Early Presidents Were Avid Weather Watchers
Updated February 14, 2014
By Chief Meteorologist, Mark Hoekzema
In colonial times, weather played a very important role, not only in agriculture and business but also in day-to-day existence. Early settlers had a hard life in the New World.
Many early colonists recognized the importance of learning about the weather in the new British colonies. Being aware of weather events helped settlers prepare for the worst conditions that the new climate could throw at them.
Early colonial leaders who forged the path to independence of our country were avid weather observers. Four out of the first six presidents -- Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and John Quincy Adams -- engaged in personal weather observing with their own instruments.
Thomas Jefferson bought his first thermometer during the period he was helping write the Declaration of Independence. He purchased his first barometer just a few days following the signing of the document.
Incidentally, he noted that the high temperature in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776 was 76 degrees. Jefferson made regular observations at Monticello from 1772-78, and participated in taking the first known simultaneous weather observations in America.
Jefferson and Madison were known to have corresponded about the climate of Virginia and the New World and both kept extensive weather diaries. Jefferson and Madison de-bunked a long held theory held by Europeans that the climate of the North America was inferior to Europe and inhibited animal growth.
George Washington also took regular observations; the last weather entry in his diary was made the day before he died.
In 1822, near the end of his long life, Thomas Jefferson expressed his disappointment: "Of all the departments of science, no one seems to be less advanced in the last hundred years than that of meteorology."
Later on in history, the minimal advancements became more apparent in the ability to forecast around the inaugurations of several of our Presidents.
There was the most famous missed forecast for the inauguration of President William Taft on March 4, 1909. This event became the prime example for all who shared a distrust of weather forecasters. Despite a prediction on March 3 that a storm center over the Ohio Valley would move rapidly eastward and would be well out to sea by the time of the swearing-in, the storm intensified, slowed, and wrapped the District of Columbia in a severe morning storm that dumped 9.8 inches of snow on the inaugural scene, forcing the ceremonies indoors.
Other presidents could have benefited from better forecasts and thus better decision making about inaugural events.
In 1841, President William Henry Harrison was sworn into office on a cloudy, cold and blustery day. His speech lasted one hour and 40 minutes and he rode a horse to and from the Capitol without a hat or overcoat. Pneumonia developed from a lingering cold he caught on that day and he died just one month later.
In 1853, President Franklin Pierce was sworn into office on another cold and snowy day. He awoke to heavy snow in the morning, which continued until about 11:30 am. Skies looked to be brightening by noon. Shortly after Pierce took his oath of office, as he began his inaugural address, snow started again. It came down even heavier, dispersing much of the crowd and ruining plans for the parade. Abigail Fillmore, First Lady to the outgoing President Millard Fillmore, caught a cold as she sat on the cold, wet, exposed platform during the swearing-in ceremony. The cold developed into pneumonia and she died at the end of the month.
Later in the 20th century, forecast developments would have done Jefferson proud. One president benefited greatly from timely weather information and subsequent decision-making.
In 1985, President Ronald Reagan`s second swearing-in ceremony on January 21 had to be held indoors and the parade was canceled. The outside temperature at noon was only 7 degrees F. The morning low was 4 degrees below zero and the daytime high was only 17 degrees. Wind chill temperatures during the afternoon were in the -10 to -20 degrees range.
Over the years of history, weather has played a big role in many historic events and U.S. presidents have been there to record and experience the worst of it.
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NOAA Inauguration Weather Page
"The Weather of Inauguration Day" by Patrick Hughes, ESSA, Environmental Data Services, 1968. (ESSA became NOAA in 1970.)
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