Reichelderfer, Francis Wilton

views updated


(b. Harlan, Indiana, 6 August 1895; d. Washington, D.C., 26 January 1983), meteorology, scientific administration.

Reichelderfer led the U.S. Weather Bureau between 1938 and 1963. During this period he oversaw the introduction of radar, computer modeling, and satellites to weather forecasting. He promoted American foreign policy through science, serving as the founding president of the World Meteorological Organization and encouraging the open exchange of international weather data. Throughout his career he connected people and facilitated innovative projects, creating institutional spaces where advanced meteorology could flourish, especially by forging connections between military and civilian weather organizations.

Childhood and Early Career Francis Reichelderfer was the oldest child of Mae Carrington Reichelderfer and Francis R. Reichelderfer, a Methodist pastor. He lived with his parents and his younger sister Janet in northeastern Indiana, where he sailed on the local glacial lakes. In 1913 the family moved to Evanston, Illinois, where his father attended a college for ministers and Reichelderfer studied chemistry at Northwestern University. After graduating in June 1917, Reichelderfer took a job in the Calumet Company’s chemistry lab and enrolled in the U.S. Naval Flying Reserve Corps.

Reicheldefer was called to active duty in May 1918. With the expectation that he would be sent to Europe more quickly, Reichelderfer volunteered for aerology training. In connection with its interest in balloons, the navy trained its weathermen in aerology, the study of the free air above Earth’s surface, rather than meteorology, which was then more associated with surface weather conditions. Following a short but intensive course under Alexander McAdie, director of the Harvard Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory, Reichelderfer prepared to be deployed to Europe. Instead, a British officer looked at his surname and requested a more English-sounding American; Reichelderfer was sent to Nova Scotia, where he forecast for a squadron that was hunting German submarines.

After the armistice, navy aerology rapidly shrank from about 250 weathermen to twenty. Reichelderfer chose to remain. “Convinced that aviation was on the threshold of an explosive growth,” Reichelderfer abandoned chemistry for meteorology (Taba, 1988, p. 89). In 1919 Reichelderfer earned his wings in an accelerated pilot training course before being transferred to Lisbon, where he forecast for the navy transatlantic flying expedition as it completed the first transatlantic flight.

Returning to the United States, Reichelderfer flew as a navy observer on the bombing tests conducted by army general William Mitchell against a captured German battleship in 1921. An unpredicted squall forced Mitchell to make an emergency landing on the beach, and prompted Reichelderfer to explore alternative models of storm formation, particularly the new model of cyclogenesis being developed by Vilhelm and Jacob Bjerknes in Bergen, Norway. These methods offered both a physical explanation for the surprise squall, as well as forecasting techniques that addressed the needs of aviators. Reichelderfer introduced these techniques to the military when he became head of navy aerology in 1922.

In 1926 Reichelderfer’s interest in the Bergen techniques brought him into contact with Bjerknes’s student, Carl-Gustaf Rossby, who hoped to spread the ideas of the Bergen School to the United States. An American Scandinavian Foundation fellowship had brought Rossby to the U.S. Weather Bureau Headquarters in Washington, but his ambition and confidence soon provoked a conflict with Chief Charles Marvin. Rossby needed a new place to work.

In trying to make careers outside the Weather Bureau hierarchy, Rossby and Reichelderfer had more freedom to act than most American meteorologists in the 1920s. Reichelderfer’s most influential contact, Harry Guggenheim, enabled them to use this freedom to connect advances in dynamic meteorology research to the practical concerns of daily forecasting. In the early 1920s, forecasting for the U.S. Navy balloon racing teams, Reichelderfer had met Guggenheim, who managed the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics, and Guggenheim recruited Reichelderfer to the fund’s meteorology committee. Reichelderfer’s influence with the Guggenheim Fund helped establish a professorship for Rossby at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The first formal American graduate program in meteorology, this course was designed to train navy aerologists in the advanced techniques of the Bergen school.

