“Old Probabilities”

If you area reading this anywhere in the United States this week, you’ve probably been tuned into the weather more than usual.  From gale warnings in the Gulf of Mexico, blizzards in the Midwest, and ice storms in the East, NOAA‘s national map is a kaleidoscope of color-coded warnings.  All this weather reminded me of an equally-colorful description by Mark Twain in 1876 of pioneering meteorologist and National Geographic Society founder Cleveland Abbe:

“Old Probabilities has a mighty reputation for accurate prophecy, and thoroughly well deserves it. You take up the paper and observe how crisply and confidently he checks off what today’s weather is going to be on the Pacific, down South, in the Middle States, in the Wisconsin region. See him sail along in the joy and pride of his power till he gets to New England, and then see his tail drop. He doesn’t know what the weather is going to be in New England. Well, he mulls over it, and by-and-by he gets out something about like this: Probably northeast to southwest winds, varying to the southward and westward and eastward and points between, high and low barometer swapping around from place to place; probable areas of rain, snow, hail, and drought, succeeded or preceded by earthquakes, with thunder and lightning. Then he jots down his postscript from his wandering mind, to cover accidents. ‘But it is possible that the programme may be wholly changed in the mean time.’ “

Cleveland Abbe was born in New York City on December 3, 1838, one of seven children born to George Waldo Abbe and Charlotte Colgate. One of his siblings, Robert, was also destined to leave a mark on science. As a surgeon, Robert Abbe would pioneer the use of catgut sutures and gain a reputation as a skilled plastic surgeon. He would also become friends with Marie and Pierre Curie, discoverers of radium, which he used to treat cancer patients.

Cleveland Abbe’s training was actually in the field of astronomy, not meteorology. He graduated in 1857 from what is now known as the College of the City of New York and worked for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey from 1860-1864. Later, he traveled to Russia to be a guest researcher at the Nicholas Central Observatory in Poulkova, near St. Petersburg, and he came to believe that better meteorology makes for better astronomy.

Upon his return to the U.S., he briefly worked at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., before taking up the post of director of the Cincinnati Observatory, which had fallen on hard times since the Civil War. Abbe got the cooperation of Western Union Telegraphic Company to provide free telegraphs from weather observers that would be published by the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. His first report, published on September 1, 1869, contained observations from only two watchers, but the number would grow, albeit erratically. His nickname arose from this very first handwritten report, where he remembered he had misspelled “Tuesday.” Underneath, a wag identified only as “Mr. Davis,” wrote, “A bad spell of weather for Old Probs.”

Despite the seemingly inauspicious beginning, Abbe wrote to his father, “I have started that which the country will not willingly let die.” (If he only could have seen The Weather Channel!) His forecasts, or probabilities, gave impetus to the establishment of a national weather service signed into law by President Grant on February 9, 1870, to be administered by the Army’s Signal Corps. Military posts submitted observations “on the approach and force of storms.” The government appropriation bill spelled out the necessity of such reports “for the benefit of agriculture and commercial interests.” Eventually, this “National Weather Service,” with ever-increasing duties would grow into the present National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. By 1871, the Army hired Abbe at the princely sum of $3,000 per year, making him one of the nation’s most highly-paid scientists.

Association with the Signal Service and the Weather Bureau meant that Abbe made his home in Washington D.C. for many years. There he was active in many of the scientific societies prevalent in the capital at that time. One night in January 1888, he attended a meeting held at the Cosmos Club when a new such organization was born, the National Geographic Society. Abbe served on the Society’s Board of Managers for two years, and elected to pay $50 to become a life member so as not to have to be bothered with yearly dues, but otherwise we have far too little information on this one of our founders. But when you’re wondering what the next day’s weather will bring, think kindly of Old Probs struggling with his weather charts and barometric readings.


About Cathy Hunter

I have worked as an archivist at National Geographic for over 20 years and particularly love learning more about our old expeditions.
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