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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 09/22/2010

Into the fog: when the weather was a secret

By Don Lipman

* Summer heat for fall's first day: Full Forecast | NatCast *

Fog photo. Courtesy NOAA.

Umpires have called the game for reasons I cannot speak of...

Can you imagine listening to a football radio broadcast and hearing the above words? In the third chapter of his book, Secrets of Victory: the Office of Censorship and the American Press and Radio in World War II, Michael S. Sweeney says that's exactly what happened sometimes during WWII ball games when foul weather was the culprit.

Although it's unclear whether the annual charity football game held on the night of August 28th, 1942 between the Chicago Bears, defending NFL champions, and the College All-Stars, was actually terminated early (I don't think it was), one thing is certain: the game was played in fog so dense that, at times, announcer Bob Elson resorted to announcing the game based on loudspeaker reports.

But the most bizarre aspect of this radio broadcast had nothing to do at all with Elson's delivery, which, under the circumstances, was considered outstanding.

Instead, it was the fact that, under wartime regulations, Elson was prohibited from saying that the weather had anything to do with the difficulty he was having in ascertaining what was happening on the field. The listening public would become thoroughly familiar with and sympathetic toward this omission as the war raged on.

In the 1940s, people had probably forgotten that during World War I, the United States Navy had not only taken over weather transmissions but had taken over the air waves altogether, according to Sweeney's sources.

But 25 years later, in "an enlightened nation" accustomed to receiving so much information over the radio, was the heavy hand of the military truly justified in restricting the weather or was it just paranoia? After all, the Navy claimed that enemy subs in the western Atlantic or Gulf might be monitoring game broadcasts and would benefit from knowing that it was foggy or rainy in Chicago, for example. In retrospect, I think we would all agree that this was uncharted territory.

Nevertheless, it's still hard to understand why the First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, was reportedly reprimanded by the military when she wrote in her "My Day" column that rain had interfered with a planned lecture in California after that day had already passed.

We now receive weather from so many sources that it's almost inconceivable to think that weather information was ever so tightly controlled. But it was, and could be again, I suppose, if conditions warranted. What do you think?

In the past, weather information was not only tightly controlled at times, but if we go back far enough, even weather forecasting itself was considered an occult practice akin to witchcraft and therefore was banned. As late as the 17th century, British law called for death by burning as the punishment not only for a bad weather forecast, but as the punishment for any weather forecast. I don't know that anyone was actually executed under this law, but nevertheless, it's a sobering and even startling thought indeed as we watch our TV weathercasts.

Eventually, upon creation of the U.S. Weather Bureau in 1870, forecasts and weather data became freely available (at least during peacetime) and the agency became one of the most visible signs of our "tax dollars at work." At the same time, however, it seemed that people expected overnight perfection.

On the night of January 12th, 1888, for example (the same year as the Great March Blizzard of 1888 in the Northeast), the U.S. Weather Bureau in Washington predicted "fair and warmer" weather in New York City for the next day. (Yes, that's the way they did it.) (1)

But as luck would have it, four inches of snow blanketed the city by dawn of January 13th. This was followed by rain and sleet, and ultimately, bitter cold. It's fair to say that a warm front followed by an arctic cold front had been responsible for these changes.

Despite the fact that during this very period, a raging blizzard and record cold were creating tremendous human suffering in the Midwest, Congress was upset that NYC, the biggest population center with presumably the most votes, had to face a weather surprise on the morning of January 13th. The result was--you guessed it--a congressional investigation.

Other than possible investigations relating to hurricane seeding and aspects of global warming, has there ever been another congressional investigation about a weather forecast? (2) I don't know of any.

Could there be? Definitely.


(1) New York Times, January 14, 1888

(2) Ironically, the forecast preceding the huge blizzard that struck NYC on March 11-14, 1888 was just for "some light rain followed by clearing." Though the city was paralyzed by unexpected 20-30 foot snowdrifts, no investigation ensued.

By Don Lipman  | September 22, 2010; 10:45 AM ET
Categories:  History, Lipman  
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Interesting article, Don!

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | September 22, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

Very interesting piece of history. Thank you.

Posted by: miacane1 | September 22, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

When I was in Vietnam in 1960 -1970 AFVN (armed forces radio) was not allowed to give weather forecasts until I was there about six months. After that they were allowed to comment on "hot" or "not so hot" but never about cloud cover, rain, or typhoons.

Posted by: MKadyman | September 23, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

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