Cleveland Abbe

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Abbe, Cleveland

(b. New York, N.Y., 3 December 1838; d. Washington, D.C., 28 October 1916)


As the first regular official weather forecaster of the U.S. government and a promoter of research in atmospheric physics, Abbe served as a symbol of what a meteorologist should be. Unlike many of his colleagues, he was well trained. After studying under Oliver Wolcott Gibbs at the City College of New York, Abbe worked with the German astronomer F.F.E. Brünnow, then at the University of Michigan (1859–1860), and later (1860–1864) with B.A. Gould, who was on detached duty with the Coast Survey, at Cambridge, Massachusetts. In Cambridge he came in contact with the group of astronomers and mathematicians in the Nautical Almanac office, notably William Ferrel. Desiring better preparation in astronomy, Abbe spent two years (1864–1866) at Pulkovo, Russia, working under Otto Struve.

Abbe’s Russian stay had two consequences, First, Pulkovo provided a model of the symbiotic relationship between theory and practice, ironically like the one that had obtained in Cambridge with the Coast Survey. Second, through his translations and personal connections Abbe provided a point of contact between the American and Russian scientific communities.

Today we would characterize Abbe as a geophysicist, for he sought to apply the methods of astronomy to the development of a physics of the earth. Outlets for this ambition were scarce in nineteenth-century America, and after failing to establish in New York an observatory modeled on Pulkovo, Abbe served from 1868 to 1870 as director of the Cincinnati Observatory before joining the Weather Service of the Signal Corps, the predecessor of the present Weather Bureau, in 1871, Under his aegis the Corps established a laboratory and a “study room,” a center for basic research. Although not a notable discoverer, Abbe insisted on mathematical rigor and a close following of new developments in the physical sciences.


I. Primary Sources. Abbe’s personal papers are in the Library of Congress. They are described in Nathan Reingold, “A Good Place to Study Astronomy,” in Library of Congress, Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions, 20 (Sept. 1963). 211–217. Other documents bearing on Abbe’s career are in the U.S. Weather Bureau records in the National Archives, Washington, D.C., and in the papers of his son, Claveland Abbe, Jr., in the library of the City University of New York. His reprint collection is in the library of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md.

A good bibliography of Abbe’s writings is in W. J. Humphreys, “Biographical Memoir of Cleaveland Abbe, 1838–1916,” in U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs, 8 (1919), 469–508.

II. Secondary Works. The Humphreys memoir is still the best single account of Abbe’s career. The 0nly full biography was written by Abbe’s son Truman: Prof. Abbe and the Isobars (New York, 1965). Although a work of filiopietism, it is quite charming and still useful because of the son’s liberal use of his father’s papers, then in his possession. Nathan Reingold interprets one aspect of Abbe’s career in “Cleaveland Abbe at Pulkowa: Theory and Practice in the Nineteenth Century Physical Sciences,” in Archives internationales d’histoire des sciences, 17 (April–June 1964), 133–147. Useful background information is in D. R. Whitnah, A History of the United States Weather Bureau (Urbana, III., 1961).

Nathan Reingold

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Cleveland Abbe (ăb´ē), 1838–1916, American meteorologist, b. New York City; brother of Robert Abbe. He was the first official daily weather forecaster in the United States. Abbe studied astronomy at the Univ. of Michigan, under B. A. Gould at Cambridge, Mass., and in Pulkovo, Russia. As director of the Cincinnati Observatory, he inaugurated daily weather predictions based on telegraphic reports. This work prompted the establishment of the national weather service, under the Signal Corps (1870), which Abbe joined in 1871; from 1891 to 1916 he served in the U.S. Weather Bureau.