HISTORICAL OVERVIEW OF METEOROLOGY IN AMERICA
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.[1]

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."[2]

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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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
That feed on their velocity,
And little whirls have lesser whirls
And so on to viscosity.


See also: Table 1: Periodization of the History of Meteorology in the United States
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