January 27, 2014
Say what you want about weather forecasts today, but they are far more accurate than they were 50 years ago, even 20 years ago. Technological advances in measuring and tracking weather patterns have transformed forecasting.
My story on the history of forecasting, part of a series of articles marking the 250th anniversary of what today is The Hartford Courant, appeared in the paper yesterday and remains available at Courant.com.
For many hundreds of years, of course, the most accurate forecast was not much of a forecast at all – step outside to see if it is hot or cold, wet or dry, windy or still. Dark clouds approaching? Here comes a thunderstorm.
Even in 1764, when the first edition of the Courant appeared and by which time thermometers and barometers actually existed, though few people had them, forecasting was primitive.
“You have to put yourself in the Colonial mindset. You would know the clouds, you could tell if the sky was lowering, if the wind was changing,” said James Rodger Fleming, professor of science, technology and society at Colby College in Maine and a leading authority on the history of weather forecasting.
“A lot of people relied on folklore, looking to nature for any indication of what the coming season might be like,” said Sean Potter, a meteorologist and communications specialist with the National Weather Service in Silver Spring, Md. The width of the brown stripes on wooly bear caterpillars in the late fall was supposed to foretell whether the coming winter would be harsh or not. Wide stripe, mild winter.
An early ice-out suggested a mild spring. Snow and cold on Thanksgiving? Ominous.
But follow the path of a hurricane for a week, knowing practically to the hour when it will hit a certain location? Impossible.
People of course have long been interested in the weather and weather forecasting and talk about the weather all the time.
One of the most famous weather-related quotations ever published appeared in an editorial in The Courant in 1897. The editorial noted that “a well-known American writer said once that, while everybody talked about the weather, nobody seemed to do anything about it.”
That quote is attributed either to Mark Twain, who at the time was living in Hartford, or his close friend and neighbor, Charles Dudley Warner, another famous American author of the time who also was the editor of The Courant and is assumed to have written the editorial.
Was Warner referring to himself third person, or to his buddy and neighbor Twain, as many assume?
Steve Courtney of the Terryville section of Plymouth is an author and Twain historian who thinks the evidence suggests the source of the quote is actually Twain.
“It really has the ring of Mark Twain,” Courtney said. “And Warner seems to hint it is him.”
By the time Twain was living in Hartford’s West End, weather forecasts were produced daily by the precursor to the National Weather Service. They could be helpful on a very short-term basis, or not. “General indications of weather expected the next day was about all there was,” Fleming said.
In a speech in New York in 1876, Twain had some fun with the quality of those New England weather forecasts of the time.
A forecaster in New England, Twain said, “mulls it over, and by and by he gets out something about like this: Probable nor-east to sou-west winds, varying to the southard and westard and eastard and points in between; high and low barometer, sweeping around from place to place, probable areas of rain, snow, hail and drought, succeeded or preceded by earthquakes, with thunder and lightning.” This was followed by a roar of laughter from the crowd, according to a report in the New York Times.