Byers, Horace Robert

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(b. Seattle, Washington, 12 March 1906; d. Montecito, California, 22 May 1998)

meteorology, cloud physics, scientific administration.

Byers was a leading educator and administrator in U.S. meteorology during the middle decades of the twentieth century. He worked to establish meteorology within American universities, built collaborations among schools, and wrote a widely used undergraduate textbook. As an officer of scientific societies and advisory committees, he guided the creation of institutions that structured government support for atmospheric science. As a researcher, he explored the physics of clouds and developed an influential model of thunderstorm dynamics.

Childhood and Education. Byers was the second of Charles H. and Harriet (Ensminger) Byers’s four children. His father, a civil engineer, took a job with the Interstate Commerce Commission and moved the family to Berkeley, California, when Horace was nine years old. Byers grew up in a cultured home full of books where his mother often organized musical evenings. Byers developed a passion for journalism while in high school, editing the student newspaper and reporting for the Berkeley Daily Gazette. After a year working full-time for various papers around the San Francisco Bay Area, Byers enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. While a student at Berkeley, Byers married Francis Isabel Clark in 1927. They remained together for the rest of Horace’s life, over seventy-one years, and had one daughter, Henrietta.

Geography courses at Berkeley led Byers into meteorology. As a volunteer “cooperative observer” for the U.S. Weather Bureau, Byers took twice-daily weather observations in 1928. The Geography Department collected these observations and mailed them to several locations, including the Oakland airport. Through these observations, Carl-Gustaf Rossby found Byers and offered him a summer job helping to establish meteorological services supporting a model airway flying between Oakland and Los Angeles.

Early Career: “Backstop for a Genius.”. A summer job working for Rossby turned into a junior partnership that defined the first half of Byers’s career. Partly through Byers’s assistance, Rossby went on to become the most important figure in American meteorology in the twentieth century. In a 17 December 1956 article about Rossby titled “Man’s Milieu,” Time magazine described Byers as the “backstop for a genius.” Between 1928 and Rossby’s death in 1957, Byers often provided administrative and executive skills to support Rossby’s ambitious plans for modernizing American meteorology.

During the summer of 1928, Rossby and Byers built a system to observe and forecast California weather. They put into practice the methods and theories of the Bergen School, originally developed by the Norwegian meteorologists working with Vilhelm and Jacob Bjerknes. This experimental arrangement became a model for later airline meteorological services. At the end of the summer, Rossby left to establish a teaching and research program in meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Byers returned to Berkeley, completing his AB degree in geography in 1929 and gathering data for his first research paper, “Summer Sea Fogs of the Central California Coast.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree, Byers secured a fellowship from the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics to become Rossby’s first graduate student. Rossby’s teaching program focused on the relationship between synoptic meteorology (weather map analysis) and dynamic meteorology, the study of the physical laws that regulate the behavior of the atmosphere. He particularly focused on the weather models first developed in Bergen: air-mass analysis and the polar front. Rossby taught a few U.S. Navy “aerology” officers and civilians interested in working for the airlines, along with a handful of graduate students. Byers earned his MS from MIT in 1932 for a study of the characteristic weather phenomena of California.

During the Great Depression, meteorology had better job prospects than many professions. Byers first worked as a research assistant at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography under the direction of Harald Sverdrup, another Norwegian meteorologist and friend of Rossby. Later, Byers returned to work for the airline weather service he and Rossby had helped create. Now called Transcontinental and Western Airways and owned by the General Motors Corporation, TWA had Byers teach its pilots and flight dispatchers how to use Bergen techniques in daily operations. The teaching materials Byers developed became the core of his 1937 textbook, Synoptic and Aeronautical Meteorology. As an employee of a GM subsidiary, Byers became eligible for an Alfred Sloan fellowship, which supported his continued studies at MIT. Byers completed his doctoral degree in 1935, researching “The Changes in Air Masses during Lifting.”

The disastrous crashes of two navy dirigibles, along with the general expansion of aviation during the 1920s, brought political attention to weather forecasting failures in 1933. After congressional hearings and a report by the newly founded Science Advisory Board, the Weather Bureau was directed to modernize its forecasting practices by incorporating the methods of the Bergen School. In June of 1935, the bureau appointed Byers to head a new Air Mass Analysis Section. For the next five years, Byers taught small groups of experienced forecasters the new methods. The bureau was a deeply conservative institution during the first half of the twentieth century, as a result of its public exposure and its insular organizational structure. As a twenty-nine-year-old outsider, hired to teach experienced older men new skills, Byers met a frosty reception. Reminiscing in 1976, Byers expressed considerable bitterness about the bureau’s forecasters of this period.

Byers was detailed to Chicago to establish a new forecasting center in 1940. He left the Weather Bureau soon after, founding an Institute of Meteorology at the University of Chicago. Rossby, by this point the preeminent meteorologist in the United States, became the institute’s official leader—despite his reputation for disregarding financial and administrative details. Over the next fifteen years, Byers worked behind the scenes to keep things running smoothly and ensure that Rossby had the people and resources he needed to build a world-class research and graduate program in dynamic meteorology.

