The Revolutionary Weather Observers

Reposted from the Cliff Mass Weather Blog

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.

By the time of the American revolution, relatively decent thermometers, barometers, and rain gauges were available, and taking weather observations was all the rage.

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…..

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March 8, 2021 6:46 pm


No use for Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology doesn’t accept weather records before 1910.

Reply to  Dennis
March 12, 2021 6:25 pm

Is that because most of the state temperature trends show temperatures were actually greater before 1910 than they are now?
For summary see

For graphs see

The same is true for the whole of Australia. See

Layor Nala
March 8, 2021 6:49 pm

I wonder if Biden has a copy?

Phillip Bratby
Reply to  Layor Nala
March 8, 2021 11:25 pm

If he had, he wouldn’t remember where to find it.

Joel O'Bryan
March 8, 2021 7:07 pm

Does Professor Mass realize he is using old white guys who maintained the “oppressive white patriarchy” as role models for his wx observations?
The woke fascist-antifascist Brown shirts will come for him again if they find out.
And those Wx observations made by them? Undoubtedly they will be cancelled anyways by climate justice warriors at NOAA/NCEI.

That IS how the Left operates today. I support him if he resists them. He’s already had to battle the woke-ists on his observations about Seattle’s disastrous Summer 2020 unrest.
remember this:

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
March 8, 2021 10:37 pm

I still don’t know why “weather” is abbreviated as “wx”…

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  Jeff Alberts
March 8, 2021 10:48 pm

You don’t know why “wx” is “weather”, but still you knew exactly what was meant by those 2 letters.
The English language is very versatile, flexible, and changing. English is the world’s lingua franca for that reason.
Almost every world language now incorporates English words and phrases in their lexicon. We hear it all the time in foreign language films, English phrases mixed in with native language. English, although difficult at first for non-natives, offers much diverse abilities to innovate.

Last edited 1 year ago by Joel O’Bryan
Pamela Matlack-Klein
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
March 9, 2021 3:24 am

Very true, Joel, English has become a language that almost all people know and recognize a little. As an expat in Portugal, my Portuguese is poor (it is nothing like Spanish, btw, much closer to vulgar latin!) although I learn a bit everyday. However, because English is taught in elementary school here many understand enough that with my pigeon Portuguese and their, usually better English, we communicate just fine.

Steve case
Reply to  Jeff Alberts
March 9, 2021 7:28 am

1 800 WXBRIEF is the the number to call for aviation weather.

Hoyt Clagwell
Reply to  Jeff Alberts
March 9, 2021 8:13 am

Weather is abbreviated “wx” to keep it gender neutral, just like “Latinx”. (sarc)

Reply to  Jeff Alberts
March 9, 2021 5:27 pm

I believe that came about as shorthand in Morse Code for telegraph and radio traffic.

Peta of Newark
March 8, 2021 7:56 pm

Was it coz the old lads didn’t regard themselves as being quite as ‘important’ as contemporary politicos regard themselves.

Modern politicians know they are really important people because they spend all their time having really Important Meetings with other really Important People talking about really Important Things.
Like tariffs on Scotch whisky by recent example
Or quibbling about shellfish as here in Europe.
(We don’t eat any great amount of Land Bugs, yet, so why should anybody want to eat Sea Bugs? Yuck. Gross)

As if Contemporary Importants endlessly reinforcing their own importance wasn’t bad enough, they surround themselves with fawning minion servants who constantly tell them how important they are.
(Of course, the fawning servants themselves are only there and doing it the hope that they will someday become ‘important’)

Thus, the tedious humdrum get-your-hands dirty business of watching/recording the weather becomes countless leagues below the importance level of the Important People.
They become ‘detached’ or ‘removed’

So it becomes that the fawning Wannabe Importants tell the Current Importants that they can actually control the weather.
Who’s to know. The Current Importants have detached themselves. They themselves are not checking. They’re too important for that.
Trouble is, Western Societies are still fixated by weather so the Importants delegate the weather measuring & recording to the ultimate in fawning servants.
viz: Sputniks and Computers

And of course computers are really important because, as everyone know, computers are always right – no-one will ever win any argument they ever get into against A Computer.

