Tomorrow is an appropriate day to get misty-eyed, for it is the 112th anniversary of the National Weather Service.
Actually, the history of the service packs all the emotion of one of its routine weather advisories:
Formed on Capitol Hill by joint resolution of Feb. 9, 1870, the first weather agency was the Signal Corps, assigned the task of obtaining weather information for military posts.
A storm of congressional protest and high pressure from citizens in 1891 (mostly over the issue of military versus civilian control) led to the transfer of responsibility to the Department of Agriculture.
In 1940 an executive order sent the service to the Commerce Department, where it has remained stationary.
Of course, the Weather Service made great strides in its formative years. By 1873, daily forecasts were available to farmers at rural post offices. Then came the flood warning service, frost advisories to southern farmers and kite observations. By 1898, the service was given responsibility for providing hurricane warnings, in particular as the United States became involved in a war in Cuba during the summer months.
The early 20th century saw no abatement in the continuing sophistication of the service's meteorological tools and accomplishments, including cable exchanges of data with Europe, fire weather forecasts, airplane observations and, by 1939, the first automatic telephone weather service in New York City.
The low-water mark of the service must have been reached in 1940 when it was transferred to Commerce, essentially a department dealing with business matters. For people in business by and large don't understand the difference between Fahrenheit and Celsius; the bottom line has little to do with wind chill, and the 30-day forecast isn't impressive unless it sheds light on interest rates and the market.
There is emerging a school of historical thought that suggests that the nation's bad weather and hard economic times may be attributable to this bureaucratic mismatch. The evidence: when meteorologists talk about R&D, other people in Commerce think they mean research and development. In fact, they're discussing rain and drought. Then there was the time when Commerce officials thought that Ltd. involved analysis of competition from British firms. To the weather personnel, it stood for lightning, thunder and downpours.
A flurry for Wall Streeters can be serious, for the brief agitation in stock prices can be downward. But to meteorologists it's just a little snow. Conversely, a windfall for the Weather Service is usually bad news (something blown down by the wind), while it's a welcome delight for investors. And seed money for the weather people deals with the purchase of silver iodide crystals for clouds, whereas its meaning is quite different for entrepreneurs--and for that matter, farmers.
The same school of historical thought contends that it has figured out how the bureaucratic confusion began. In the 1930s, the researchers point out, the nation witnessed the Great Depression, which probably led some of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's advisers to believe that weather forecasters knew more about this subject than anyone. And so when government reorganization became the focus of the Roosevelt administration in the mid-30s, the transfer of the Weather Service to Commerce, although at first brought about by other political fronts, became a reality.
To avoid further bureaucratic problems, some analysts have suggested that the service become an independent agency. But that might not be possible with the Reagan budget cutters.
Another alternative is to transfer the service to the Department of State. But that also has drawbacks. It's located in Foggy Bottom. 490:By Thomas V. DiBacco; Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian in the Kogod College of business at The American University.