The resources for building a premier program came primarily from the military. During World War II, Rossby and Byers worked through the University Meteorological Committee, a loose affiliation of the five university departments that offered graduate training in meteorology, to make Chicago a major center for training military weather officers. About seventeen hundred forecasters were trained there between 1940 and 1945. These trainees used Byers’s Synoptic and Aeronautical Meteorology as a textbook, and after 1944 a much expanded version, General Meteorology. The teaching done by Byers and others during the war helped to secure the ideals of calculation, objectivity, and the primacy of research that characterized postwar weather forecasting. Byers also consulted for the armed forces, helping to set up airlift routes across South America and Africa during 1943–1944. Tropical forecasting challenges contributed to the creation of the Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Puerto Rico in 1943, associated with the University of Chicago. The Chicago department also issued a number of research publications during the war, including methods for single-station forecasting, operating mobile weather stations, and a 1942 report by Byers on Non-Frontal Thunderstorms.

Research: Thunderstorms and Weather Modification. Thunderstorms were a serious threat to aviation, especially as wartime needs often made it impossible to fly far around storms or stay on the ground. Byers’s work on thunderstorms developed into a major investigation supported by the Weather Bureau, Army Air Force, Navy, National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, and explicitly authorized by Congress. The Thunderstorm Project, designed and directed by Byers, was one of the first examples of post–World War II “big science” in meteorology. During the summers of 1946 in central Florida and 1947 in southern Ohio, Byers led sixty-six researchers and observers, supported by dozens of pilots and aircraft support crew. With a squadron of Army Air Force fighter planes at his disposal, Byers arranged for flights of five specially instrumented planes to penetrate storms simultaneously at different altitudes. Tracked by radar and film, the movements of the planes were recorded and later correlated with pilot balloon and surface measurements.

The project’s final report (The Thunderstorm, 1949) proposed a model of thunderstorm behavior. The model posited that thunderstorms are composed of one or more convection cells, where each cell went through a three-stage life cycle. In the cell’s cumulus stage, rising currents of warm, moist air produced strong updrafts, creating a tower of cumulus cloud. The mature stage was marked by side-by-side updrafts and downdrafts, and with water vapor condensing as it was pushed skyward by the updrafts. As water drops and ice crystals became larger in size, the warm air rushing upwards could no longer support them. Heavy rain fell from part of the cloud, dragging a strong downdraft of cold air with it. In the dissipating stage, the falling precipitation pulled in more of the cool, dry air surrounding the upper levels of the storm cloud. This extinguished the cell’s convection and was accompanied by light rain and gentler downdrafts.

The Thunderstorm Project demonstrated the utility of radar for meteorological research and led to the development of airplane-mounted weather radars. The Thunderstorm Project also brought Byers into contact with Ted Fujita, a young Japanese severe-storm researcher whom Byers invited to the United States in 1951, enabling Fujita to establish a storied career in tornado research and aviation safety. More generally, the project demonstrated how academic-led experiments utilizing military equipment could benefit various parties, including commercial interests, scientists, the military, and civilian governments.

Byers’s next major research project followed patterns set by the Thunderstorm Project.

Weather modification became a central topic in meteorological research following the discovery of cloud seeding in late 1946 by Vincent Schaefer, a chemist working for General Electric. Schafer’s boss, Nobel Laureate

Irving Langmuir, enthusiastically promoted this discovery and made increasingly extravagant claims about the capabilities of cloud seeding over the next decade. While dynamic meteorologists like Byers and Rossby utilized the funding and support for meteorology that came with new strategic importance of controlling the skies (many people compared weather modification to atomic energy), university meteorologists were generally skeptical of the large-scale effects claimed by cloud-seeding advocates such as Langmuir.

This skepticism was supported by the results of early weather modification experiments like the multi-agency Artificial Cloud Nucleation Project, conducted during 1953 and 1954. Byers led the University of Chicago portion. Again given World War II–surplus planes and military pilots to fly them, Byers tested cloud-seeding techniques over the Caribbean Sea and the American Midwest. The experiments produced extensive data on the physical properties of cumulus clouds and mechanisms of precipitation development; however, as Byers and his coauthors noted in their 1957 final report, “any effects from seeding these clouds were too small to be detected in the sample size obtained” (p. 47).

Cloud physics remained central to Byers’s research until his retirement in 1974. While cloud physics research was primarily funded because of its connection to the possibilities of weather modification, Byers remained a “constructive critic” of weather modification, in the words of his colleagues Roscoe Braham and Thomas Malone (p.45). Always concerned with education, Byers consolidated his research into a textbook, publishing Elements of Cloud Physics in 1965.

