Sometime in the last few months, I was visiting our storage facility on Elm Hill Pike. I don't remember why, but I found myself in one of the back rooms filled with various records from the Fire Dept., Health Dept., Metro Schools, etc. I made my way to the very back row of the furthest bookshelf to find 3 or 4 boxes filled with these rather moldy and dilapidated weather journals. Was I terrified that a spider of colossal size might jump out as I dug through the box? You bet, but rest assured that didn't happen. Although a rather large spider was crawling around my car one day after this pick-up, so maybe...
But anyway, what I found in these boxes turned out to be some highly informative and entertaining journals from the Signal Service. What we know today as the National Weather Service actually started through the War Department as the Signal Service of the U.S. Army.
Thanks to a joint resolution being passed and signed by President Grant in February, 1870, tracking the weather was now a part of the Army's agenda. The resolution officially states: "the Secretary of War to take observations at military stations and to warn of storms on the Great Lakes and on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts." These journals of Nashville's weather post-Civil War provide enough detail to make you thankful for current HVAC systems.
The weather journals from the Signal Service aren't the first weather books I've stumbled upon while going through our stacks. The first books, being weekly and monthly statistical records, weren't nearly as entertaining as these weather journals turned out to be. Though the Signal Service eventually began documenting their findings in statistical form, they started out by writing daily journal entries.
I wrote about these journals back in August for the Total Eclipse, but have since found so many more interesting narratives within these journals. I'll discuss a few of these entries below, starting with a brief overview of how the Signal Service came to handle weather observations.
The Signal Service
Though the Signal Service was the official beginning of the National Weather Service, documenting the weather was a common hobby among many people, including several of the Founding Fathers. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson took regular observations, the last recorded of TJ's being the day before he died.
Like many others, he owned a thermometer (purchased while writing the Declaration) and a barometer (purchased just days after the signing of the document). And fun fact that I learned from this research, Jefferson noted that 76 degrees was the high temperature in Philly on July 4th, 1776. Perfect weather for the beginnings of a revolution.
So barometers and thermometers were already in existence, assisting people in their weather observations. But want to know what other technology further assisted the advancement of meteorology? The Telegraph, of course. With its ability to transmit messages via Morse code over long distances, data could be collected and analyzed in one location. Also, the possibility of forecasting storms became a reality simply by someone telegraphing ahead to warn about an incoming storm. Not quite the forecasting we have today, but it was getting there.
The first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Joseph Henry, said in response to the new communication technology...
"...A system of observation which shall extend as far as possible over the North American continent...the Citizens of the United States are now scattered over every part of the southern and western portions of North America, and the extended lines of the telegraph will furnish a ready means of warning the more northern and eastern observers to be on the watch from the first appearance of an advancing storm."
Through Henry's efforts, volunteers were sought out as well as a request to the telegraph companies for an allotment of free time for transmissions of weather to be sent to the Smithsonian. By the end of 1849, Henry had 150 volunteers throughout the country that were reporting weather observations to the Institution. This process is what eventually led to the formation of a government agency to observe and forecast weather because with the ability to track weather all in one place, the next logical step was forecasting.
Chief of the Signal Service, Colonel Albert J. Myer, was enthusiastic about the idea of a government agency taking over the duty of forecasting weather for the rest of the country. Why the War Department was chosen though? Well at the time, they believed that the "military would probably secure the greatest promptness, regularity, and accuracy in the required observations." And since the Signal Service Corps had already been founded in 1860 under Myer, that's where the duties were assigned. The first official name of the weather service was The Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce.
Though the beginning 24 stations were specifically assigned by the resolution to cover the areas of the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, and the Great Lakes, this quickly expanded in June, 1872, when the entire country was included in that coverage. This is rather puzzling because the first station reports and weather journals we have for Nashville start in 1870. Maybe this means stations existed in other cities, but just weren't reporting for the Signal Service yet. Not sure, but by 1878, there were 284 field stations reporting, for sure, across the country.
The location of Nashville's station is still a speculation, but I believe it was located on the Public Square based on the station reports. One report states that "my office" (which I assume means the office of the Signal Service Officer) was "...situated on Cherry Street, No. 70.5." Another report stated that they were in a building that was half of a block distance from the office of Gates and Polhman (jewelers and watchmakers) located at Union and College, which was near the public square.
The observations that were made at the station 3 times daily included the readings for:
- Barometric pressure and its change since the last report.
- Temperature and its 24-hour change.
- Relative humidity.
- Wind velocity.
- Pressure of the wind in pounds per square foot.
- Amount of clouds.
- State of the weather.
