WASHINGTON (WHTM) — On Feb. 9, 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a joint resolution of Congress, creating the U.S. Weather Bureau, or as we call it today, the National Weather Service.
People have been observing weather for millennia, finding information in everything from cloud patterns to the movement of animals to that ache in Grandpa’s left knee. Attempts to forecast weather began as early as 650 BC with the Babylonians. But early predictions were for the most part unreliable because it was only possible to observe conditions in a small area.
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Instruments for observing weather improved; both the thermometer and barometer were invented in the 1600s. Just as important, methods of measurement were becoming standardized-60 degrees on a thermometer in Berlin, Germany meant the same as 60 degrees as on one in Havana, Cuba. People around the world recorded their weather observations. But the primary problem remained-there was no way to consolidate the observations fast enough for reliable weather predictions.
Then the telegraph was invented. Suddenly (or at least as fast as telegraph lines could be strung) it was possible to transmit weather data in just minutes.
At this point, the Smithsonian Institution took the lead. In 1849 it began supplying weather instruments to telegraph companies and established the first extensive observation network. The Smithsonian used the telegraphed information to create weather maps. By the end of 1849, they had 150 volunteers sending in their daily readings. By 1860 there were 500 stations making regular observations. Then the Civil War interrupted the work.
Things picked up again after the war, but progress in weather recording and prediction was being delayed by the fact information wasn’t going to a central location. States had their own weather services, newspapers had theirs, colleges and universities had theirs, and nobody had all the readings to map the nation’s weather from sea to shining sea.
Which brings us to the 1870 resolution. The new National Weather Service was established within the U.S. Army Signal Service’s Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce. The resolution called for the service “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 lakes and on the seacoast, by magnetic telegraph and marine signals, of the approach and force of storms.”
On October 1, 1890, the Weather Service became a civilian agency, when the meteorological responsibilities of the Signal Service were transferred to the new U.S. Weather Bureau, part of the Department of Agriculture. In 1900 the Weather Bureau began sharing weather information with Europe through the Tran-Atlantic cable. In 1902 the Marconi company began broadcasting weather reports to ships by radio. During the first half of the 20th century, technological breakthroughs allow the service to improve and expand its data collection and forecasting abilities.
In 1940 the Weather Bureau was transferred to the Department of Commerce. By the 1950s technology had advanced to the point that the Bureau could establish the Severe Weather Warning Center. More and more number crunching got done by computers. In 1960 the first weather satellite, TIROS 1, was launched from Cape Canaveral.
In 1965 the Department of Commerce created ESSA, the Environmental Science Services Administration, incorporating the Weather Bureau and several other agencies. In 1970 ESSA became NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Weather Bureau became the National Weather Service.
Technological advances continued; ever more powerful computers came online, and in 1993 The 100th Doppler weather radar was installed. Then in 1995, NWS went online with the Internet Service Interactive Weather Information Network—IWIN.
Today the National Weather Service publishes forecast maps on its website in 12 categories, with multiple maps in each of them. They take in measurements from around the world, and satellites in space. They’re even monitoring the surface of the sun, trying to give us warning of solar flares which can scramble electronics. They’ve certainly come a long way from the telegraph.
But one thing hasn’t changed-the NWS still relies on a huge network of volunteers in the Cooperative Observer Program. Over 8,000 observers take readings and maintain data collection stations.