Farmers and Predicting the Weather

Before meteorologists and the Internet, farmers had to rely on other means to predict the weather.

Approaching storm

Getting in the hay before an approaching storm. Painting by William Keith, 1880.

Illustration courtesy Sam Moore

Content Tools

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in morning, sailors take warning.

We’re all familiar with that old saying. It’s just one way folks have attempted to predict the weather, probably since time began. Based on any number of observed patterns of past weather, and not a little superstition and mysticism, some of these indications of future weather are still popular and some are surprisingly accurate.

Farmers everywhere have always had a strong interest in the weather, for obvious reasons. For centuries, a well-thumbed almanac hung on a nail by the door of every farmhouse. Most planting and harvesting decisions were based on information from those books. An annual publication, the almanac contained (and still does) weather forecasts, recommended planting dates, tide tables and other information arranged according to the calendar, including astronomical data and statistics such as times for sunrise and moonset, dates of eclipses and other helpful information.

Instruments of change

During the 1400s, the hygrometer (an instrument to measure humidity) was developed in Germany. A crude anemometer (used to measure wind speed) was invented in Italy in 1450. Galileo invented a gas-filled thermometer at about the turn of the 17th century, but it wasn’t very accurate or reliable. Although he also experimented with alcohol thermometers, it was another 100 years before Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit developed the much more accurate mercury-filled version. In 1643, an Italian named Evangelista Torricelli invented the barometer to measure atmospheric pressure. The barometer remains an important instrument for weather predicting. These instruments were improved over the next century or two, and when, in the 1830s, the telegraph made swift transmission of the weather trends indicated by these instruments possible, scientists were able to study and track weather systems and issue forecasts.

Two officers of the Royal Navy are generally credited with the beginning of modern weather forecasting. In roughly 1830, Rear Admiral Francis Beaufort developed the wind force scale in use today. In those days of sailing ships, the scale was based upon the effect different wind velocities had on the sails of a frigate. For example, wind scale 0 was for total calm, when no headway could be made using sails, to 12 for a hurricane, “or that which no canvas could withstand.” With the demise of sailing ships, the scale was modified to reflect actual wind speed.

Vice Admiral Robert FitzRoy, who commanded HMS Beagle during Charles Darwin’s famous voyage from December 1831 to October 1836, retired from the Royal Navy in 1851. After that time, he developed a number of improved barometers and had them placed at ports along the coast of England. With the reports wired to him daily from these stations, along with weather charts he had devised, he was able to predict future weather with some accuracy.

FitzRoy convinced the London Times to print the first daily weather forecast for England on Aug. 1, 1861. It was a pretty basic effort: “North—Moderate westerly wind; fine. West—Moderately south-westerly; fine. South—Fresh westerly; fine.” Astonishingly, that first forecast was accurate, although many subsequent efforts haven’t been, as we all know.

Just five years later, in 1866, the American Agriculturist recommended its’ readers purchase a barometer, saying: “There are many times every year when the indications of the barometer in regard to the weather will often be of more value than its whole price (e.g., in the safely housing of a crop before a storm).”

Recording and reporting

In this U.S., the National Weather Service was established Feb. 9, 1870. It was charged with “taking meteorological observations at the military stations in the interior of the continent and at other points in the states and territories ... and for giving notice on the Great Lakes and on the seacoast, by magnetic telegraph and marine signals, of the approach and force of storms.”

That year, 22 stations manned by the U.S. Army were established around the country. Each station telegraphed daily observations to Washington, from which weather forecasts and warnings were issued to newspapers that, in turn, passed them on to their readers. The service was taken over by the Department of Agriculture in 1891. During the early 1900s, millions of farmers got daily forecasts by mail and telephone.

Radio station WEEI in Boston reportedly broadcast the first radio forecast in 1925, soon followed by many other stations as radio became more and more popular. The usual radio forecast began with the announcer saying: “And now we take you to the U.S. Weather Bureau.” Then a bored-sounding, monotone voice would say something like: “Tomorrow will be mostly sunny with a high of 60 degrees.” And that was the forecast. During the early 1930s, the National Weather Service began providing “Fruit Frost” warnings for fruit growing regions as well.

The Museum of Television and Radio in New York credits Jim Fidler, an announcer for an experimental TV station in Cincinnati, with being the first TV weatherman to give a forecast on the air, in 1940. From 1941 to 1948, the few folks in New York City who owned a television set were treated to regular forecasts on WNBT by a cartoon sheep named Wooly Lamb, who would start each forecast by looking at the sky through a telescope before turning toward the camera and singing: “It’s hot, it’s cold. It’s rain, it’s fair. It’s all mixed up together. But I, as Botany’s wooly lamb, predict tomorrow’s weather.”

