Looking Back: Weather before Army Air Corps Weather Service

  • Published
  • By Mrs. Eileen L. Williamson
  • HQ Air Force Weather Agency Public Affairs
Although the Army Air Corps Weather Service didn't exist until July 1, 1937, the military can trace its roots much deeper. The Surgeon General of the U.S. Army in 1814 directed hospital surgeons to keep records of the weather, a tradition that continued and expanded with his successors. During those early days, the observers' only instruments were thermometers, wind vanes and determination. The medics were ordered to keep weather diaries for use in establishing the relationship between weather and disease and the effects of climate on troop health and morale.

Prior to that, from 1803-1805, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark included thermometers among their equipment for their westward journey. While they relied on different tribes to help them endure the extreme weather, they also collected climate information in their journals until the last thermometer broke near Oregon.

The weather observations collected under the direction of the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army led to Congress establishing the position of "Meteorologist to the U.S. Government" in 1842 and assigning the position to the Surgeon General's office. In 1870 the forecasting service began when President Ulysses S. Grant directed his Secretary of War to establish a national weather service. Congress formally tasked the War Department to take meteorological observations at military stations to warn of approaching storms on the northern lakes and seacoasts. Using a relatively new instrument, the telegraph, the Army Signal Service began operating a service to make weather observations and transmit storm signals. On Nov. 1, 1870 the Observer-sergeants of the Army Signal Service took and dispatched telegraph to Washington, D.C., the first simultaneous American weather observations at 22 cities from Cheyenne in Wyoming Territory to Boston, Mass., and from Key West, Fla., to Duluth, Minn., and on Feb. 24, 1871, the first published weather forecast, called a "probability," was issued by the Signal Service for use by the nation's newspapers.

In 1890, Congress established the U.S. Weather Bureau transferring all of the military equipment and personnel to the agency. As a result, vitrually no American military weather service existed from 1891 to 1917.

As America became involved in World War I, a request for weather support from the Chief Signal Officer of the American Expeditionary Forces in France led to the creation of the Meteorological Section in the Army Signal Corps. By the end of the war, approximately 500 weathermen had been trained by the Army.

As the number of trained individuals dwindled, Capt. Randolph P. "Pinkie" Williams worked to emphasize the need for a military weather service.

The Chief Signal Officer of the Army expanded the Signal Corps' Meteorological section in 1935 as a result of the many studies and reports provided by Capt. Williams. A committee chaired by the Secretary of War recommended that the Air Corps operate the weather service during times of war. This recommendation resulted in the forthcoming transfer of the Meteorological Section of the Signal Corps to the Army Air Corps. 

(AFWA History Office contributed to this article.)