Or also A Sputnik of course. It will certainly poo on your head it you cross its path.

It could not be any more cosy, positively fed-back or downright incestuous

And here we are.
Governed by Really Important Mental Degenerates who have come to believe they are sooooo important that they can control the weather

How to cut them down to size…….

Pamela Matlack-Klein
Reply to  Peta of Newark
March 9, 2021 3:29 am

Sadly, the Founding Fathers, for all their brilliance, never conceived of the idea of a Professional Politician. They considered it a duty to serve one’s country for a reasonable amount of time after which it was back to real life and business. Had they the foresight to envision people who would spend decades of their lives as Congressmen or Senators they would have written term limits into the Constitution!

Reply to  Pamela Matlack-Klein
March 9, 2021 5:38 am

No, they knew about professional politicians – by definition anyone who receives pay or any kind of benefit is a “professional in this context – and did their best to prevent them gaining control of State and Federal government.

But the nature of government is to take what it likes unless constrained by its populace, and too many of the American populace were too busy enjoying the fruits of past struggles for liberty to actually engage in present struggles necessary to maintain it.

Worse, they got seduced into supporting foreign “struggles for liberty” that wound up expanding the power and scope of government at home and actually reduced their own liberty.

All while Bezenov’s termites were conducting their “long march” through academia.

Et voila! Here we are. Enjoy.

March 8, 2021 8:05 pm

Yeah but amateurs can’t read thermometers can they?

To bed B
Reply to  Mike
March 8, 2021 8:22 pm

They only make honest mistakes.

Rory Forbes
Reply to  Mike
March 8, 2021 9:01 pm

There was a time, not all that long ago, when there were no “professional” scientists. Like sports, they were all gifted amateurs. If they earned any money at all for their pains it was from the patronage of someone of wealth … or entrepreneurship (selling the fruits of their discoveries).

Reply to  Rory Forbes
March 8, 2021 9:26 pm

”There was a time” ……

……… when folks were proud of their work, made things that lasted, were honest in their dealings, and committed to integrity.
Michael Mann would’ve hated it.

Pamela Matlack-Klein
Reply to  Rory Forbes
March 9, 2021 3:31 am

Just so, they were called Naturalists and produced a solid foundation of knowledge that others used to build upon.

March 8, 2021 9:37 pm

The more I read about the America’s founding fathers the more I am impressed by them. Men like Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hancock were giants. The patriots assembled at the second continental congress and the men who later wrote the constitution may have been one of the world’s greatest collections of sheer brain power, realism, and patriotism.

I am so sick of attempts to re-write history and to tear down the American heritage (and for that matter western civilization).

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  Marty
March 8, 2021 10:59 pm

The failure of our current education system is to distinguish knowledge from intelligence.

We have knowledge of the natural world that those men of 1780 did not possess.
Yet, we think our knowledge makes us superior. We are so wrong.
Those men were of vastly superior intelligence to any of us on average. It has taken us 200 years of science experimetation, of trial and error, of failure and regroup, to give us our current knowledge of the natural world, a knowledge they did not know. Hard won knowledge we today mistake for intelligence.

But their intellect was keen, and honed to a razor edge by an enlightenment reading.
We are but knaves compared to their intelligence.

Last edited 1 year ago by Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
March 9, 2021 2:41 am

Anyone who has read any of the Patrick O’Brian’s sea going novels, especially the 20 volume Jack Aubrey Stephen Maturan ones will find the novels packed with weather observations of the time, (1801-1816). Although the novels are fiction, the author used the writings of the British Navy ships logs to keep his novels rather factual.

Pamela Matlack-Klein
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
March 9, 2021 3:41 am

I am a direct descendant of Timothy Matlack, Secretary to the Continental Congress because his penmanship was considered superior to the other members and therefore the Declaration of Independence is in his handwriting, not Jefferson’s. He also founded the Free Quakers after he was read out of meeting for waving his sabre at Tories on Market Street. And was important in the establishment of the University of Pennsylvania.

