WeatherWhys Blog

The history of American weather technology

The history of American weather technology
Explorer Meriwether Lewis is seen in a image taken from the National Park Service.

How important is the weather? From earliest civilization, farming has been completely dependent upon adequate amounts of rainfall and sunshine, a lack of freezing temperatures together with conditions that limited pests. Travel across great oceans from ancient time has also depended upon favorable winds and a minimum of storminess to guarantee success. Agriculture and commerce have indeed bowed to the whims of weather at every step of the way from the start.

While various innovations of science were ongoing in renaissance Europe, the new world beckoned as a potential proving ground for technological advancement born out of necessity and opportunity. A prominent American colonist and perhaps the most famous pioneer to blaze new scientific trails was Benjamin Franklin. His iconic kite experiment has forever installed this man into the American persona for ingenuity and insight. The inestimable Thomas Jefferson noted that on Thursday July 4, 1776 the high temperature in Philadelphia was 76 degrees, as it should have been. He also forged the concept of simultaneous weather observations being taken in a region, and instructed Lewis and Clark to mindfully note weather conditions as part of their Corps of Discovery with instrumental measurements. George Washington took regular weather observations, right up until the day before he died.

In the post-Civil War era, President Ulysses Grant signed a congressional joint resolution on February 9, 1870 that authorized 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." It was the birth of what would become the Weather Bureau and ultimately the National Weather Service. On the morning of Tuesday November 1, 1870, the first regular weather observations were taken by “observer sergeants” at 24 locations across the US and transmitted via telegraph to Washington DC as part of the new Signal Corps. That routine practice has continued, unabated, to this day.

In his brilliant piece detailing the origins of the National Weather Service, Gary Grice writes that “the Signal Service's field stations grew in number from 24 in 1870 to 284 in 1878. Three times a day (usually 7:35 a.m., 4:35 p.m., and 11:35 p.m.), each station telegraphed an observation to Washington, D.C. These observations consisted of: barometric pressure and its change since the last report, temperature and its 24-hour change, relative humidity, wind velocity, pressure of the wind in pounds per square foot, amount of clouds, and state of the weather.At Washington, D.C., forecasts were made from the telegraph reports. The forecasts subsequently were distributed back to the observers, to railroad stations and to available news media.”

His entire documentary is available at http://www.nws.noaa.gov/pa/history/evolution.php
There is a rich history of weather technology and its milestones through the past 200 years. The military foundation of weather observing and forecasting became civilian on October 1, 1890 with the birth of the US Weather Bureau as part of the Department of Agriculture. In 1898, President McKinley directed a hurricane warning network be established for the West Indies. Upper atmosphere research, utilizing aircraft, was first conducted in 1904. The first weather balloon program began in 1909. By 1917, Norwegian meteorologists developed air mass concepts which later expanded into the synoptic features that are commonly understood and used today. The American Meteorological Society was founded in 1919, a professional organization of like-minded scientists.

In 1928, teletype machines replaced telegraph and telephone communication of weather information. Routine upper air observations by aircraft were standardized in 1931, replacing Kite Stations. But only 6 years later, in 1937, the first official Radiosonde program of comprehensive upper air balloon reports was established, ending the domestic aircraft observation program. A progenitor of the National Hurricane Center opened in 1935. The Weather Bureau was transferred to the Department of Commerce in 1940 and as World War II escalated, a Central Analysis Center opened in Washington coordinating upper air analyses for wartime purposes. Dr. Helmut Landsberg writes “Physical Climatology”. In 1948, the first facsimile machine transmission of weather maps took place. Also in 1948, the first tornado warnings are issued at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma. Then, in 1951, the Air Force opens the initial Severe Weather Warning Center in Oklahoma City.

By 1954, the first regular numerical weather prediction products were being issued twice a day from a joint unit of the Weather Bureau, military and academia located in Suitland, MD. The next year, the Weather Bureau becomes a pioneer agency for use of computers. That year also saw the dawn of radar meteorology with introduction of the venerable CPS-9, a radar that was dedicated to storm detection- a new use for radar. A workhorse of the Weather Bureau, the WSR-57, was commissioned and deployed as part of the first nationwide radar network five years later. In 1958 the National Meteorological Center opened and two years later TIROS-1, the first weather satellite, was launched from Cape Canaveral, FL.

In 1970, the Environmental Satellite Services Administration (ESSA) becomes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Also that year, the US Weather Bureau becomes the National Weather Service.

The first geostationary satellite, GOES, was placed in orbit in 1975. While initial Doppler weather radar research was underway in 1958, by 1976 Doppler radar was being used in a limited capacity at a few locations and development was starting that would lead to the future deployment of a Doppler radar network with the model WSR-88D. A grand new modernization program was introduced in 1989. The cost would be $4.5 billion, but by the end of the 20th century the next generation radar network would provide hundreds of new environmental measurements through use of innovative volume scans and myriads of algorithms destined to change the way America observes weather. Also part of the modernization was replacement of manual weather observations in lieu of automated sensors. New satellites, numerical prediction capabilities and the AWIPS communication protocol would blaze a dramatic path into the future.
By 1997 the entire country was covered by the new weather radar system, which was accompanied by the rearrangement of National Weather Service offices. NOAA weather radio extended to most all parts of the country as well with 24-hour weather information.

Throughout the past 50 years private industry played an increasing role in its partnership with government weather entities. The Weather Channel debuted in May of 1982 with a “24-hour weather telethon” that has continued to this day. Accuweather also provides a similar cable station. Recreational tornado chasing became somewhat of a fade following the release of a popular movie, “Twister” in 1996 about storm chasers who meet with the ultimate tornado. Proliferation of portable video cameras also lent to this trend. Seemingly limitless cable channels provided many venues for weather enthusiasts.
Storm warnings and preparedness took on new urgency following a deadly category 5 hurricane named Katrina. In August 2005 it hit New Orleans resulting in the costliest damage ever sustained from weather in the United States. Only the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 claimed more lives. Currently the network of Doppler radars is being upgraded to operate in a “dual polarity” mode which will allow much greater definition to precipitation targets while significantly improving ancillary capabilities such as debris cloud identification aiding in the accuracy and lead time of tornado warnings. 
Without question, the history of weather technology in America is without equal in its scope when compared to any other nation on the earth. Most every modern concept of public service and commercial success in the weather enterprise was envisioned in this country. And we will continue to lead the world with scientific breakthroughs in meteorology for the foreseeable future.