In 1928 Lieutenant Reichelderfer was transferred to Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey, to be a pilot and aerological officer for the navy’s airship service. He was promoted to executive officer in charge of Lakehurst in 1936. Safe airship operations depended upon accurate weather maps and reliable forecasting. Flights aboard dirigibles counted as “sea duty,” crucial for promotion within the navy. Between 1928 and 1931, Reichelderfer met navy qualifications as a pilot for balloons, blimps, and rigid airships. During this period, Reichelderfer noticed disparities between the way in which navy aerologists and Rossby’s group at MIT analyzed weather maps. He secured permission to travel to Europe to investigate the methods directly, spending six months in Bergen in 1931–1932 on official assignment from the navy, working with Jacob Bjerknes, Tor Bergeron, and Sverre Petterssen to analyze both American and European weather maps. His final report on the trip, Report of Norwegian Methods of Weather Analysis, became an informal manual used by many forecasters. Though marked “Restricted,” mimeographed copies circulated among Army and Weather Bureau forecasters in addition to navy officers.

Following his stint in Europe, Lieutenant Reichelderfer gained actual sea experience aboard the battleship Oklahoma. While Reichelderfer was at sea, the airship Akron crashed in severe thunderstorms. Seventy-three people died, including the head of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics, Admiral William Moffat. (Moffat had once called Reichelderfer “the best damn meteorologist in the world.”) The resulting Congressional hearings uncovered shortcomings in Weather Bureau aviation forecasts. A special committee of the Science Advisory Board, led by university presidents Robert Millikan, Karl Compton, and Isaiah Bowman, recommended Weather Bureau reforms, particularly that forecasters receive university education in the modern Norwegian techniques. Following the committee’s report, Chief Charles Marvin retired after fifty years of service in the Weather Bureau, to be replaced by Willis Gregg, head of the bureau’s aerology division, and a friend and colleague of Reichelderfer from the Guggenheim Fund committee.

Returned to Lakehurst in 1934, newly promoted Lieutenant Commander Reichelderfer spent more time as an administrator than as a forecaster. His duties with the navy airship program brought him into close contact with the German zeppelin flights. He flew aboard the Hindenburg several times, informally observing and assisting with weather forecasting for these flights. On 6 May 1937, Reichelderfer had his luggage packed for a flight to Germany when the Hindenburg burned. Transferred back to sea, Reichelderfer was second-in-command of the former battleship Utah, by then a target and gunnery-training vessel. Returning to port in late 1938, Reichelderfer received a telegram that informed him of Gregg’s death and nominated him chief of the Weather Bureau. He was promoted to navy commander that year.

Chief of the Weather Bureau Upon his installation as chief of the Weather Bureau, Time magazine described Reichelderfer as “quiet, matter-of-fact …[he] likes dancing, music, an occasional cocktail, [and] spends much time reading up on new developments in weather science” (26 December 1938, p. 31). In the years after World War II, three new technological developments would be particularly important to Reichelderfer and the Weather Bureau: radar, computers, and satellites. The effective integration of these military-derived technologies into Weather Bureau practice, however, depended upon a transformation in the bureau’s organizational culture guided by Reichelderfer before and during the war.

During the 1930s, many aviation advocates saw the Weather Bureau as an insular and conservative organization unable to adapt to changing circumstances. Few bureau men had higher degrees in science; forecasters advanced through an apprenticeship system that rewarded deference to authority and developed skills in “isobaric geometry,” an intuitive, visual process for forecasting surface conditions from synoptic maps. Because individual forecasters used a range of disparate methods, including extrapolation from recent events, analogous historical conditions, and empirically derived rules for local conditions, many people considered weather forecasting more art than science. In 1938 the Civil Aeronautics Administration threatened to create a separate organization for aviation forecasting if a bureau outsider did not succeed Willis Gregg.

Reichelderfer met these challenges by building bridges to universities and supporting research in dynamic meteorology. He hired Rossby as assistant chief for research and education, broadened the Air Mass Analysis Section, and sent the handful of university-educated specialists trained in the Norwegian methods to regional offices to spread the new approach throughout the bureau. He also worked with Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace to increase Weather Bureau funding. Some of these appropriations sent bureau employees to universities for advanced meteorological education, notably Harry Wexler, who completed work for his doctorate at MIT in 1937–1938 on assignment from the weather bureau and eventually became the bureau’s director of research early in the era of radar, computing and satellites. Other appropriations supported studies of the atmosphere’s general circulation, an attempt to develop longer range forecasting capabilities and explain climatic fluctuations such as the drought that contributed to the dust bowl. Reichelderfer described these developments as “The How and Why of Weather Knowledge,” in the 1941 Year-book of Agriculture, Climate and Man. Reichelderfer’s connections to scientific community led to his tenure as president of the American Meteorological Society in 1940–1941, and as president of the American Geophysical Union during the period 1944–1947.

