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The Signal Corps Weather Service


Despite the successful establishment of the Signal School, the Signal Corps still lacked a clear-cut mission. During hearings before the House Committee on Military Affairs in 1869, Secretary of War Schofield testified that he felt the Army did not need a separate Signal Corps. The committee shared his view that the signal function could be performed by the engineers, but Congress did not act on this proposal. Nevertheless, when Congress reduced the size of the Army to save money, Myer knew that the Signal Corps needed a stronger footing in order to survive further scrutiny. One solution appeared to lie in weather observation and reporting, a field in which he had some experience from his days as an Army doctor.


Weather has always regulated daily activities, especially for those whose livelihood is intimately tied to the land. Its study in the United States antedated the founding of the republic. Benjamin Franklin, who was not only a political leader but also a noted scientist in colonial America, had theorized about the origin and movement of storms. Another founding father, Thomas Jefferson, kept a daily journal of weather observations and corresponded widely with others of similar interest. Jefferson envisioned a national meteorological system, but until some means of rapidly reporting the weather was invented, a nationwide forecasting service was impossible.


After the war, as the nation's commercial and agricultural enterprises expanded, the need for a national weather service became apparent. Because the Smithsonian lacked the funds to operate such a system, Joseph Henry urged Congress to create one. A petition submitted in December 1869 to Congressman Halbert E. Paine by Increase A. Lapham, a Wisconsin meteorologist, provided further impetus for national legislation. Lapham advocated a warning service on the Great Lakes to reduce the tremendous losses in lives and property caused by storms each year. Paine supported this proposition and soon introduced legislation authorizing the secretary of war "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 of the United States, and for giving notice on the northern lakes and on the seacoast, by magnetic telegraph and marine signals, of the approach and force of storms." Paine chose to assign these duties to the War Department because "military discipline would probably secure the greatest promptness, regularity, and accuracy in the required observations." Congress approved Paine's proposal as a joint resolution, and President Ulysses S. Grant signed it into law on 9 February 1870.


Myer recognized that Paine's bill provided the mission the Signal Corps needed. As Paine later recalled: "Immediately after the introduction of the measure, a gentleman called on me and introduced himself as Col. Albert Myer, Chief Signal Officer. He was greatly excited and expressed a most intense desire that the execution of the law might be entrusted to him." Myer's efforts were rewarded when Secretary of War, William W. Belknap, assigned the weather duties to the chief signal officer on 15 March 1870. Now the Signal Corps embarked upon a new field of endeavor, one that soon overshadowed its responsibility for military communications.


Find out more in "Getting the Message Through" at




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