Roundtable

The Weather Record

Weather collectors and prognosticators.

By Elizabeth Della Zazzera

Thursday, September 19, 2019

A print of a man walking through puddles carrying an umbrella.

Sad Sloppy Weather, by James Gillray, 1808. Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Thomas F. Furness in memory of William McCallin McKee.

Rockingham, New Hampshire, was “clear & very warm” on March 25, 1751. This information may not seem important more than two hundred years later, but we know it anyway thanks to William Parsons, who diligently collected the daily weather in his town for thirty-five years. He noted whether it was stormy, cloudy, or cold on the interleaved pages—blank sheets bound in between each printed page—of his Ames’ Almanac, which was the most popular almanac in New England. Many other readers turned their copies of Ames—or other almanacs—into diaries, even if the evidence hasn’t always survived.

Like many almanac writers, Nathaniel Ames, who began publishing his almanac in 1726, included weather predictions with his calendar. In 1751 he advised that there would be “some warm but moist weather” and “brisk winds” at the end of March. William Parsons did observe wind on March 19, but not on any subsequent day that month, suggesting Ames’ weather predictions were, unsurprisingly, unreliable. Humor and vague language sometimes saved Ames from false prophecy. In February 1831 he wrote, “There will be weather this week, tho’ I say nothing about it.”

Because weather had long been considered a celestial event, many writers and scholars believed it could be predicted by the movements of stars and planets. This tradition of celestial weather predictions was particularly important for almanac prognostications. In early modern European almanacs, the zodiac, the rising and setting of the sun, and the phases of the moon were standard-issue, and weather forecasting as a kind of celestial science fit right in with these other astronomical calculations.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as scientists developed new scales and new instruments to measure weather phenomena, meteorology began to shift away from its origins in the celestial sciences toward a more data-driven observational science—although the old methods persisted alongside the new. Because the new meteorology used past data to make future predictions, gathering weather data became an increasingly important part of the study of weather. Individual weather observations collected in diaries, almanacs, and notebooks could now take on the valence of scientific pursuit.

Ames’ Almanac 1751

March

Date Sunrise Weather
1 6:15 Perhaps a
2 6:13 plentiful rain carries
3 6:12 off the winter,
4 6:11 but some cold
5 6:09  
6 6:07  
7 6:05 Relicts remain
8 6:04 for some time
9 6:02  
10 6:00  
11 5:59  
12 5:57  
13 5:56  
14 5:54 Some drying winds
15 5:53 which settle the dirty
16 5:51 roads
17 5:49 Pretty high tides
18 5:47 and perhaps a
19 5:45 cold storm
20 5:44  
21 5:42  
22 5:41 Some warm
23 5:39 but
24 5:38 moist weather
25 5:37 Brisk winds
26 5:35  
27 5:33  
28 5:32 Some pleasant
29 5:30 warm, spring-like weath.
30 5:29 Small tides about
31 5:28 these days.

William Parsons’ Diary 1751

March

Date Weather
1 Clear and moderate windy. n Snow
2 Clear and pleasant snow all melted
3 Clear and moderate
4 Very stormy snow all day
5 Very stormy snow all day
6 Very stormy am. pm cleared up moderate
7 Clear and moderate
8 Clear and moderate n cloudy.
9 Clear and moderate n cloudy
10 Foggy M. Rainy the chief of the day
11 Clear and moderate
12 Clear and pleasant.
13 Clear and warm.
14 Sometimes clear. Sometimes cloudy, raw cold
15 Cloudy and misty m. Very rainy chiefly.
16 Sometimes clear & somet. cloudy.
17 Clear and moderate. Windy.
18 Cloudy raw cold uncomfortable weather
19 Clear and windy.
20 Clear raw cold weather.
21 Clear raw cold weather.
22 Clear raw cold weather.
23 Clear and pleasant.
24 Clear and warm.
25 Clear & very warm.
26 Clear and very warm.
27 am Haize. pm Cloudy, n rainy
28 am very windy pm cloudy, towards night cleared up
29 Clear & cold
30 Cloudy chiefly. Some thunder
31 Clear and very cold

Comparing the weather predicted by Ames’ Almanac and the weather collected by William Parsons. William Parsons’ diary-almanacs are held by the New York Public Library, Manuscript and Archives Division.

