Monday, December 3, 2007

Father of the National Weather Service

Today is the birthday of Cleveland Abbe who was born on this date (December 3) in 1838. Abbe is widely considered to be the father of the U.S. National Weather Service. The Weather Service was originally created as a branch of the U.S. Army Signal Corps on February 9, 1870. Responsibility for the weather service moved to the Department of Agriculture in 1890 and then to the Department of Commerce in 1940.

The foundations of what was to become the National Weather Service were laid in Cincinnati in 1869. Cleveland Abbe, having pursued a varied career that led him to astronomy, was the newly-appointed head of the Cincinnati Observatory. The observatory was a smalltime affair that was mostly used to entertain the public. But Abbe was passionate about broad areas of science. He appreciated that astronomical viewing conditions were a function of the weather and saw the need for better weather forecasts, not just for astronomy but for people's daily lives. Seeing an unfilled need, Abbe switched his passion from the far heavens to those a little closer to home.

Abbe saw the potential of the telegraph system as a way to relay large quantities of data to a central office for analysis and forecasting. He proposed to the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and the Western Union telegraph company that they underwrite the costs of setting up observation stations around the region. Western Union agreed to provide low cost transmission of weather data to the observatory for his analysis. In return, Abbe offered to provide free forecasts three times a day for publication in the regional newspapers. An experimental trial ran for a number of months which proved the worth of the idea.

The U.S. Congress was urged to expand the concept nationally and hence the government formed the National Weather Service under the auspices of the Army Signal Corps. Abbe was the first director. He worked to advance meteorology as a recognized science within the Weather Service amd petitioned other universities to start programs in the field. While efforts within the Weather Service advanced (albeit at a maddeningly slow pace), universities did not create meteorology departments until the 1930's.

So once again, we see the familiar pattern of someone with passion who perseveres to create something of great importance. Abbe worked patiently and tirelessly to bring the National Weather Service into being as a respected scientific organization. Few things are ever created without the Cleveland Abbe's of the world. They do not have to be flamboyant or abrasive. They need only to believe that they are creating something much larger than themselves.

Abbe once wrote in a letter to his father, "I have started that which the country will not willingly let die." How right he was.

After a lifetime of service to the Weather Service, Cleveland Abbe died on October 28, 1916.

[Image from Wikipedia]

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