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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The First Weather Guy

Before leaving home in the morning, do you check the forecast at or on the TV? Did you know that weather forecasts were the brainchild of Milwaukee scientist Increase Lapham?

Lapham (1811-1875) came to Wisconsin in 1836. In 1844 he published its first accurate map by gathering data from contributors all around the Territory. In the 1850s, when the telegraph spread its tentacles across the state, he enlisted volunteers to send him meteorological readings taken at the same time in different places. Mapping these led Lapham to discover the "lake effect" phenomenon, which makes coastal temperatures warmer than inland ones in the fall and cooler in the spring.

It also made him realize that if enough contributors telegraphed data from enough places every day, scientists could map weather patterns as they were moving across the continent. Lapham saw that for the first time in history humans would not only be able to figure out how weather worked, but also might actually be able to predict weather conditions in advance. So he proposd a National Weather Service that would collect, transmit, map, and publicize meteorological data. He died before his idea was implemented, and of course forecasting turned out to be trickier than he could imagine. But Increase Lapham set in motion the idea that today gives us weather forecasts, tornado warnings, and hurricane watches.

Today (March 7th) is Lapham's birthday. Besides thinking up the National Weather Service, he was an engineer, archaeologist, educator, biologist, historian, and Quaker. You can see many of his writings at Turning Points in Wisconsin History (just type "Lapham" in the search box). And the next time you reach for your umbrella when dashing out the door, send a silent nod in his direction.
:: Posted in Curiosities on March 7, 2005

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