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Weather History: Meteorological Agencies in the United States

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


Weather history is an exciting topic of research. Here, I present a condensed and edited version of the chronological evolution of meteorological institutions in the United States. The original publication was through a supplement of the United States Weather Bureau Monthly Weather Review from January 1931 written by Eric R. Miller. The complete photo gallery of each image below is available from the United States Weather Bureau Photos page.

1753: The Post Office and Benjamin Franklin

Water-spouts and Whirlwinds by Benjamin Franklin
NOAA Photolibrary, Historic NWS Collection
In colonial times the only country-wide weather organization was the Post Office. During that time, Benjamin Franklin was appointed Postmaster-General of the Colonies and would later become instrumental in creating research opportunities for fellow scholars. Franklin used his contacts with postmasters and shipmasters for research on the progression of cyclones and ocean currents.

1814: Army Surgeons Begin to Record Weather Data

James Tilton
The United States Army
During the War of 1812, James Tilton (1745-1822) was the Surgeon-General of the Army. During his position, he made a ground-breaking decision to have fellow hospital surgeons record the weather. His determination to record the weather was soon forgotten when the Secreary of War Calhoun reorganized the army in 1818 and he received the credit for creating a meterological service for the Army Medical Department.

The Army Medical observations were the earliest available weather records in the West. Long series of records were kept at a few fixed stations, but the organization terminated June 19, 1874, after which the Army surgeons sent their meteorological observation reports directly to the Signal Service and the Weather Bureau.

1817: The Need for a Central Weather Service Is Expressed

Barometer and Psychrometer Image
NOAA Photolibrary, National Weather Service Collection, Archival Photograph by Mr. Sean Linehan
Josiah Meigs (1757-1822), Commissioner of the General Land Office of the Department of the Interior, asked for money from Congress to equip land offices with barometers and other meteorological instruments. Unfortunately, Meigs was denied this aid but he continued to make weather observations which were later archived.

Also in 1817, a German meteorologist and mathematician named Heinrich Wilhelm Brandes (1777-1834) advanced the study of the weather by hand-drawing weather maps. He would later invent isobars in 1820. He is also credited with discovering cyclonic wind circulation and rallied for the creation of a central weather service along with other colleagues at the time.

1828: Tropical Cyclones Are Studied

William Cox Redfield, First Secretary of Commerce.
NOAA Photolibrary, People Collection
Heinrich Wilhelm Dove (1803-1879) and William Cox Redfield (1789-1857) started debate on theories concerning tropical cyclones that would later lead to a greater depth of understanding of tropical cyclone winds and the formation of these storms.

1834: Early Weather Maps Cover the Eastern United States

War Department Weather Map
NOAA Photolibrary
James Pollard Espy (1785-1860), Chairman of a joint committee of the American Philosophical Society and the Franklin Institute, established a network of observation stations to study storms producing large amounts of climatic data.

Weather maps of a storm in March of 1838 were based on observations from 50 stations covering the states East of the Mississippi. The maps had wind arrows, barometric pressure readings, low pressure zones circled at 12-hour intervals representing a very early (and relatively complete) weather map.

1837: James Pollard Espy Recruits Volunteer Weather Observers

First Weather Watchers
NOAA's National Weather Service (NWS) Collection
James Pollard Espy obtained $4,000 from the Pennsylvania legislature to equip early weather watchers in each county with a barometer, thermometer, and rain gauge. The first appearance of meteorology in the records of Congress is a memorial to Espy’s efforts in obtaining funding.

1840: Storm Tracking Begins

Elias Loomis
NOAA Photolibrary, National Weather Service Historic Collection, Archival Photograph by Sean Linehan
Elias Loomis (1811-1889), a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Western Reserve College in Ohio, published an important paper on storms in which progressive movement of storms were shown by mapping trough lines on successive days. This was a big movement in meteorology since storm tracking abilities were not yet a capability.

1841: Controversey Over Money for Meteorological Work In the Army Ensues

James Pollard Espy, First Official Government Meteorologist
NOAA Photolibrary, People Collection
After the publication of Espy’s ground-breaking Philosophy of Storms in 1841, Espy was determined to become the first chief of a new national weather service. Espy approached other influential politicians and secured a place as Professor of Mathematics, Depot of Charts in the Navy Department. He held the position from May 7, 1842 to July 5, 1845.

Controversy soon ensued as $3,000 for meteorological work was inserted into the Army Bill Act of August 23, 1842 by Senator Preston, of South Carolina without actually creating a titled position for the work. Espy would finally get a salary of $2,000 every year until June 30, 1859 as a result of some political pressure among influential friends.

1842: Espy Expands the First Network of Weather Volunteers

Matthew Fontaine Maury
The United States Navy
Espy expanded the observing network he had organized to a corps of 110 people by 1842. It would be 10 years after Espy’s death in 1860 that the national weather service he so dearly wanted was created.

Also in 1842, Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-1873) was assigned to charge of the Depot of Charts. Maury’s wind and current charts enabled merchant sailing vessels to shorten voyages and and made Maury a very popular man. He received a $5,000 silver service award from the merchants of New York City and was elected to 45 learned societies.

1846: The Smithsonian Institution Was Established

Joseph Henry, First Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution
NOAA Photolibrary, People Collection
The Smithsonian Institution was organized under executive direction of Joseph Henry (1799-1878). His program for the new Smithsonian Institution contemplated climatological observations and telegraphic reports for the prediction of weather and storms, but a lack of funding made the progress slow. By the end of 1848, a corps of 150 observers was organized and began reporting weather data.

Joseph Henry procured the cooperation of the Surgeon General’s hospital surgeons, Espy’s observers in the Navy Department, the New York Academy observers, and of observers at grammar schools and light houses in Canada. Henry also stimulated the beginning of state weather services in Massachusetts, Maine, Illinois, and Texas.

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