What role did Wisconsin play in establishing the National Weather Service?

Portrait of Increase Lapham (Photo credit: Wisconsin Historical Society archives)

Wednesday was the 153rd anniversary of the first day of operation of what has become the National Weather Service. On Nov. 1, 1870, the first organized set of observations around the country were taken under the auspices of the Army Signal Service.

On Feb. 9 of that same year, President Ulysses S. Grant, fresh from his own experiences during the Civil War, enthusiastically signed the service into existence. Its purpose was “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.”

Within a week of its first day of operation, the first official weather forecast from a United States government agency was made by Professor Increase Lapham, through the Chicago office. It was a successful forecast of strong winds and significant waves on the Great Lakes, and its issuance may well have saved lives and property, exactly as intended.

Lapham, of course, was perhaps the most famous professor during the early years of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was he, in fact, who petitioned U.S. Rep. Halbert Paine, of Milwaukee, himself a Civil War veteran, in the immediate post-war era regarding establishment of a national weather service.

Thus, Wisconsin, and in particular UW-Madison, played a prominent role in the establishment of our National Weather Service.

Steve Ackerman and Jonathan Martin, professors in the UW-Madison department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, are guests on WHA radio (970 AM) at 11:45 a.m. the last Monday of each month. Send them your questions at stevea@ssec.wisc.edu or jemarti1@wisc.edu.

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