February 9, 1870 — The US Army established the US National Weather Service today. A joint resolution of Congress was signed by President Ulysses S. Grant with the mission 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 (Great) Lakes and on the seacoast by magnetic telegraph and marine signals, of the approach and force of storms.”
The agency was placed under the Secretary of War as Congress felt “military discipline would probably secure the greatest promptness, regularity, and accuracy in the required observations.”
Within the Department of War, it was assigned to the U.S. Army Signal Service under Brigadier General Albert J. Myer. General Myer gave the National Weather Service its first name: The Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce.
The Bureau’s first chief meteorologist was Cleveland Abbe (pictured above) who developed probabilistic forecasts using daily weather data sent by the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and Western Union. In his earlier role as the civilian assistant to the chief of the Signal Service, Abbe urged the Department of War to research weather conditions to provide a scientific basis behind the forecasts; he would continue to urge the study of meteorology as a science after becoming Weather Bureau chief.
The agency first became a civilian enterprise in 1890, when it became part of the Department of Agriculture. The Bureau would later be moved to the Department of Commerce in 1940.
Words of Wisdom
The National Weather Service has its beginning in the early history of the United States. Weather always has been important to the citizenry of this country, and this was especially true during the 17th and 18th centuries. Weather also was important to many of the Founding Fathers. Colonial leaders who formed the path to independence of our country also were avid weather observers. Thomas Jefferson purchased a thermometer from a local Philadelphia merchant while in town for the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. He also purchased a barometer — one of the only ones in America at the time — a few days later from the same merchant. Incidentally, he noted that the high temperature in Philadelphia, Pa., on July 4, 1776 was 76 degrees. Jefferson made regular observations at Monticello from 1772-78, and participated in taking the first known simultaneous weather observations in America. George Washington also took regular observations; the last weather entry in his diary was made the day before he died.