These observations were sent to the Washington, D.C. office which then turned the data into forecasts. Then, these forecasts were redistributed to observers, railroad stations, and available news media. Like today, the forecasts were not always correct, but they boasted that they at least warned against when great storms and waves of intense heat or cold were coming.
The website that I received all of this information from - the history page of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. Dept. of Commerce - provides a very thorough account of the Service's history. I wish I could provide all that it says, but there's no way. I'll tell you a little bit more about the officers that worked for the Service and then move on.
What did it take to be an officer in the Signal Service? Well, like most jobs, training for one. The officers working for the Service were required to acquire meteorological knowledge if not already familiar with the work. To provide this information, a school of meteorology was added to the existing school at Fort Myer in Virginia (at that time, it was Fort Whipple). The courses included: military tactics, signaling, telegraphy, telegraphic line construction, electricity, meteorology, and practical work in meteorological observation. Unfortunately, the training school of meteorology was abolished by order of the Secretary of War in 1886. However, considering the Signal Service officially ended their work with the weather in 1890 when the agency became a civilian enterprise under the Department of Agriculture, the school was no longer requisite.
Officers not only had strict duties of observing various weather activities 3 times-a-day at strict times, and were expected to assist with events outside of their primary duties when needed, but they also had a hefty list of rules and regulations to abide by. Here are a few of the most unique ones:
- "Drinking vessels will not be used in taking medicine; nor will the taking of medicine at water-coolers be permitted."
- "Unnecessary conversations, writing of private letters, and reading of newspapers during office hours are strictly prohibited. Conversation necessary to the proper dispatch of business will be carried on in a low tone of voice."
- "Superiors of every grade are forbidden to injure those under them by tyrannical or capricious conduct, or by abusive language."
So some of these are self-explanatory (like the last one), but others made me scratch my head.
Highlights of the Journals
As I was digging around for information about the famous unofficial "first delivery of airmail" thanks to the "Buffalo" hot-air balloon here in Nashville, I discovered that there were several before its flight- one in 1793 carrying a personal letter from George Washington, and a few others in 1859. Well that poured water on my parade a little, but I'm still going to mention this cool entry from June 18th, 1877. Apparently Signal Service Sergeant Ford joined Prof. S.A. King for his historic flight from Downtown Nashville to Edgefield, carrying the small stack of letters with the stamp made especially for the occasion.
Sgt. Ford was most likely on board to make meteorological observations, but I found that to be quite fascinating. I've only ever read that there were 6 other passengers with King, but we can now identify one of those passengers. Ford had joined for a previous ride a few months earlier in March as well.
On a particularly hot day in July, 1878, one observer provided a little more information than they usually wrote. It was sooooo hot (how hot was it?) that he "found the keys in my pockets rusted this morning. This is, of course, due to excessive perspiration." And he adds a little more humor with "...delivering bulletins and making river observations is quite the reverse of amusement now."
I don't know, I find it quite amusing. But seriously, at a time when the weather was around 95 degrees and likely without the invention of air conditioning to love, that does sound pretty miserable.
If the concept of a bucket list was around in the 19th century, I'd imagine many Nashvillians would have been pleased that they could check one item off with the sighting of an Aurora right here in Nashville, in September, 1881. I would have been, that's for sure.
The Aurora reportedly began around 3:22 a.m. and ended just before the sun rose; or as written, "nothing worthy of note, only that the Aurora became lost in the Goddess of Day 'herself' at 5:10 a.m." A total of 80 beams were distinctly visible that didn't move horizontally at all, but instead "all shot upward." The colors they describe seeing were, at first, reddish-brown and later transformed to light-green.
At 4:15 a.m., maximum brilliancy was observed with electric beams seeming to outvie each other by seeing who could shoot up the highest and drop the quickest. The observer states that the most noticeable beam was the one that "...shot up quick as 'lightning' itself, through Ursa Major..."
It's a particularly long post because the observer describes the experience in great detail. One important statement he says close to the end is:
"It may be interesting here to state that the greatest portion and the maximum brilliancy of the Aurora occurred on the eastern side of the north point."
After the Signal Service
As I already mentioned, the Department to take over the weather observations after the Signal Service was the Department of Agriculture in 1890 as a civilian enterprise. These are the books that are primarily statistical reports with a couple of books with written weather observations. Though this department carried on with this task until 1940, we only have up 'til 1919 in the Dept. of Agriculture's books.
After that and possibly still today, it was the Department of Commerce that took over the duties. We have several of these books as well, which are available for the public to view. But I'm telling you, you won't find anything more intriguing than reading the work of the Signal Service. The information they provided is incredibly invaluable.
We've recently uploaded a completely transcribed journal from 1877-79 to our website. If you're interested in checking it out, click here to go to our website.