A general overview of the history of meteorology
in the United States (see Table 1), reveals four major periods
from colonial times to the present: (1) The colonial and early
national period of isolated, individual diarists before 1814;
(2) the period of expanding observational systems between 1814
and 1874; (3) an era characterized by government service under
the U.S. Army Signal Office and the Department of Agriculture,
1870-1920; and (4) the current disciplinary and professional period
which began in the 1920s and continues today.|
Before 1814 individual diarists, typically without adequate instruments or means of intercommunication, were limited to their personal first-hand impressions and their literal line-of-sight horizon -- a few miles at best. Their contribution to meteorological science consisted primarily of their more or less reliable long term record of the climate in their locale. Americans speculating on matters meteorological could claim no serious attention from European savants. Without observational standards or institutions to coordinate and support their research, individual observers and theorists were literally voices crying in the wilderness.
During the second period, American meteorology
emerged as a large-scale, organized activity with peculiar theoretical
problems. Between 1814 and 1825, the Army Medical Department,
the General Land Office, the Academies in the State of New York,
and a group of college professors in New England established limited,
predominantly climatological observing programs. Outstanding
questions in meteorology during this period included illustrating
the origin of disease, testing the influence of the moon, checking
for changes in the climate, and providing standard barometric
height surveys for canals and railroads. Some of these topics,
by twentieth-century standards, seem far removed from meteorology
today -- yet every generation produces its own scientific mix.
Between 1834 and 1859, center stage was occupied by the American storm controversy. Competing theories were developed by three prominent scientists: William Redfield, Espy, and Robert Hare. Hotly debated issues included the cause of storms, their phenomenology, and the proper methodology for investigating them. While it came to no clear intellectual resolution, the storm controversy stimulated the development of an observational "meteorological crusade" by the American Philosophical Society, the Franklin Institute, the Army Medical Department, the Navy Department, and the Smithsonian Institution which transformed meteorological theory and practice.
The Smithsonian meteorological project, begun
in response to the storm controversy and organized on the pattern
established by the Joint Committee on Meteorology of the American
Philosophical Society and the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia,
grew from 150 observers in 1850 to over 600 by 1860. At its greatest
extent, Smithsonian observers reached to the west coast, into
Canada, Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean. The Smithsonian
project provided standardized instruments, uniform procedures,
free publications, and a sense of scientific unity which extended
beyond the normal reach of colleges and local scholarly societies.
Data compilations shifted from private diaries to published volumes;
from local series lasting several years to more universal collections
spanning the continent and the century. It was America's "grand
meteorological crusade," similar in zeal and scope to the
British magnetic crusade. The Smithsonian meteorological project
formed a "seedbed" for the continued growth of theories
rooted in data. To increase knowledge of the atmosphere
it sponsored original research on storms, climatic change, and
phenology; to diffuse knowledge it published and distributed
reports and translations. The practical tasks of exploring, describing,
and mapping the continent for science fell naturally to institutions
like the Smithsonian. In addition, the secretary of the Smithsonian,
Joseph Henry, established cooperative programs with the telegraph
companies, the Navy Department, the states of New York and Massachusetts,
the Canadian Government, the Coast Survey, the Army Engineers,
the Patent Office, and the Department of Agriculture.
After 1865, the war-damaged Smithsonian system
was gradually rebuilt, but it never recovered its antebellum significance
or reputation. Congressional legislation created a federal storm-warning
service in 1870 under the U.S. Army Signal Office. This system
subsumed all others by 1874, signaling the end of the era dominated
by volunteer observers. While the Smithsonian spent about $4,000
per annum on its meteorological project, the Signal Office budget
for storm warnings soon topped $400,000 per year. By the end
of the decade the observational horizons of meteorology had reached
the world-wide level, and the Signal Office began to publish an
International Bulletin of Simultaneous Observations. This
represented surprisingly "big" science in the nineteenth
century. The center of meteorological theory (however much there
was) was located in a small "study room" run by Cleveland
Abbe in the Signal Office. A. Hunter Dupree refers to this period
in general as "the decline of science in the military services."
In 1891, the link between meteorology and
agriculture -- always rather strong -- was formalized when the
Signal Office relinquished its work to the U.S. Weather Bureau
of the Department of Agriculture. Soon the budget for governmental
meteorological services topped $1,000,000. Although the Weather
Bureau employed 1000 individuals in 1897, and 2,051 by 1912, they
were not meteorologists as we would think of them today:
they were paid station attendants whose duties included reading
the instruments, launching balloons and wiring data to Washington.
Their training was primarily "on the job" with the
exception of a six to ten week training session to teach them
the mechanics of observing and maintaining station instruments.
