Today, the U.S. National Weather Service is one of the best-known federal agencies. It was not always so popular, especially in its early years.

The first incarnation of the National Weather Service was founded in the wake of the Civil War, as an agency in the Army Signal Service Corps. Its mission was to "take observations at military stations and to warn of storms on the Great Lakes and on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts." Very early in its existence the agency earned a reputation for the corruption of its personnel and the unreliability of its forecasting. In 1881, William Howgate, the chief financial manager of the agency, was arrested for embezzling a quarter million dollars. To give an idea of the magnitude of his crime, consider that during this time the U.S. military budget was about forty million dollars. Howgate was tried and convicted, only to escape a year later. Other servicemen in stations around the country were investigated throughout the 1880s and fired in large numbers for reckless neglect. It was discovered that one man had sold his station's instruments to pay off a gambling debt; another had converted his office into a photography studio for nude models. Moreover, the agency's weather predictions were frequently and dangerously wrong. On March 12, 1888, the New York station's forecast called for "fair weather"; instead of fair weather, New York got the Blizzard of '88, which dumped 21 inches of snow on the city and killed four hundred people throughout the northeast.

The scandal and the unreliability of the organization were too great for it to continue as it was. In 1891, the Army Signal Service Corps' weather service was honorably discharged from the Department of War and given a new home in the civilian Department of Agriculture. It was named the Weather Bureau: It would not be called the National Weather Service until 1970. During the years leading up to 1900, the Weather Bureau's servicemen took regular measurement of such atmospheric conditions as temperature, wind speed, air pressure, rainfall, and cloud conditions. They transmitted their findings to one another via wireless telegraphy.

Battling negative public opinion and the sheer newness of their science, the early weathermen lay the groundwork for an organization that today predicts weather effectively and saves the lives of waterborne travelers and land dwellers alike. The National Weather Service is the sole United States official voice for issuing warnings during life-threatening weather situations.



Copyright © 1999, Random House, Inc.