Forecasts limited during war years

During World War II, U.S. military authorities, through the Office of Censorship, strictly limited weather reporting to the public, because of the fear that such information would help the enemy plan attacks on the mainland. Newspapers were allowed to print only the weather news within their localities, while radio stations were even more limited due to the threat of enemy submarines picking up their broadcasts.

No less a columnist than first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who often mentioned the weather in her daily newspaper column, My Day, wrote in 1942: “The censor has written me a very stern letter about my remarks on the weather, and so from now on I shall not tell you whether it rains or whether the sun shines where I happen to be. I imagine that it is permissible to mention whether it is hot or cold, and I can tell you with joy that it was cool enough on Saturday to take a walk in Washington with pleasure.”

While the lack of forecasts may have been a hardship for some farmers, I’d guess that they got by with the local forecasts that were still permitted. Back then, many of them probably still relied on the almanac and folklore signs, such as the dark of the moon. Towards the end of 1943, the threat of an attack seemed past and the restrictions were lifted, except for reports of barometric pressure and wind direction.

Today, every farmer has instant access to the latest weather forecast anywhere in the world on his or her smartphone or laptop. Thanks to Doppler radar and other improvements in weather forecasting, farmers can place a lot more reliance on what the National Weather Service predicts the weather will be.

Is that thunder I hear? Rats! And the weatherman said sunny and dry! FC


During the 1400s, the hygrometer (an instrument to measure humidity) was developed in Germany. A crude anemometer (used to measure wind speed) was invented in Italy in 1450. Galileo invented a gas-filled thermometer at about the turn of the 17th century, but it wasn’t very accurate or reliable. Although he also experimented with alcohol thermometers, it was another 100 years before Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit developed the much more accurate mercury-filled version. In 1643, an Italian named Evangelista Torricelli invented the barometer to measure atmospheric pressure. The barometer remains an important instrument for weather predicting. These instruments were improved over the next century or two, and when, in the 1830s, the telegraph made swift transmission of the weather trends indicated by these instruments possible, scientists were able to study and track weather systems and issue forecasts.


U.S. Weather Service Kiosks Delivered Weather at the Local Level

By the early 1900s, the National Weather Service weather results were being regularly published in newspapers. However, as the Scientific American noted in 1911: “After a particularly torrid day in an environment of brick and mortar, asphalt and steaming humanity, the wilted citizen, whose sensations have registered a temperature of 100 or more, feels aggrieved at a newspaper weather report recording an official maximum of 85. His only consolation was, until recently, the thermometer at the corner drugstore. This imposing instrument usually soared nearly or quite high enough to confirm his personal estimate of the day’s weather; especially if it happened to be hung in such a position as to bask in unobstructed sunshine during a part of the day.”

In about 1909, to meet the need of the “man in the street” for accurate information about the weather in the area, the Weather Service began to place Weather Kiosks in principle towns around the country. The square structures were made of cast iron and painted a light color, with the instruments installed on the north side, so as to be sheltered as much as possible from direct sunlight. There was a thermometer to record temperature and a hygrometer to show humidity. A mechanical barograph drew a line to register barometric ups and downs, while a rain gauge measured total precipitation and the time it fell. A daily official weather map was displayed as well.

Most cities were happy to get the kiosks, although Asheville, North Carolina, soon became disenchanted with theirs when city authorities found their kiosk registered uncomfortably high temperatures during the summer. The city had long been advertising itself as being cooler in the summer with an average of 81 degrees due to its higher altitude, but the kiosk showed much higher temps. Under the headline: “Weather Kiosk is an Automatic Liar,” the local paper wrote in 1911, “High Temperatures from Radiation Deceptive,” and went on to declare, “Visitors noting temperature readings would be led to believe the city is hot.”

As a result of the criticism, the local weather bureau posted a disclaimer on the kiosk that read, “On account of local radiation from the pavement and surrounding buildings and from other causes the maximum temperatures recorded here are frequently considerably higher than those of the free air from which official readings are made.”

In August 1912, Asheville aldermen discussed whether to move the kiosk to a new location, but it remained in place for another eight years before being removed during a construction project.

I wonder if any of those weather kiosks survive today.


Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.