 

When Ames and others began producing almanacs in the eighteenth century, they took their cues from the Europeans but adapted their product for the North American market—calculating the local sunrise time, forecasting the local weather. To this day The Old Farmer’s Almanac uses a formula based on the one first developed by Robert B. Thomas in 1792 for its long-range weather forecasting. It claims 80 percent accuracy, but a study of its weather predictions from 1975 to 1980 suggest that its accuracy is closer to 52 percent. Thomas thought weather was affected by sun spots and solar activity, and both reportedly formed a significant part of his weather calculations. In the first edition of what was then called the Farmer’s Almanac, Thomas boasted, “As to my judgment of the weather, I need say but little; for you will in one year’s time, without any assistance of mine, very easily discover how near I have come to the truth.” Eighteenth-century American almanacs blurred the lines between astronomy, astrology, and climatology, presenting calculations for dates and times of eclipses alongside illustrations of the so-called astrological man: a diagram showing the parts of the body governed by the difference constellations.

Almanacs covered more than the weather. They included all kinds of useful tidbits, such as how to cure a boil and the rate of currency exchanges. Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac popularized aphorisms of “a penny saved is a penny earned” variety. You might turn to an almanac if you wanted to find out when the frost might begin, how long the road to Boston was, or where to find your local post office. And readers like William Parsons found utility in their almanacs beyond what was offered on the printed page, turning their copies into diaries, inserting pages to record events of their own lives, including the weather.

Pages of an almanac from 1715 showing a woodcut of a man, the parts of his body labeled with different astrological signs.

Jeremiah Lyons of Colerain, Massachusetts, collected weather in his copy of Thomas’ Mass. Comm., etc. Almanac. In his surviving notes, written in minute hand on densely packed pages so faded as to be almost illegible, we learn that it takes many adjectives to encompass a full day’s weather. “Fair, pleasant, very warm, slash lightning, rain hard,” Lyons recorded on August 29, 1788. The next day: “Fair, flying clouds, warm, rain.”

Edward Augustus Holyoke recorded Boston area weather in his 1742 Ames’ Almanac, using the interleaved pages to create a mirror of each month’s calendar, complete with symbols to describe the day’s weather. Holyoke added a key of sixty-seven symbols, including two symbols for rainbows—one for a “common rainbow” and another for an “excellent rainbow.”

Hugh Hall Jr., who collected weather from 1714–17 in a homemade almanac-style book, had fifty-eight symbols for different types of weather, including “flying clouds,” “hott,” “frosty,” “calm,” and “wholsome.” Like Lyons’ adjectives, Hall’s and Holyoke’s extensive symbols suggest the variety of weather as well as its multidimensionality. Weather is not only fair or rain, hot or cold; it is the behavior of clouds, the feel of the air, the relative excellence of a rainbow—and how all these disparate ingredients intermingle in one atmosphere.

Scholars have turned to the records left by weather collectors to understand the history of climate change. Old Weather transcribes weather and climate observations from ships’ logs in the Arctic to provide historians and climate scientists with two centuries of data about sea ice and weather conditions in the coldest parts of the world. Historical Weather Database on the Web provides similar data for weather collected in Japan between 1661 and 1892.

An almanac page and a blank page on which has been written a key with symbols for different types of weather.

Qualitative weather collection—making note of all the adjectives that describe the day’s elements—requires only a writing implement, access to the outside world, and dedication. Technological developments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries allowed some citizen scientists to engage in weather collection as a quantitative science as well, expanding upon a field that had previously meant simply noting the rain or sun in a journal before going on to record the daily details of a life. The mercury thermometer, invented by Daniel Fahrenheit in 1724, made significant improvements on the thermometers and thermoscopes that came before it, most of which relied on the displacement of liquid by heated or cooled air to measure temperature. The prohibitive cost of a good thermometer—the equivalent of several hundred dollars in the mid-eighteenth century—limited quantitative weather collection to the well-off.

