much variation in this characteristic as in the others. For the purpose of making known the changes in the moisture of the atmosphere, an instrument has been invented called the “web bulb,” thermometer.
We are thus enabled to ascertain the weight of pressure, the temperature and the wetness of the air, and now it only remains for us to measure the force and point out the direction of the wind. This is done by the familiar weather vane and anemometer. The vane shows the direction, and the anemometer is an instrument which indicates the velocity of the wind.
It is all by a right of superior understanding of all these instruments that the signal service officer is enabled to tell what the weather says of itself; for they are the pens with which the weather writes out the facts from which the officer makes up his reports for the benefit of all concerned. Thus however wildly and blindly the storm may seem to come, it sends messengers telling just where it arose, what course it will take, and how far it will extend. But it tells its secrets to those only who pay strict attention.–St Nicholas. [also same 11 July 1878 NH Sentinel (Keene NH) issue 28, page 1
I have to admit I was surprised to hear about a “Weather Record” during that time period (thinking the Old Farmer’s Almanac was all New England folks had) and that it was issued by the War Department. It would seem that this method of gathering information from around the country would make almost more sense than my dear Dad’s weather rock predictor (you know, where a white rock means it has snowed, a wet one means it is or has recently rained.)
On February 9th, 1870 President Ulysses Grant signed into law a Joint Congressional Resolution requiring the Secretary of War to establish a weather service. The book “The Leisure Hour, Volume 44, by W. H. Miller, James Macaulay and William Stevens, page 699 states that this “summit-station” occupied for meteorological purposes, on Mt. Washington was established in 1870 was “one of the earliest, if not the first” of its kind. In addition to research and development in communications, the Signal Corps also “operated national weather observation system between 1870-90.”
On further reading I discovered that the War Department insured that”Signal Officers” were posted in locations that were considered strategic to observe the weather. It would make good sense that
someone would be appointed to sit atop Mount Washington, despite the horrible winter weather conditions to be endured. In February of 1872, Private William Stevens, an assistant at the station atop Mount Washington was “caught in a blizzard on the mountain and perished.” (The reports from the Chicago and Mount Washington stations are published in ARSO, 1872, pp. 17-20 and 47-48, respectively). The web site at the Mount Washington Observatory, however, states his death is of natural causes. The published report of the Chief Signal officer in 1872, stating he died of an “illness” on February 26, 1872 and is buried at Littleton NH. A Union veteran burial card is available for him, listing as follows: “Stevens, William, Sergt., Signal Services. Cemetery: Glenwood, Littleton, Grafton Co. NH. Date of death 27 Feb 1872. Headstone supplied by W. H. & F.S. Gross, Lee, Mass 28 Sep 1886. It appears by the records of the Signal Corp. that Mr. Benjamin Kilbourn and other citizens of Littleton assisted “during the year, especially in connection with the illness and burial of Private Stevens.” The book, “Mount Washington, A Handbook for Travelers by G.H. Ellis Company, published in 1904 states “Of all these the saddest was the experience of Sergeant Hearne, whose assistant, William Stevens, died of paralysis, February 26, 1872. ‘For a day and two nights,’ writes Sergeant Hearne in the journal of the station, “I was alone with his dead body, as no one could come up on account of the hurricane and cold. I look years older than when it occurred.”
It appears that the Signal Corps used the depot building of the Mountain Washington Railroad Company. “All attempts to obtain permission to erect a separate building for Government use have failed through the inability of the office to find any one person possessing an undisputed title to the summit.” On 18 June 1908 all the buildings, including the Signal Station, and with the exception of the original Tip Top House were destroyed by fire.
Many aspects of the weather were collected from throughout the country, with the information sent by telegraph to a central location to be analyzed. A weather map was created and then weather
predictions disseminated back to various points. Then in 1890 the Signal Corp’s weather duties ended when the U.S. Weather Bureau was established in the Department of Agriculture by an act of October 1, 1890 (26 Stat. 653) when President Benjamin Harrison signed it. “Provided basic weather service in support of federal agencies and the general public, including weather forecasting and collecting, and disseminating temperature, rainfall, and climatic data for the United States.”
The official Mt. Washington Observatory web site states:
“In 1932, four men pioneered the Mount Washington Observatory, which has since kept a daily record of the summit’s ever-changing weather.” And just so that it is not assumed that the U.S. Signal Corp. were the first to make climate observation in the United States, let it be known that the Smithsonian Institution performed meteorological functions from 1847-70, however lacked funding and so their progress was slow.
Annual Report of the Chief Signal-Officer to the Secretary of War (assorted years)
Regulations for United States military telegraph lines, U.S. signal corps (1909)
Daily Bulletin of Weather-Reports, Synopses, Probabilities And Facts, for the month of March 1873; Washington, Government Printing Office