92nd American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting (January 22-26, 2012)

Tuesday, 24 January 2012: 1:30 PM
Modernization and Innovation in the Weather Bureau: From Origins to the ONWP
Room 335/336 (New Orleans Convention Center )
Robert Thomas Golden Canning, Colby College, Waterville, ME
Manuscript (49.1 kB)

In late December of 1945 John Mauchly visited Major Harry Wexler at the Air Weather Service to ask his opinion about the possible uses of computational devices within meteorology. Since Mauchly had previously been informed by the weather bureau that interest lay solely in automated data handling and statistical computations, it was a welcome surprise when the former weather bureau meteorologist enthusiastically supported a more useful role. Mauchly recalled, [Wexler] suggested immediately that such a machine be employed in integrating hydrodynamic equations occurring in meteorological work. He attaches a great deal of importance to this application. From that moment on, Wexler was inextricably involved in digital computing.

In 1946 Wexler moved back to the weather bureau as the new head of research where he and his supervisor, F.W. Reichelderfer, sponsored a number of meetings with computer specialists. That year, Wexler began working as a liaison to the Institute of Advanced Study Meteorology Project, helping to secure initial funding and offering advice and aid to its director, John von Neumann. The weather bureau's influence was paramount to the project's eventual operational success in 1954. Although there were many logistical and academic problems, Reichelderfer and Wexler refused to abandon the project; instead they facilitated an interdisciplinary, international project that utilized the support of the military and teamed up with such influential meteorologists as Carl-Gustaf Rossby and Jule Charney.

The U.S. Weather Bureau has consistently been maligned by historians for its delay in adopting Norwegian methods of weather analysis and forecasting. Although there is no denying the weather bureau's obduracy, especially before 1934, it was not as backward as many have claimed. The Bergen School was founded only in 1917, with general acceptance of their air mass analysis techniques and international diffusion coming in 1928 with Tor Bergeron's Ph.D. dissertation. The geographical features of North America differ greatly from Europe, so adoption of air mass techniques was not straightforward and weather forecasting necessitated a significant amount of further study. This work was carried out in the weather bureau after 1934 under the leadership of weather bureau chiefs Willis Gregg and F.W. Reichelderfer, the inspiration of C-G. Rossby, and the practical work of Horace Byers and Harry Wexler in the air mass analysis section.

A decade later, the weather bureau was also at the forefront of advancing Vilhelm Bjerknes' 1904 idea of weather prediction as a problem in mechanics and physics. Utilizing newly available electronic computers, Wexler helped bridge the gap between the graphical and digital methods, propelling the weather bureau to the forefront of meteorological advancements. He trained under Rossby in air mass analysis while studying at MIT and (as previously mentioned) he advocated for the study and implementation of Numerical Weather Prediction, both tenets of Bjerknes' meteorological theories.

Harry Wexler's contributions span a number of different disciplines. He had an insatiable appetite for learning and scientific discussion, whether about meteorology, oceanography or even (as his daughter recalls) dinosaurs. This lecture, as a complement to Professor Fleming's, will delve into Wexler's specific role in the emergence of Numerical Weather Prediction, the hardships, the process, and the importance of interdisciplinary and international cooperation in developing technologies for scientific purposes. It also serves as a reminder that the weather bureau was not as far behind the times as some have made it out to be.

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