An eighteenth-century mercury thermometer in a case.

As thermometers became less expensive and more readily available—and other advances made transmitting findings to a large audience easier—scientific weather collection became increasingly accessible. Beginning in 1849, Joseph Henry, the first head of the Smithsonian Institution, relied on daily telegraphed weather reports to update a large weather map of the United States in the lobby of the Smithsonian Castle. He wanted to be able to forecast storms, and then to use the telegraph to convey that forecast faster than the storm could travel. To advance this goal, and meteorological and climatological science more broadly, he also recruited volunteers from across the United States to collect weather data—including temperature, humidity, precipitation, and observations of the wind and clouds—in standardized forms that they would submit monthly. By 1873 the Smithsonian had received reports from hundreds of individuals and organizations. The collected weather data transformed weather predictions. Forecasts now could be based on historical data. While almanacs continued to predict weather on the basis of astronomical meteorology, they might also include tables of average weather data collected by meteorologists.

Even before Henry’s systematic efforts, individuals recorded quantitative weather data in hopes of uncovering greater scientific truths about the climate and its effects. The English minister Andrew Burnaby published his Travels Through the Middle Settlements in North America, in the Years 1759 and 1760 in 1775 in order to explain the mid-Atlantic colonies to British readers; his book includes weather observations gathered at Williamsburg, Virginia, by his friend Francis Fauquier, governor of the colony. Burnaby tells us that the climate in Virginia is very fine but hot in the summers, with temperatures between 85 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The other problem is the weather’s mercurial nature, which he credits with changing winds. “Southerly winds are productive of heat, northerly of cold, and easterly of rain,” he writes, “whence it is no uncommon thing for the thermometer to fall many degrees in a very few hours.” The hot summers are accompanied by lightning storms, but few people are killed because most of the white gentry have lightning rods, he explains. Burnaby casually remarks that Virginia’s black inhabitants are not as protected by this new technology in the same sentence informing us that lightning sometimes fells trees.

 

Weather collection could help explain a foreign place. Thomas Jefferson kept personal records of the weather for years before compiling the data into Notes on the State of Virginia. As a landowner Jefferson had practical reasons to track the weather, and he may have been inspired by Fauquier’s weather collecting—they also were friends. Jefferson’s oldest extant weather notebook records the temperature, precipitation, and occasionally the barometric pressure, wind direction, humidity, and animal and plant behavior, often at several different points in the day, for most months from 1776 to 1779.

His interest was not limited to Virginia. He collected weather wherever he happened to be—Philadelphia, Monticello, Williamsburg—and took pains to ensure the scientific accuracy of his findings. In 1790, after moving to Philadelphia to take up his position as secretary of state, Jefferson wrote to his son that he hadn’t been keeping his weather record, because he had not yet found a place where his thermometer would be free of the data-corrupting effects of sunlight. He crossed out all the temperatures in 1798 and half of those from 1799, noting, “During that period my thermometer had been placed in the N.E. portico, newly built, and it was not till June 17 ’99 that I discovered it to be artificially heated, probably by the mound of earth in it. I then removed the 2 thermometers to approved positions.”

A notebook page with hand-drawn tables listing the temperature for May, June and July 1792. Part way through July a note indicates that subsequent recordings were taken at Monticello.

Jefferson wanted to advance meteorological science and develop a comprehensive theory of climate, and he wanted to gather data to disprove the Count of Buffon’s theory that the humidity of North America led to a decrease in both the size and variety of animal species. To that end he recruited others to the weather-collecting cause. In 1784 he wrote to James Madison,

I wish you would keep a diary under the following heads or columns. 1. day of the month. 2. thermometer at sunrise. 3. barometer at sunrise. 4. direction of wind at sunrise. 5. the weather viz. rain, snow, fair at sunrise, &c. 6. thermom. at 4 pm. 7. barometer at 4. pm. 8. direction of wind at 4 pm. 9. weather at 4 pm. 10. shooting or falling of the leaves of trees, of flours, and other remarkable plants. 11. appearance or disappearance of birds, their emigrations &c. 12. Miscellanea. It will be an amusement to you and may become useful. I do not know whether you have a thermometer or barometer. If you have not, those columns will be unfilled till you can supply yourself. In the miscellaneous column I have generally inserted Aurora boreales, and other unclassed rare things. Adieu Adieu Yours affectionately.