Tom in Florida
Reply to  Marty
March 9, 2021 4:11 pm

In all the writings of those involved in creating our Country, what I find the most moving and to me emotional, is the end of the Declaration of Independence:
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, WE MUTUALLY PLEDGE TO EACH OTHER OUR LIVES, OUR FORTUNES AND OUR SACRED HONOR” (my caps)

These men were willing to give up everything, even their lives, for the ideology of a government accountable to the people.

And now we are throwing it all away.

March 9, 2021 6:10 am

I have noticed that NWS is now actively recruiting “amature” weather observers through the headlines on their forecast pages. It’s also interesting that there is a move to crowd source weather data using today’s internet connected weather stations, some as inexpensive as $79!

Last edited 1 year ago by Yooper
March 9, 2021 7:03 am

I am sure knowledge of the weather was put to good use during the Revolutionary War. A history professor at University of Delaware said the founders had intellectual interests in things they would never use and would get up early to learn those interests. The things they did use turned out to be very effective such as founding the US based on personal liberty rather than a King or Queen. Although some of our representatives seem to think it is the latter.

Tom Abbott
March 9, 2021 9:09 am

Thanks for the history lesson, Cliff.

The railroads collected a lot of temperature data back then, especially after the telegraph came into use. Then, every little train station up and down the railroad lines would report the temperatures and weather conditions of their particular station to the central dispatcher, two to four times a day, where the information would be recorded on the official train sheet for that day.

I imagine current railroads are continuing the practice.

Last edited 1 year ago by Tom Abbott
Steve Z
March 9, 2021 9:27 am

Both Washington and Jefferson were landowners, and had to follow the weather to determine the best times to plant in spring and harvest in autumn. By following weather observations over many years, they could avoid being surprised by a late frost after a mild spell in March.

Washington, as the commander of the Revolutionary army, also needed to follow the weather to determine the optimum times to move his forces, and when to hunker down and wait for better weather.

There are several instances where the better knowledge of the local weather by the Americans helped them defeat the superior British forces. Prior to the attack on Boston Harbor, the American forces took advantage of a long spell of cold, clear winter weather over upstate New York to haul (horse-drawn) heavy cannons across frozen lakes, which was easier than hauling them overland.

Washington’s surprise attack on the British camp in Trenton on Christmas of 1776 (the crossing of the Delaware) occurred in foggy weather, which prevented the attackers from being seen until they had arrived on shore on the New Jersey side of the river. The attack may not have succeeded if it had occurred on a clear, moonlit night.

Franklin, in addition to his own weather observations, also compiled weather observations from others in different locations. By comparing his own observations with those of others, he was later able to deduce that weather over the American continent generally moved from west to east, and that coastal snowstorms over the east coast (now known as nor’easters) tended to move from south to north, despite the wind from the opposite direction.

March 9, 2021 2:03 pm

“Of all the departments of science, no one seems to be less advanced in the last hundred years than that of meteorology.”

Mr. Jefferson, weather divination hasn’t improved in the last 200 years either.

March 9, 2021 4:09 pm

The night that Washington and his small Army crossed the Delaware River to attack the Hessians at Trenton, NJ in a move that saved the revolution, Thomas Jefferson recorded 8″ of snow at Monticello.

Washington lost some men to hypothermia that night. Some men that had laid down to rest while they waited for the rest of the Army to cross awoke with their hair frozen to the ground.

John Tillman
Reply to  rah
March 11, 2021 4:40 pm

Some how the 16 year-olds in the Continental Army got by without resort to safe spaces, after being triggered by little food, much cold, no shoes and their comrades dying in battle or captured, soon to perish on British prison hulks.

Their 19 year-old descendents stormed Omaha Beach into the jaws of almost .

Reply to  John Tillman
March 12, 2021 2:00 pm

‘The Crossing’ is an excellent depiction the attack on Trenton.
The Crossing – YouTube

March 17, 2021 12:21 pm

Just remember that our “dumb” ancestors were ALL smarter than most of those alive on the planet today.

They paid attention to their surroundings and since everything took longer, learned a lot more by observation.

The intelligence on Earth is fixed. The population is growing. You do the math if you can.
That’s original Olde Wisdom from Thee Frugal Curmudgeon (that’s me)

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