March 07, 2021

The Revolutionary Weather Observers

 It is not well known that the founders of the American republic were avid amateur meteorologists, with many of them taking weather observations daily.  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and others were intrigued about the meteorology and climate of the new nation and deeply curious about the natural world.


By the time of the American revolution, relatively decent thermometers, barometers, and rain gauges were available, and taking weather observations was all the rage.

Take Thomas Jefferson, our third President and the primary author of the Declaration of Independence.  

He started taking observations in Monticello, VA in the early 1770s, doing so twice a day....once at dawn and again at 4 PM. On his way to Philadelphia in 1776, he picked up a thermometer and took FOUR observations on July 4, 1776.   

Amazingly, the high temperature that day was 76F!  

Check out his observation summary of 1776 below.  A few days after signing the Declaration, he went out and bought a barometer.  The kind of thing I would do!


With a few interruptions, Jefferson took weather observations for nearly 50 years.   He did have a few motivations beyond scientific curiosity.  A number of European "experts" claimed that there was a "degeneracy" of animal life in the New World because of an excessively humid, cloudy, and unhealthful climate.  Jefferson using observations from both the colonies and Europe disproved such claims, noting in 1791 that:

"On the whole, I find nothing anywhere else in point of climate which Virginia need envy to any part of the world."


Jefferson also wanted to study weather to improve forecasting complaining in 1822 that:

"Of all the departments of science, no one seems to be less advanced in the last hundred years than that of meteorology."

Ouch....fortunately, that would soon change, with the development of telegraphy during the subsequent decades, allowing rapid communication of weather observations and thus forecasting.


And then there was George Washington, who also took weather observations over decades.  Washington kept both general and  weather diaries, and the latter are full of all kinds of perceptive comments on the weather.  For example, on May 18, 1780, he wrote:

Heavy & uncommon kind of Clouds—dark & at the same time a bright and reddish kind of light intermixed with them—brightning & darkning alternately. This continued till afternoon when the sun began to appear.

So dedicated was Washington to weather monitoring that his last observation was taken within 24-h of his death on December 14, 1799:

“Morning Snowing & abt. 3 Inches deep. Wind at No. Et. & Mer. at 30. Contg. Snowing till 1 Oclock and abt. 4 it became perfectly clear. Wind in the same place but not hard. Mer. 28 at Night.”

And then there was Benjamin Franklin, who was in a class by himself, as much a weather scientist as a founder of the nation.


His Poor Richards Almanac contains some of the first written weather forecasts, and he was probably the first to commercialize weather information.  

Franklin's extensive weather correspondence led him to suggest that storms move from southwest to northeast.  And with that observation and with an extraordinary leap of insight, he suggested the potential for weather forecasting if one only had weather data upstream of one's position.

But it was Franklin's work on electricity and his correct conclusion about the electrical origins of lightning that made him a scientific celebrity around the world.  Franklin was a genius in many ways.

It is extraordinary to think that these three individuals, in addition to their businesses and creating/building a new nation, also had the time to be deeply involved in scientific activities. 

If only we had more leaders like this today.....

20 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I heard somewhere that NOAA is using weather recordings from old Royal Navy journals to document global warming. All these sailors habitually recorded weather at various longitude & latitude coordinates with a reasonable amount of accuracy over the last 300-400 years.

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    1. I believe you are referring to the Old Weather Project (https://www.oldweather.org/) which is a fascinating exploration in to naval records

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    2. As for historic naval records - journals: Yikes! Unless the weather observations were made from fixed positions, long-term, I can't see their having more than anecdotal value where it comes to CLIMATE. Ships move with, or into, winds, and positions were approximate at the best of times. Then there's the pesky matter of calibration (and I know the Royal Navy worked hard to calibrate clocks and other instruments, but "oh-my"!) There IS a RANGE of normal within any climate, and a ship's records would be about the last place I'd look. I think these are extremely valid concerns. Even today, way too much emphasis is placed on scanty accounts like warming, cooling, and "worst ever" when a person's frame of reference (data points) are scant.