Reichelderfer also connected the Weather Bureau and the military. Even before U.S. entry into World War II, he participated in a Joint Meteorology Committee (JMC) that brought together the Weather Bureau, army air force, and navy to coordinate weather-related activities. During the war, the JMC organized improved hurricane warning efforts along Caribbean and the eastern seaboard, and established more pilot balloon and radios on the stations to expand the network of upper air observations so important for aviation forecasting. These forecasts were integrated with a national air traffic control system, distributed to pilots and dispatchers through the Civil Aeronautics Administration. This system improved the safety and efficiency of wartime flights, and continued after the war.

The JMC’s most pervasive impact upon meteorology was an enormous training program based at five universities and one military base. Funded by the military but taught by the leading academic meteorologists in America, the training program instructed more than seven thousand new forecasters in physics, mathematics, synoptics, and fronts, and the latest in dynamic meteorology. Several of the most influential figures in postwar American atmospheric science were trained in this program (Edward Lorenz, George P. Cressman, and Robert White,

for instance), while many more spent lengthy but little celebrated careers in the Weather Bureau and military weather services after the war. These men became some of the key early operators of the three military-related technologies that substantially improved forecasting during Reichelderfer’s tenure as head of the Weather Bureau: radar, electronic computers, and satellites.

Radar enabled meteorologists to see through clouds and detect precipitation at significant distances. Reichelderfer played a minor role in the development of radar before World War II, flying aboard an aluminum-covered dirigible used in testing experimental army radars. He played a more significant role by soliciting twenty-five surplus navy sets in 1946 and having them modified for meteorological use. By the mid-1950s radar had become a key component of the bureau’s storm warning system, especially for tornadoes in the Midwest and hurricanes along the East Coast. Reichelderfer oversaw the development of the WSR-57 radar system specifically designed for weather surveillance in the late 1950s.

As part of Reichelderfer’s career-long effort to integrate dynamic meteorology research with daily forecasting, he promoted the development of numerical weather prediction and general circulation modeling using electronic computers. In addition to contributing Weather Bureau funds and political support, Reichelderfer delegated assistant chief Wexler to represent the Weather Bureau’s stake in the Institute for Advanced Study’s meteorology project during the eight years it took to develop operational numerical weather prediction capabilities. Serving the Weather Bureau, air force, and navy, the joint numerical weather prediction unit became operational in Washington in 1954. The bureau emerged as an important purchaser of advanced computers, influencing the development of electronic hardware as well as scientific computing.

Imagined in air force studies almost immediately after World War II, early weather satellites produced images of large-scale weather systems, helping to detect hurricanes earlier, for instance. While Wexler again largely guided the scientific development, Reichelderfer worked with National Aeronautics and Space Administration administrators to ensure efficient collaboration between the two agencies, while speaking publicly about the civilian benefits expected from these expensive new devices.

Weather modification also received a great deal of public attention in the decades after World War II. Using new techniques for seeding clouds with dry ice or silver iodide smoke, weather control was right around the corner in the 1950s, according to outspoken advocates such as chemist Irving Langmuir. Despite the considerable skepticism of many leading meteorologists, support for weather modification research came from the U.S. military as well as the federal and state governments, agricultural interests, and private citizens’ groups. Reichelderfer navigated between these parties, working to tone down the claims of the boldest cloud seeders while continuing to fund exploratory work in weather and climate modification through Weather Bureau programs.

International Organizations International meteorology was part of a larger American foreign policy during the 1930s–1960s. Reichelderfer worked to make meteorology a domain of open international cooperation under benevolent and constrained American leadership. As part of a larger effort to encourage Latin American countries to look to the United States for advanced science and aviation capabilities, the Weather Bureau paid for meteorologists from various Latin American countries to attend the same training programs at American universities that produced thousands of military weather forecasters during World War II.

