The Magazine of South Carolina

South Carolina Yesteryear

The First Weather Watchers


by Dr. Lewis P. Jones

The earliest published weather records in America were recorded by John Lining, a Charles Town doctor who wanted to learn how climactic conditions affected his health.


Joel Chandler Harris achieved fame with his Uncle Remus, but he spent most of his career on the staff of the Atlanta Constitution. His prose could be poignant. A sample of it:

The tangled thunder of chaos shook the foundation of things. The billowing waters of the sea leapt up and mingled with the shrieking spirits of the air. Out of the seething depths disaster sprung, and out of the roaring heavens calamity fell. No just and reasonable estimate of the loss of life in these islands has been made. The adjacent coast was prompt to tell of its losses by the long tongue of the telegraph. Its dead were known and identified. Its searching-parties found them out. Its tugs and launches brought them out.

But the Sea Islands were dumb, and they are dumb to this day. When the tide was friendly, it carried their dead ashore, or logged them in the rank marsh sedge, but when the tide was careless it drifted the bodies seaward.

This was the first "storm of '93," which hit South Carolina's lower coast in late August 1893. (Less than a month later, the second one lambasted the Georgetown area.)

But look at Harris' first paragraph again. "The adjacent coast" to which he referred was the Charleston area, which had fared comparatively well, and there its dead were "known and identified." The News & Courier at first had said the city was devastated, but within three days it ran the cheerful headline, "Getting Along Nicely." Three had died in town and three "on the island."

Two days later the town began to discover what Harris later was to describe: The storm also had struck the sea islands to the south, especially St. Helena. In that vicinity the death toll estimates ranged from 1,000 to 3,000, most by drowning. Led by Clara Barton, the Red Cross set up headquarters at Beaufort and stayed many months. (For graphic descriptions by Harris, see "The Sea Island Hurricane" in Scribner's, February and March 1894.)

The story underscores two beneficial changes that came in the last century: the revolution in communication and the growth of meteorology, the science of dealing with phenomena of the atmosphere, especially weather conditions.

Unlike Frogmore or Clifton Point or Eddings Point on St. Helena, Charleston was a modern town with ties to the world. It "got the word" and "raised the hurricane flag signal" August 25. The News & Courier foretold its coming on the 26th. The storm came on the 27th. The people on the islands to the south did not get the Charleston paper, nor did they listen to radio or TV in 1893. They drowned. Four days after the storm, the first news of what had happened down there began to ooze out, beginning with a report that between 400 and 500 lives had been snuffed out within the 20 miles of Beaufort. Thereafter the numbers increased daily.

Communication was better in 1893 than in 1793 - but it still was limited to the telegraph (then hand-tapped by dots and dashes of Morse code), the mail and word of mouth. By 1893 the understanding of the atmosphere also had improved - and was not yet monopolized by a "weather personality" wedged between commercials, news and sports. The News & Courier had the scientific explanation the day before the blow arrived: A flow of dry air from North Africa had moved westward across the Atlantic and reached the Gulf Stream and then was lunging northward off the coast of Florida and Georgia.

The science of weather is based on thousands of observations gathered for years over as wide an area as possible. Ultimately, past precedents thus recorded are the basis for predictions of the future. In the United States, it began officially (that is, the government got into the act) in 1870.


The "Official" Weather

The first published weather forecasts, based on simultaneous observations gathered by telegraph from a network of observers in 31 states, were distributed by the Smithsonian Institution in 1849. The U.S. Weather Service was started as part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1870.

Many individuals, however, diligently had made observations and maintained records earlier. (In the July/August 1990 issue of this column, we noted how old almanacs had a mania for meteorology.) As usual, Charleston played a role in the very beginning.

Commencing in the 18th Century, the Medical Society there had begun keeping meteorological and disease records. They hoped to correlate the two as they coped with one epidemic after another - causes of which they did not understand. Ultimately they noted which weather stages seemed to be followed by certain fevers. They blamed many problems on "miasma," the "bad air" which was thought to rise from the swamps and putrid matter and cause disease. This thick, vaporous atmosphere, of course, was not what bit them. Nevertheless, MDs were weather pioneers.

One who distinguished himself was Dr. John Lining (1708-1760), who was blessed with "scientific zeal that only research could satisfy." From his native Scotland he had arrived in Charleston at the age of 22 and soon was concerned with epidemics which he said came regularly "at their stated Seasons" like a good clock. He therefore began to note seriously this weather so different from that of Scotland and to "study the effects of climactic conditions upon his own metabolism." Gabriel Fahrenheit recently had developed his temperature scale; at regular intervals each day, Lining recorded the temperature, humidity, cloudiness, rainfall and wind force - to be the first published records of the weather in America. At the same time, he recorded his own weight twice daily, his pulse rate, his daily intake of food and water and the weight of his excretions. The Royal Society in London published his observations in 1754.

Lionel Chalmers, another Charleston doctor, meticulously maintained similar records beginning about 1752, and they were published in London in 1776 as Register of the Weather and Diseases Kept at Charles Town.

Incidentally, Lining interested himself in electricity, flew his own kite and corresponded with Benjamin Franklin.

The National Weather Service on which we now rely descended from those Smithsonian beginnings of 1849. After the U.S. Signal Corps began the service in 1870, Congress realized its commercial, agricultural and industrial importance and transferred it to the Department of Agriculture in 1891. Some 4,500 cooperative observers (most of them volunteers) made certain observations daily, as did navigators. Special services and publications were provided to various government agencies and to farmers.

By 1940, partly because of its impact on aviation, the Weather Service was moved to the Department of Commerce. Technical improvements such as weather satellites enhanced it drastically. In 1970 it became a section of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Department of Commerce.

In South Carolina, the Weather Service was established at 1 Broad Street, Charleston, in 1871. (Even today its official records note that the doctors' work begun in 1738 appears to have been "exceptionally accurate" and complete except for brief gaps during the Revolution and Civil War.) The office in Columbia opened in the Old Agricultural Hall in 1887. Various substations were maintained by citizens who submitted their observations to Columbia, using equipment supplied by the National Weather Service. Some eventually became official stations, like Spartanburg, where a citizen performed the job from 1897 until 1930. Several of these substations were maintained for generations by one family - as at Walhalla, Santuck and Little Mountain.

Don't say nobody ever does anything about the weather but talk about it. Some people do something, and we all benefit. Sometimes folks nowadays even survive because of these people - plus good communication.


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