Science  /  Origin Story

Storm Patrol

Life as a Signal Corps weatherman was dangerous: besides inclement weather, they faced labor riots, conflicts with Native Americans, yellow fever outbreaks, fires, and more.

Morse’s invention promised to finally help shed light on what Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the newly founded Smithsonian Institution, called in the 1847 annual report the “problem of American Storms.” Henry was referring to an ongoing scientific spat known as the “storm controversy,” which had been raging in the pages of journals for nearly two decades. The argument had arisen between William C. Redfield, a New York businessman, and a prominent meteorologist by the name of James Espy, and it centered on whether the motion of storms—hurricanes, blizzards, thunderstorms—in North America were rotational or centripetal in nature. This seemingly dry, theoretical debate had somehow blown up, generating a surprising amount of contention, ad hominem attacks, and national coverage as meteorologists in both the United States and Europe took sides, but definitive answers remained elusive. Now it seemed that American scientists were at a “peculiarly auspicious” moment to solve not just this but many more of the country’s perplexing weather-related mysteries, wrote Henry’s consultant, Elias Loomis. In presenting Henry’s proposal for a sweeping new meteorological project—a “grand meteorological crusade”—to the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, Loomis laid out the stakes in appropriately life-or-death terms:

If the laws of storms can be discovered, this knowledge must be of the highest importance to mankind, particularly to those who are employed in navigating the sea. If the prevalent character of a season can be anticipated, it would save the husbandman much bitter disappointment from the failure of his crops. If the influence of climate upon disease could be detected, it might add years to mean duration of human life.

The Smithsonian’s weather “crusade” would become the institution’s first major scientific undertaking, and it consisted of two parts. The first involved recruiting the telegraph companies to provide daily, nationwide weather updates. Starting in 1849, instruments were sent out to several offices around the country with a request that operators pause traffic on the lines in the morning to submit brief descriptions of local conditions. A few years later, Henry installed a map in the lobby of the Smithsonian Castle, where the collected information was displayed using a series of color-coded cards and arrows. Any time after 10:00 a.m., members of the public could stroll in and see for the first time “one view of the meteorological condition of the atmosphere over the whole country.”

Published newspaper reports would eventually follow. On May 7, 1857, the Washington Evening Star used the Smithsonian’s data to print what is considered to be the first weather forecast in the United States—although contemporary readers might have trouble recognizing it as one. (“Yesterday, there was a severe storm south of Macon, Ga;” the report read before going on to hedge its bets: “But from the fact that it is still clear this morning at that place and at Wheeling, it is probable that the storm was of local character.”)