Reichelderfer helped guide the transformation of the International Meteorological Organization (IMO) into the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in the late 1940s. As a nongovernmental entity, the IMO had brought together leading meteorologists to promote voluntary exchanges of weather data and standardization of weather observations. In contrast, the WMO was an inter-governmental organization under the auspices of the United Nations. While many of the same people attended WMO meetings as had attended IMO meetings, in the WMO they acted in their official capacities as the heads of national weather services, thus ensuring that WMO decisions had the force of government policy. Serving as the first president of the WMO from 1951 to 1955, Reichelderfer encouraged the organization to help newly independent nations build the technical expertise necessary for economic development, such as planning a modern meteorology service for Libya in 1952. Coordinating the free exchange of weather data around the world also became a central mission of the WMO, first through standardized coding of observations, and later through the development of the World Weather Watch, a system of instruments and data processing facilities for sharing global weather information.

Retirement and Personal Life Reichelderfer retired in October 1963. He continued to participate in meteorology, serving on National Academy of Sciences committees and testifying as an expert witness in an influential 1964 weather modification trial. Reichelderfer’s legacy in meteorology and public service is illustrated by two awards named for him. Each year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration presents the Francis W. Reichelderfer award for distinguished environmental services to the nation, while the American Meteorological Society invokes his name to recognize distinguished contributions to the provision of operational environmental services to the public. He traveled extensively with his wife Beatrice, who died in 1975 after fifty-five years of marriage. Reichelderfer also spent time gardening, though he admitted he had never had “green fingers,” and continued to swim and sail well into his seventies. The Reichelderfers were survived by their son, Bruce, who followed his father’s footsteps in the U.S. Navy.


Archival Sources: Library of Congress, NARA (Navy and RG 27 Weather Bureau); there are some insights as well in the Library of Congress Wexler Papers, which include Reichelderfer’s comments on many of Wexler’s memos.


“Forecasting Thunderstorms by Means of Static Electricity.” Monthly Weather Review (1921): 152–153.

“The Present Meteorological Needs of Aeronautics.” Monthly Weather Review (1925): 259.

“Airship Meteorology.” In Aeronautical Meteorology, edited by Willis R. Gregg. New York: Ronald Press, 1930.

“Report of Norwegian Methods of Weather Analysis.” Mimeographed report, U.S. Bureau of Aeronautics, Navy Department, 1932.

“The How and Why of Weather Knowledge.” In Climate and Man: Yearbook of Agriculture, edited by G. Hambridge, 129–153. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1941.

“Weather’s Role in the Fight for Freedom.” U.S. Weather Bureau, Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, Press Division, April 1943

“Remarks on Weather Bureau Policy, Plans and Program.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (1946): 169–171.

“The Science of the Atmosphere.” In The Scientists Speak, edited by Warren Weaver, 19–23. New York: Boni and Gaer. 1947.

“Hurricanes, Tornadoes, and Other Storms.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1957): 23–35.

“On the Role of the IUGG in Advancement of Geophysics.” Transaction of the American Geophysical Union (March 1960): 1–3.

“Meteorological Satellite Systems in Weather Research and Services.” Aerospace Engineering (1961): 22–23, 91–96.


Bates, Charles C. “The Formative Rossby-Reichelderfer Years in American Meteorology: 1926–1940.” Weather and Forecasting 4, no. 12 (1989): 593–603.

Cressman, George P. “Francis W. Reichelderfer, 1895–1983.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 64, no. 4 (1983): 398–400.

Hughes, Patrick. “Francis W. Reichelderfer, Part I: Aerologists and Airdevils.” Weatherwise 34, no. 2 (1981): 52–59.

———. “Francis W. Reichelderfer, Part II: Architect of Modern Weather Services.” Weatherwise 34, no. 4 (1981): 148–157.

Lear, James. “Changing the Guard on Weather. Gentleman of the Guard: Francis Wilton Reichelderfer.” Saturday Review, 3 August 1963: 35–38.

Namias, Jerome. “Francis W. Reichelderfer, 1895–1983.” Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 60 (1995): 272–291.

Taba, Hessam. “Dr. F. W. Reichelderfer.” In The ‘Bulletin’ Interviews, edited by Hessam Taba. Geneva: World Meteorological Organization, 1988.

Roger Turner