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Weather History: Meteorological Agencies in the United States

A History of the Development of the National Weather Service 1753-1891


1847: The First Storm Warnings Are Delivered Via Telegraph

Early Weather Records
NOAA National Weather Service
The invention of the electric telegraph, after institutions and science were well founded, acted as a powerful catalyst, enabling science to be effectively applied to the forecasting of storms and weather.

After the first commercial telegraph line in 1845, William C. Redfield suggested the telegraph might be good for delivering storm warnings. In 1847, the first storm warnings, were delivered via telegraph to Barbadoes, Carlisle Bay from a barometer at Bridgetown.

1848: Newspapers Begin to Carry Weather Reports

Glaisher's Weather Instruments
Treasures of the NOAA Library Collection
After the proliferation of the telegraph, several advances in meteorological reporting to the public were made. Jones & Co., Merchants Exchange, New York City, advertised daily and hourly telegraphic meteorological reports. James Glaisher also started the first telegraphic weather reports for the London Daily News.

1855: First French Telegraphic Weather Service Prompts United States

French Weather Balloons
NOAA National Weather Service (NWS) Collection, St. Louis, Missouri, Photo Date: 1905 Circa
In 1851, telegraphic weather maps were sold at a penny each at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London. Weather reports were published in the ‘Evening Star’ and were exhibited to visitors to the Smithsonian by hanging pieces of colored cards on iron pins fixed on a map.

A storm in the Black Sea on November 14, 1854 during the Crimean War enabled Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier, co-discoverer of the planet Neptune, to procure Emperor Napoleon’s consent for the first national telegraphic weather service, beginning February 17, 1855, in France.

The arrival of the French maps and the beginning of weather services throughout Europe, Turkey, and India inspired Joseph Henry to urge the establishment of an American national weather service.

1869: Cleveland Abbe Forms the Western Meteorological Association

Cleveland Abbe
NOAA 200th Anniversary Celebration
Cleveland Abbe (1838-1916), director of the Cincinnati Astronomical Observatory, organized daily telegraphic reports from cities in the Midwest. Abbe and his friends organized a meteorological society, the Western Meteorological Association on July 20, 1869.

The Civil War also marked an important turning point for the diffusion of meteorological work among many institutions. Originally, several institutions were supported by small budgets due to the financial stress of the war on the Unites States. Later, once the war was over, more money became available for larger and more complex meteorological institutions.

1870 - Part 1: The National Weather Service is Born

Increase A. Lapham
NOAA National Weather Service
Increase A. Lapham (1811-1875), supported a storm warning service for the Great Lakes and sent frequent memorial clippings of maritime casualties such as Disasters on the Lakes to General Halbert E. Paine. Paine was a member of Congress in Milwaukee and read with great interest the losses of sailors and ships on the Great Lakes in the storms of 1868 and 1869.

Due to the humanitarian, economic, and scientific appeal of Lapham to create a national weather service, an Act of Congress was passed on February 9, 1870 and signed by President Ulysses S. Grant directing the Secretary of War to take meteorological observations and give warnings of the approach of storms. This was the birth of the National Weather Service.

1870 - Part 2: The Military Takes Control of the Weather Service

Myer's Weather Inventions
NOAA 200th Anniversary Collection
The military was decided to be the best place to get the required regimental, reliable, and systematic observations of the weather. On February 25, 1870, the Secretary of War assigned this duty to the Signal Service Corps under Brevet Brigadier General Albert J. Myer who later gave the National Weather Service its first name: The Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce.

Initial funding for Myer’s new division were: Year ending June 30, 1870, $15,000; 1871, $50,000; 1872, $102,451; 1873, $250,000. In all over $1 million dollars was appropriated to the study of weather.

1870 - Part 3: The Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce

Early War Department Weather Report from Tennessee
NOAA National Weather Service
Weather observations at The Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce commenced on November 1, 1870 with the first forecaster as Increase A. Lapham. The first storm warning from the agency was issued by Lapham at noon, November 8, 1870. The warning: "High wind all day yesterday at Cheyenne and Omaha; a very high wind this morning at Omaha; barometer falling with high winds at Chicago and Milwaukee today; barometer falling and thermometer rising at Chicago, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo and Rochester; high winds probable along the Lakes."

1861-1886: Training Enlisted Men for the Weather Service

Fort Myer, Virginia
U.S. Centennial of Flight and the Library of Congress
From 1871 to 1886 most weather training for the Signal Service forecasters and observers was conducted at Fort Myer, Virginia. Fort Myer (Fort Whipple) was named for General James Myer, the Army's first commander of the Signal Service. Here, enlisted men would receive training on telegraphs, weather observation techniques, and Army training. The first man enlisted as an Observer was Sergeant George C. Schaeffer, of Washington, D.C.

1872: The Wild West Gets (Poor) Weather Forecasts

Weather Bureau Signal Flags
NOAA Photolibrary, National Weather Service Collection, Archival Photograph by Mr. Sean Linehan
Only the Great Lakes region, the Gulf Coast, and the Atlantic coast were covered by the new Signal Corps forecasters. On June 10, 1872, an act of Congress extended the service throughout the United States, but the untamed Western United States had relatively few accurate forecasts due to a lack of quality data. Forecasts were only given 24 hours in advance. By 1873, rural post offices started posting Farmer’s Bulletins which were early weather reports. These posting were later replaced by army signal flags.

1874: The Signal Service Takes Over the Smithsonian Observers

United States Signal Service
NOAA Photolibrary, National Weather Service Collection, Archival Photograph by Mr. Steve Nicklas
Suspension of payments by the First National Bank of Washington, in the panic of 1873, tied up the working funds of the voluntary observers at the Smithsonian and compelled Henry to ask the Signal Service to take over the Smithsonian weather observers on February 2, 1874.
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