In general, the period from 1870 to about 1930 was dominated
by government service in meteorology
The current, "disciplinary" period
of growth in the atmospheric sciences began rather late compared
to parallel developments in other sciences. University and graduate
education, well-defined career paths, and specialized societies
and journals all began in the 1920s. Indeed, anyone planning
to write a disciplinary history of meteorology in the
United States would be wise to begin with this fourth period of
history. By 1920 Vilhelm Bjerknes' program to establish the theoretical
basis of dynamic meteorology using the equations of hydrodynamics
and thermodynamics had attracted considerable international attention
and agreement. His model of atmospheric change, however, was
limited by the availability of only surface observational
data in Norway during World War I. Information on the vertical
structure of the atmosphere allowed his son Jacob to extend the
model to include the dynamics of an inclined surface of discontinuity
separating two distinct air masses, the front.
These developments provided meteorologists
with a three dimensional model which could be used to impose a
semblance of order on the amorphous (and huge) collections of
data. Although the Bergen School was slow to gain acceptance
in the United States, it was becoming clear that prediction
of future atmospheric configurations was now theoretically possible
by integrating the time-dependent equations of atmospheric motion
given suitable boundary conditions. The advent of electronic
computers allowed scientists to experiment with mathematical models
of the atmosphere and to compare their results with observations.
The efforts of meteorologists over the past
seven decades have gone largely toward solving the big
problem of atmospheric dynamics. Problems, subject matter, approaches,
techniques, methods and instruments define the modern subdisciplines
of the atmospheric sciences, viz. Cloud Physics, Atmospheric
Chemistry, Geophysical Fluid Dynamics, Atmospheric Radiation,
Tropical Meteorology, etc. The dynamic modelers, using results
from all of the sub-specialties claim the theoretical high ground
by claiming to deal with the big picture of global circulation
and climate. Those building new instruments, investigating particular
phenomena, and administering observational networks counter by
reminding the modelers that their computer printouts may or may
not resemble the "real atmosphere."
Modelers and measurers, however, find common
ground in the large global measuring and modeling projects such
as the Global Atmospheric Research Programme (GARP), a series
of international cooperative experiments designed to collect data
on the interaction of small, medium, and large-scale atmospheric
phenomena with the aim of improving both forecasting and our understanding
of the physics of the atmosphere. The (ultimate?) goal of such
activities is to measure (or should I say monitor) all of the
world's weather through direct and remote sensing, feed the data
as quickly as possible (instantaneously?) into computers running
the most comprehensive atmospheric models, gain deeper understanding
of the complex interactions in the atmosphere, and issue the best
possible short- and long-range forecasts.
Through the broadcast and print media, the
products of the modern atmospheric sciences reach more people
on a daily basis than any other science. While some local forecasts
may fall short of complete accuracy, images of the weather generated
by satellite photographs and radar networks are familiar to almost
everyone. Moreover, recent social concerns such as acid rain,
desertification, and inadvertent climate modification (by increases
in CO2, decreases in ozone, or smoke from fires ignited by nuclear
explosions) have placed the atmospheric sciences at the focus
of national and international attention.
The development of atomic weapons and nuclear energy thrust the community of nuclear physicists into the limelight in the 1940s and 50s. The launch of earth satellites and the manned space program has had a similar effect on astronomers and space scientists since the late 1950s. In both cases there was a noticeable and widespread surge of interest in the scientific specialty itself and its history. With issues of air pollution and global atmospheric change foremost in today's headlines, the meteorological community needs and deserves to know more about its rich heritage. It is a necessary step in the maturation of a scientific discipline and interesting as well to a growing number of non-specialists.
1 For details see James Rodger Fleming, Meteorology in America, 1800-1870 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1990).
2 A. Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1957), ch ix.
3 Margaret Rossiter, "The Organization of the Agricultural Sciences," in A. Oleson and J. Voss, eds., The Organization of Knowledge in Modern America, 1860-1920 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1979), .p.218, Table 2.
4 But it was not until well into the 1950's that significant numbers of meteorologists had been trained in Ph.D. programs. J.B. Macelwane, "A Survey of Meteorological Education in the United States and Canada," Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 33 (1952): 53-55, reports that in the academic year 1949-50 there were only 17 Ph.D. degrees granted at four U.S. institutions: NYU (8), MIT (7), Penn State (1), and UCLA (1). The first academic departments were those at MIT (1929-30) and Penn State (1935).
5 Robert Mark Friedman, "Constituting the Polar Front, 1919-20," Isis 73 (1982): 343-62.
6 But oh those boundary conditions! Fronts are not isolated from cyclones, nor are cyclones from anti-cyclones, and North American weather is only part of a larger system of global atmospheric circulation. Furthermore, friction, among other variables, has not been included mathematically. Thus the limerick of L.F. Richardson, the first author to advocate numerical weather prediction:
Big whirls have little whirls