This was a significant request to make of a person, especially given the cost of a thermometer. But Madison was always willing to help his friend. He, his father—who seems to have taken the bulk of the readings—and possibly his brothers kept eighteen years of weather records at their plantation, Montpelier. As agricultural plantation owners and wealthy enslavers, both Jefferson and Madison had the means and opportunity required to collect weather, as well as a financial incentive: meteorology is an important part of agronomy. Monticello, now a museum and historic site, serves as a weather station to this day.

While weather alone would not end Jefferson’s disagreement with Buffon—Buffon became convinced of the size and variety of North American fauna only when Jefferson sent him bones and skins from moose and other animal specimens—it did inform Notes on the State of Virginia. In his chapter on climate, Jefferson described the difficulty in determining the climate of a large geographic area where it was colder on high peaks than it was in low plains. While he tried to account for these temperature differences, at times he could only speculate.

In the summer of 1779, when the thermometer was at 90° at Monticello, and 96° at Williamsburgh, it was 110° at Kaskaskia. Perhaps the mountain, which overhangs this village on the north side, may, by its reflection, have contributed somewhat to produce this heat.

Jefferson’s climate science, along with his investigations into plant and animal life, has a darker side to it. In Notes, he published legitimate scientific investigations alongside faux scientific opinions about race. As scholar Nicholas Magnis shows, Jefferson dressed his discussions of race in the trappings of Enlightenment science while making claims based on prejudice rather than evidence. He did not apply the same careful scrutiny of evidence to his racial science as he did to his natural science; he even rejected evidence that was given to him. When the self-taught African American mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker sent Jefferson a manuscript copy of his own almanac with a letter encouraging Jefferson to rethink his racism, Jefferson replied, “Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men,” but wrote to a friend that he suspected Banneker had the help of a white man, his neighbor George Ellicot, in making his astronomical calculations. Jefferson’s legitimate pursuits in climatology and weather collecting strengthened the veneer of Enlightenment science that hid his racial animus.

 

By the end of the eighteenth century weather collecting had dovetailed with the growing science of public health. Noah Webster, famous for his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), had a keen interest in epidemiology. In 1793 he moved to New York City to become editor of the city’s first daily newspaper, American Minerva. That year, a yellow fever epidemic broke out in Philadelphia, but it would take two years for the epidemic to reach New York. Webster wanted to know why travelers between the two cities had not transported the disease earlier.

Webster corresponded with physicians and scientists and requested mortality records from local officials. One correspondent suggested the disease’s origins could be attributed to large quantities of rotting fish. Philadelphia physician William Currie believed the disease had been imported from abroad. In twenty-five letters published in the New York Commercial Advertiser (the new name of the American Minerva) between October and December 1797, Webster disagreed vehemently with Currie, arguing that citizens had a moral obligation to determine how humans might prevent the spread of disease. Webster wrote that humidity and other atmospheric factors contributed to the spread of the fever and of epidemics in general. Lack of air circulation and filth also seemed to him to be factors in the spread of disease.

Webster had begun his almanac-style weather collection in January 1794. He recorded the temperature at 7 or 8 am, 2 pm, and 9 pm each day. He included the direction of the wind and a brief description of the day: “fair,” “rain,” “snow.” Each month he compiled statistics: the mean temperature, the greatest daily temperature range, the coldest temperature recorded, the number of days with rain, etc. To his page for July 1975, he added a note that this was the month of New York’s yellow fever epidemic.

A manuscript page of Noah Webster's weather recordings for July 1795.