Organizing Atmospheric Science. Administrative work remained a central aspect of the second half of Byers’s career. In the decades after World War II, Byers played key roles in organizing and structuring U.S. government support for atmospheric science research. Byers also spent the last ten years of his working career (1965–1974) as dean and then academic vice president at Texas Agriculture and Mining University, supervising the expansion of its geo-sciences programs.

Through his work with scientific societies and international organizations, Byers helped build professional identity among meteorologists, maintain standards of training and research behavior, and advocate for the interests of atmospheric science. Byers held policy-setting offices with the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and the American Geophysical Union, Section on Meteorology. Byers served as a councilor of the AMS from 1938 to 1950, and then president from 1951 to 1953. Between 1944 and 1950, he served as vice president and then president of the AGU, Section on Meteorology. Byers contributed to the organization of the International Geophysical Year as vice president of the International Association of Meteorology and Atmospheric Physics between 1954 and 1960. He presided over the International Association from 1961 to 1963.

Byers’s research and organizing work led to his election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1952. In 1956, Byers was appointed to the National Research Council’s Committee on Meteorology, along with other eminent scientists, including Rossby, Lloyd Berkner, John von Neumann, and Edward Teller. When Rossby died in 1957, Byers was elevated to vice chairman. Charged with viewing “in broad perspective the present position and future requirements of meteorological research,” the committee created two working groups, one on research, and a second led by Byers focusing on education (quoted in Braham and Malone, p. 37). Released in early 1958, the two groups’ recommendations advocated the formation of an interuniversity committee to overcome challenges posed by the shortage of trained meteorologists and inadequate resources for research. According to Braham and Malone’s biographical memoir, “Byers’s distinctive contribution ... was to pick up the telephone and call Henry Houghton [Meteorology Department chairman] at MIT and urge him to ... [act] on the recommendation for a University Committee on Atmospheric Research” (pp. 39-40). Characteristically behind the scenes, Byers thus played a key role in creating UCAR, which became one of the most important organizations in U.S. atmospheric science in the twentieth century. More publicly, Byers served on UCAR’s Board of Trustees, including three years as board chairman (1962–1965).

When Byers moved from the University of Chicago to Texas A&M in 1965, he became dean of the College of Geosciences. Elevated to academic vice president in 1968, he served until reaching mandatory retirement age in 1974. He and his wife returned to their native state, moving to Santa Barbara, California, where they lived for twenty-four more years, until their deaths a few months apart, in 1998.



“Summer Sea Fogs of the Central California Coast.” University of California Publications in Geography 3 (1930): 291–338.

Characteristic Weather Phenomena of California. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Meteorological Papers, vol. 1, no. 2. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1931.

“The Changes in Air Masses during Lifting.” PhD diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1935.

Synoptic and Aeronautical Meteorology. New York: McGraw-Hill,1937.

Non-Frontal Thunderstorms. University of Chicago Institute of Meteorology Miscellaneous Reports, no. 3. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942.

General Meteorology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1944.

With Roscoe Braham Jr. The Thunderstorm. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, 1949.

With Roscoe Braham Jr. “Thunderstorm Structure and Dynamics.” In Thunderstorm Electricity, edited by Horace Byers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.

With Roscoe Braham Jr., and Louis Battan. “Artificial Nucleation of Cumulus Clouds.” In Cloud and Weather Modification: A Group of Field Experiments, edited by Sverre Petterssen. Meteorological Monographs, vol. 2, no. 11. Boston: American Meteorological Society, 1957.

General Meteorology, Published Formerly under the Title Synoptic and Aeronautical Meteorology. 1st ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1944. General Meteorology. 3rd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959.

“Carl-Gustaf Arvid Rossby, the Organizer.” In The Atmosphere and the Sea in Motion: Scientific Contributions to the Rossby Memorial Volume, edited by Bert Bolin. New York: Rockefeller Institute Press, 1959.

Elements of Cloud Physics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965. “History of Weather Modification.” In Weather and Climate Modification, edited by W. N. Hess. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1974. A generally skeptical discussion of cloud-seeding-related events from 1946 to 1971.

“The Founding of the Institute of Meteorology at the University of Chicago.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 57 (1976): 1343–1345. Describes the institutions and attitudes of American meteorology around 1940.

Oral history interview by Earl Droessler. 3 August 1987. 1 sound cassette (2 hours). Archives. National Center for Atmospheric Research/University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO 80307. Byers discusses early UCAR and NCAR development, the history of meteorology, and the history of the American Meteorological Society.


Braham, Roscoe Jr. “The Thunderstorm Project.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 77 (August 1996): 1835–1845. A published version of a lunchtime speech about Braham’s and Byers’s work on the project.

——— “Horace Robert Byers, 1906–1998.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 79 (December 1998): 2810–2813.

———, and Thomas F. Malone. “Horace Robert Byers.” Biographical Memoirs, vol. 79. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 2001. Available from Both Braham and Malone were close colleagues of Byers.

“Man’s Milieu.” Time (17 December 1956): 68–79. Mostly about Rossby, illustrates how Rossby’s charisma often overshadowed Byers’s contributions.

Roger Turner