It is not well known that the founders of the American republic were avid amateur meteorologists, with many of them taking weather observations daily. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and others were intrigued about the meteorology and climate of the new nation and deeply curious about the natural world.
Take Thomas Jefferson, our third President and the primary author of the Declaration of Independence.
He started taking observations in Monticello, VA in the early 1770s, doing so twice a day….once at dawn and again at 4 PM. On his way to Philadelphia in 1776, he picked up a thermometer and took FOUR observations on July 4, 1776.
Amazingly, the high temperature that day was 76F!
Check out his observation summary of 1776 below. A few days after signing the Declaration, he went out and bought a barometer. The kind of thing I would do!
With a few interruptions, Jefferson took weather observations for nearly 50 years. He did have a few motivations beyond scientific curiosity. A number of European “experts” claimed that there was a “degeneracy” of animal life in the New World because of an excessively humid, cloudy, and unhealthful climate. Jefferson using observations from both the colonies and Europe disproved such claims, noting in 1791 that:“On the whole, I find nothing anywhere else in point of climate which Virginia need envy to any part of the world.”
Jefferson also wanted to study weather to improve forecasting complaining in 1822 that:
“Of all the departments of science, no one seems to be less advanced in the last hundred years than that of meteorology.”
Ouch….fortunately, that would soon change, with the development of telegraphy during the subsequent decades, allowing rapid communication of weather observations and thus forecasting.
And then there was George Washington, who also took weather observations over decades. Washington kept both general and weather diaries, and the latter are full of all kinds of perceptive comments on the weather. For example, on May 18, 1780, he wrote:
Heavy & uncommon kind of Clouds—dark & at the same time a bright and reddish kind of light intermixed with them—brightning & darkning alternately. This continued till afternoon when the sun began to appear.
So dedicated was Washington to weather monitoring that his last observation was taken within 24-h of his death on December 14, 1799:
“Morning Snowing & abt. 3 Inches deep. Wind at No. Et. & Mer. at 30. Contg. Snowing till 1 Oclock and abt. 4 it became perfectly clear. Wind in the same place but not hard. Mer. 28 at Night.”
And then there was Benjamin Franklin, who was in a class by himself, as much a weather scientist as a founder of the nation.
His Poor Richards Almanac contains some of the first written weather forecasts, and he was probably the first to commercialize weather information.
Franklin’s extensive weather correspondence led him to suggest that storms move from southwest to northeast. And with that observation and with an extraordinary leap of insight, he suggested the potential for weather forecasting if one only had weather data upstream of one’s position.
But it was Franklin’s work on electricity and his correct conclusion about the electrical origins of lightning that made him a scientific celebrity around the world. Franklin was a genius in many ways.It is extraordinary to think that these three individuals, in addition to their businesses and creating/building a new nation, also had the time to be deeply involved in scientific activities.
If only we had more leaders like this today…..