Presidential History Symposium


Comic Strips, Military Training, and Early TV Weather Reports

Roger D. Turner, Univ. of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA

As the weather report developed into a television staple during the late 1940s and 1950s, broadcasters experimented with a variety of formats for presenting the weather. One of the most popular featured a genial man narrating a hand-made weather map, often illuminated by playful cartoon characters drawn live on screen. This format fused two approaches developed in the US military during World War II. Army and Navy training programs had used comic strips to teach aeronautical meteorology to thousands of pilots, while pre-flight briefings forced university-trained meteorologists to develop rhetorical strategies for presenting the weather to non-scientific audiences.

While cartoon-illustrated reports were popular and effective, station managers saw them as entertaining fluff, implying that the weather was not serious news. Stations hired based on cartooning skill and broadcasting ability, not meteorological training. This led to the brief era of the “weathergirl,” as two New York stations challenged popular cartoonist weatherman Tex Antoine by hiring attractive women with no meteorological education in 1952. Weathergirls like Carol Reed and Janet Tyler made up a substantial fraction of American weathercasters by 1955. As popular films like Frank Capra's The Unchained Goddess (1957) made explicit, deep cultural associations bound women and weather: both were considered unpredictable, fickle, subjective, irrational.

The image of weather as irrational and ultimately unpredictable threatened meteorologists just as they were struggling to deploy the expensive (and marginally effective) first computer systems for objective numerical weather prediction. In an effort to salvage the public image of their science, leaders of the American Meteorological Society developed the “Seal of Approval” program to certify the scientific education of weathercasters and the meteorological soundness of their presentations. While the Seal of Approval does not appear to have had any effect on the weathergirl era, the converse is not true. No woman gained the Seal of Approval until 1972, and only three of the first 200 seal holders were women.

This paper is illustrated with many cartoons and other images from training manuals, early weather shows, and popular magazines like Life and Vogue Pattern Book.

wrf recording  Recorded presentation

Session 3, History of Atmospheric Sciences
Tuesday, 13 January 2009, 3:30 PM-4:45 PM, Room 223

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