Cleveland Abbe: First Scientist of the American Weather Bureau

Bringing Science to Weather Forecasting

Cleveland Abbe in his office

Cleveland Abbe gambled when he joined U.S. Army’s new weather service in 1871. But his tireless efforts to improve the organization and advance theoretical meteorolgy built the foundation of what was to later become NOAA’s National Weather Service. Click image for larger view.

Cleveland Abbe (1838-1916) was already established as an astronomer and meteorologist when the federal government formed a brand new weather service in 1870 under the U.S. Army Signal Corps. On January 3, 1871, Abbe took a risk and joined the fledgling organization as its first chief scientist. This move led him into an uncertain future, considering that various government weather services had faltered in the past. However, prior to joining, Abbe had taken charge of the Cincinnati Observatory and established a private weather service to produce weather forecasts, not simply to repeat observations or draw static maps of the previous day’s weather. According to Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, seventh superintendent of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, Abbe’s “success led to an act of Congress providing for the utilization of the Signal Corps of the Army for the organization of a general weather service.” Brigadier General William B. Hazen later shared a similar high opinion of Abbe when he testified to Congress in 1886 that to Abbe “we are indebted for the very existence of the Weather Bureau.”

When he began his career with the Signal Corps, Abbe was the only individual in the country with any practical experience in weather forecasting based on scientific principles. Among his first tasks were setting up a systematic observing system, developing criteria and a system for training new personnel, and directing the scientific activities of the new bureau. Until he was able to train forecasters, Abbe was the sole source of forecasts, or as he called them “probabilities.” He soon became known as  “Old Probabilities” or “Old Prob,” a nickname that stuck with him for the rest of his life.


Advancing a Larger Vision

But Abbe had a larger vision than merely forecasting the weather. From the outset he focused on two major scientific goals–optimizing the weather service and studying and advocating theoretical meteorology. During the formative years of the weather service, he fostered, and in some respects embodied, the essential link between developing the institution and advancing meteorological theory. In doing this, he was among the first to recognize the interdependency of the three dimensions of meteorology–forecasting, climatology, and physical theory.


Developing the Institution: Training Meteorologists

a cadre of weather observers as a foundation for the Weather Service

One of Abbe’s goals was recruiting a cadre of weather observers as a foundation for the Weather Service. Here in 1926, and long before computer models, scientists produce forecasts by hand. Click image for larger view.

To advance the institution, Abbe developed a special enlistment system of young men, mostly college graduates, with the rank of sergeant in the Signal Corps. These individuals were exempt from most of the duties of the enlisted ranks of the Army and were specifically trained as observers. Most transferred from the Army to the newly named Weather Bureau when Congress moved it into the Department of Agriculture in 1891. They remained the nucleus of meteorologists at major forecast offices for many years.


Advancing Theoretical Meteorology: Establishing the “Study Room”

Cleveland Abbe began advancing theoretical meteorolgy in the Weather Service by establishing the “Study Room” and a supplementary laboratory in which civilian scientists investigated meteorological problems. Among the scientists recruited by Abbe for this work were William Ferrel of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, Charles Marvin who went on to become chief of the Weather Bureau for over thirty years (1913-1934), and Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, a well-known physicist, who inaugurated work to build the laboratory. Mendenhall went on to become the head of the Coast and Geodetic Survey from 1891 to 1895.

Weather Service uses many advanced technologies, like this Doppler weather radar, to over 700,000 weather forecasts annually

Today, NOAA’s Weather Service uses many advanced technologies, like this Doppler weather radar, to make over 700,000 weather forecasts annually–a significant advance from the days when Cleveland “Old Prob” Abbe was its lone forecaster. Click image for larger view.

Abbe also began a system to monitor the effectiveness of forecasts; began the Library of the Weather Service; was instrumental in establishing standard time throughout the United States, a necessity for taking simultaneous weather observations; founded the Monthly Weather Review in 1872; and translated articles from the foreign science journals, particularly those related to dynamic meteorology. He was one of the pioneers of theoretical dynamic meteorology.


Bearing Up Under Scrutiny

In spite of these accomplishments, other government officials scrutinzied Abbe intensely. In 1893, he was criticized for doing nothing to earn his pay of $4,500 per year, was demoted, and given a pay cut! This failed to discourage him, as he continued espousing the need for a scientific foundation for the Weather Service. In 1901 he published one of his greatest papers, “The Physical Basis of Long Range Weather Forecasting.” He continued working for the Weather Bureau until becoming too sick to continue in 1915. During his career he was known for his congeniality, his willingness to instruct, and his piercing inquiries that continually challenged the intellect of his colleagues. Cleveland Abbe, more than any one individual, built the foundation of NOAA’s modern National Weather Service.