Like Jefferson, Webster used his weather data to write a book, A Brief History of Epidemics and Pestilential Diseases. Its brevity encompasses pestilence in ancient Egypt and yellow fever in 1795 New York. “About the 20th of July,” he writes, “began a series of hot, damp, rainy weather, with light southerly winds; a season answering to the description which Hippocrates has given of a pestilential constitution.” Not only was the summer more humid and the air worse than usual, he insists, it was also on average three degrees warmer than the preceding ten summers. About 750 people died in New York that summer, most in low-lying streets by the East River, where former swampland and narrow alleys trapped bad air, moisture, and heat. He continues:

Heavy rains were followed by a humid, close, sultry air; no thunder and lightning; no northwesterly winds to cool and refresh the fainting bodies of men. For many weeks the atmosphere was so loaded with vapor that no electricity could be excited with the best instruments. Fruit perished on the trees and fell half rotten and covered with mold. Sound potatoes from the market perished in my cellar in thirty-six hours. Cabbages rotted off, between the head and the stalk, as they stood in gardens.

 

Climate scientists can use the traces of past weather recorded by these weather collectors to develop models for climate change, but gaps and inconsistencies in the archival record create problems for scientists, just as they do for historians. Because weather-collection methodology, instruments, and practices have changed over time, small variations in recorded temperatures are as likely to be caused by a thermometer placed in direct sunlight or a volcanic eruption as by genuine climate change. Some of this variability is mitigated by the practice of aggregating climate data in ten-year averages, but other measures must also be taken, such as translating data from one temperature scale to another or correcting for old methodologies that result in higher or lower temperatures. Sometimes disparate data sets cannot be reconciled at all. When Jefferson began collecting weather, he placed his thermometer in a north-facing room in his house, following the procedures recommended by the Royal Society of London, but he later moved it to a dedicated place outside. The first years of his data set are therefore not directly comparable to later years, unless one could first correct for the difference between indoor and outdoor readings.

A table of weather observations from May 1978 in Arietta, New York.

The need for comparable data meant that weather collection efforts became increasingly standardized and centralized over time. After 1870 the work of Joseph Henry’s weather-collection volunteers were largely taken over by the Weather Bureau of the United States, now called the National Weather Service. The International Cloud Atlas, first published in 1896, sought to standardize a cloud typology by reproducing photographs of clouds and labeling them cirrus, cumulus, or nimbus. But standardized and centralized weather collection still requires numerous collectors in disparate places. Today the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration relies on the Citizen Weather Observer program to collect weather data from around the world. Its thirteen thousand volunteers contribute data from their privately owned weather stations that is used by hundreds of organizations, including the National Weather Service. The NOAA also runs the Cooperative Observer Program, the updated version of Henry’s weather network: volunteers across the country record daily weather information, including minimum and maximum temperatures and precipitation totals. These monthly data tables would look pretty familiar to Jefferson, Webster, and other eighteenth-century weather collectors.

Lapham’s Almanac 2019

August

Date High (°F) Low (°F) Weather
1 86 72 Sunny
2 82 73 Some clouds
3 84 70 Partly cloudy
4 86 68 Sunny
5 81 72 Mostly sunny; warm but not humid
6 79 72 Sunny wth some rain
7 84 70 Thunderstorms
8 82 68 Partly cloudy
9 81 70 Some clouds and rain; warm and humid
10 79 66 Partly cloudy
11 79 64 Sunny
12 84 68 Sunny and clear
13 79 72 Cloudy; muggy; rain
14 82 73 Overcast; rain
15 82 72 Humid; clear skies; sunny
16 79 68 Clear skies
17 84 73 Humid; clear skies; sunny
18 90 72 Sunny; brief afternoon storm
19 90 72 Sunny; some spitting rain
20 86 75 Sunny; Humid
21 88 75 Sunny; some wispy clouds; heavy rain; thunder
22 88 72 Sunny; clear skies; rain
23 73 64 Rain
24 75 64 Mix of sun and clouds
25 75 63 Some clouds
26 73 61 Some clouds
27 73 63 Sunny
28 73 66 Humid; overcast; rainy
29 81 66 Sunny
30 84 68 Sunny; clear skies
31 81 70 Sunny; clear skies

Weather collected at the Lapham’s Quarterly office, New York City. Temperatures from CustomWeather.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.