It seems a little foolhardy that, until now, a force as monstrous and as fickle as the weather has never been honored with its own museum. The potato has had one for years.
At the new national weather museum in Silver Spring, certain truths about the weather are humblingly reinforced: We can observe it and we can measure it. But in the event of a twister, that Totable Tornado Observatory displayed near the window can do little more than gauge the wind pressure -- it can't stop a thing.
"Weather is always a fascinating subject because we are helpless in nature. We are in awe of its turbulent state," said Bill Stanley, the federal historian who designed the museum.
A tour of the facility, officially called the National Weather Service Science and History Center, is over rather quickly. Located in the new offices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) beside the Silver Spring Metro station, the museum, which opened last month, occupies only 1,100 square feet, has no staff and is open on weekdays.
There is a wall near the entrance full of daunting weather photographs -- cars bobbing in a flooded street, splinters of lightning in a violent blue sky, a dark funnel cloud descending on a field. A suspicious dripping sound fills the room, but it turns out to be only the fake rain in the window of a model 1891 weather office. A voice drones on with the latest data from NOAA Weather Radio, and a section of clear glass offers a reminder of the current weather outside.
Until now, there was never a place in the Washington region where the curious could go to find out the up-to-the-minute weather conditions in Reno, Nev., or Abilene, Tex. But the museum's 24-hour television monitors make it possible, Stanley said, for "someone to stand in the courtyard outside at 11 o'clock at night and see the temperatures and the cloud cover over North America."
The recording of weather in the United States dates back at least 200 years. On July 3, 1776, when he was working on the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson requested a break in order to take his thermometer outside and record some temperatures, Stanley said.
Originally intended to assist farmers, weather forecasting became popular in 1870 through the Army Signal Corps, then through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since 1940, the weather service has operated under the U.S. Department of Commerce and NOAA.
Forecasters used to depend on the simple tools displayed in the model of the 1891 office -- weather vanes, barometers, rain gauges, record books written in a spidery hand. Now, according to the display, a technique called "geostationary operational environmental satellite imagery" means everything.
Only one visitor had wandered into the new museum on a recent afternoon, and he admittedly had a vested interest. David Ruth, a meteorologist under contract with the National Weather Service, said it is good, finally, to see a memorial to his profession.
"Well," he said. "It's certainly a lot nicer than what we had before."