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    3. Much as there are ways to intelligently assimilate paleo-records and proxy data into our understanding of past climate numerics (tree rings, ice cores, etc) there are ways to intelligently assimilate naval records as well (they aren't necessarily any more or less accurate than the measurements Benjamin Franklin or any of the other founding fathers made given the equipment and weather knowledge at the time) - far more than anecdotal... but perhaps skewed towards qualitative in some instance. With that said, there are certainly anomalies directly related to the measurement (and not representative of the climate) that will emerge and need to be explored - case in point - the WWII warm anomaly (which you can explore on your own but *is* potentially related to how SST measurements are made on a ship and not necessarily reflective of the climate.

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  3. Cliff, have you learned nothing? Making positive comments about the White Supremacist Framers will further your cancellation in ways heretofore unimagined. Brace yourself for a midnight knock on the door from the Ministry of Approved Compliments. I shall miss your blog. Cliff, nice knowing you.

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    1. Yes, "political correctness" has gone too far... but I think not quite that far...

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  4. "If only we had more leaders like this today....." Thank you Cliff for reminding us of what intelligent, successful, and liberally educated achievers our American ancestors were. Instead of "canceling" them, we should be celebrating them and the heritage passed down from them to us. We are truly fortunate to be their descendants.

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  5. Back then leadership was based on merit and competence and today, unfortunately, it is based on political connections and the ability to sell outrage.

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  6. The Founding Fathers lived in an age of Enlightenment.

    We are not.

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    1. They had no computers, internet, satellites, or any other high-end technology. Yet, they were far more sophisticated than we are today. In fact, one only need look back 1 generation to find such people.

      Today's self-loathing "intellectuals" have no future.

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  7. Love this. IMHO, clear-eyed weather observation is a simple practice that more people should engage in, they'd have a better grip on reality. "What is, is." It's an ancient and timeless skill. There are armies of programmers and modelers who (alas) may not have a clue what's actually going on beyond their cubicles.

    All too often nowadays I see "synthesized" data being palmed-off to 'fill data gaps without tangible evidence. That trend should concern all honest scientists. 'Rambling!

    Thanks again for sharing these actual historic hbservations that make perfect sense! Charming, to put it mildly.

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  8. Nice read Cliff. The founders, Washington, Madison, and Jefferson in particular, we farmers before (and after) being revolutionaries. Using historical data on when first and last freeze allowed them to time plantings and plan accordingly. As any good gardener knows, a garden journal is worth its weight in beets.....or something like that.

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  9. Not terribly surprising that Washington's final observation was within 24 hours of his death. He very likely died due to the medical quackery of the day. He came down with an illness and his "doctors" decided they could help by bloodletting--to the tune of five pints of his blood! That's probably about half the total amount of blood in his body.

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    1. Washington spent his last day riding his fenceline in the rain/snow. His clothing around his neck became soaked. When he finally arrived home he had the sniffles.
      The doctor did the rest.

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  10. "There is magic in this world - it's in the water! We're all weather observers." (I give Dr. Church credit for this. He made climatology interesting.) Let's all improve our observations, and only use cell phones that auto-report pressure. Dr. Mass, we know you've been working on this idea. Improved weather warnings have to be the least we can expect.

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  11. The Old Farmer's Almanac is my favorite source for weather information.

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  12. A bit off-topic, but you can see from the photo of Jefferson's log what an art handwriting was back then. My chicken-scratching is an embarrassment by comparison.

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  13. Yeah, but since they were all a bunch of white guys immersed in the sins of the evil Patriarchy, let's cancel them! On a more serious note, growing up in the Midwest during the 70's it's been amazing to witness the advances made in forecasting. Tornado prediction is just one example - the number of deaths have been declining rapidly, having even incremental improvements in terms of warnings being issued a minute or two earlier than in previous years has saved countless lives.

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