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Feb. 9, 1870: Feds Get on Top of the Weather

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Feb. 9, 1870: Feds Get on Top of the Weather
1870: President Ulysses S. Grant signs a bill creating what we now call the National Weather Service. Forecasting models were simple but generally effective.
It had been obvious for centuries that weather in North America generally moves from west to east or southwest to northeast. But other than looking upwind, that knowledge was little help in predicting the weather until you could move weather reports downwind faster than the weather was moving.
The telegraph finally made that possible. The Smithsonian Institution in 1849 began supplying weather instruments to telegraph companies. Volunteer observers submitted observations to the Smithsonian, which tracked the movement of storms across the country. Several states soon established their own weather services to gather data.

Congress thought the nation needed a centralized weather office, and that the new system would be best served by military precision and discipline. Hence, the resolution signed by President Grant in 1870 required the Secretary of War: to provide for taking meteorological observations at the military stations in the interior of the continent and at other points in the States and Territories ... and for giving notice on the northern [Great] Lakes and on the seacoast by magnetic telegraph and marine signals, of the approach and force of storms.

The War Department assigned the new function to the Signal Service Corps, where Brig. Gen. Albert J. Myer matter-of-factly named the new unit the Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce.
The network went online Nov. 1, 1870. Observers at 24 stations in the eastern United States started taking synchronized readings at 7:35 a.m. and telegraphing them to the division's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Cleveland Abbe, a private forecaster who (name notwithstanding) operated out of Cincinnati, had a reputation for consolidating telegraph reports into top-notch weather maps. The Army hired him as Special Assistant to the Chief Signal Officer. Abbe began work in January 1871 and made his first official forecasts the following month. He soon exceeded public expectations with daily weather reports like this: Synopsis for past twenty-four hours: The barometric pressure had diminished in the southern and Gulf states this morning; it has remained nearly stationary on the Lakes. A decided diminution has appeared unannounced in Missouri accompanied with a rapid rise in the thermometer which is felt as far east as Cincinnati; the barometer in Missouri is about four-tenths of an inch lower than on Erie and on the Gulf. Fresh north and west winds are prevailing in the north; southerly winds in the south.
Probabilities: It is probable that the low pressure in Missouri will make itself felt decidedly tomorrow with northerly winds and clouds on the lakes, and brisk southerly winds on the Gulf.

In 1872, Congress extended the Signal Service's weather responsibility to include the entire country. The weather division was renamed the U.S. Weather Bureau and transferred to civilian control as part of the Agriculture Department in 1891. President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it to the Commerce Department in 1940.
The bureau was renamed the National Weather Service in 1970, when it joined the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey and the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries in the Commerce Department's newly created National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Abbe served the government's weather service in various capacities until 1916, the year of his death, and is often called the "father of the U.S. Weather Bureau."
Source: NOAA

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