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Cleveland “Old Probabilities” Abbe: Forecaster and National Geographic Founder

The thirty-three founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 125th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

 

Late in his life, Cleveland Abbe (1838-1916) a National Geographic Society founder and the man who would put scientific meteorology on the map, described how his interest in weather as a child grew into the firm conviction that there must be a better way of forecasting than relying on such “local lore and weather proverbs.”

Abbe briefly worked at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. before taking up the post of director of the Cincinnati Observatory, which had fallen on hard times since the Civil War. There he got the cooperation of Western Union Telegraphic Company to provide free telegraphs from weather observers that would be published by the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. His first report, published on September 1, 1869, contained observations from only two watchers, but the number would grow. His nickname arose from this very first handwritten report, where he remembered he had misspelled “Tuesday.” Underneath, a wag identified only as “Mr. Davis,” wrote, “A bad spell of weather for Old Probs.”

Despite this seemingly inauspicious beginning, Abbe forged ahead. His forecasts, or probabilities, gave impetus to the establishment of a national weather service signed into law by President Grant on February 9, 1870, to be administered by the Army’s Signal Corps. He also founded the journal, Monthly Weather Review, and during his editorship, he corresponded with Wilbur Wright. Wright, working with his brother on the problem of manned flight, made detailed weather observations at the seashore, and agreed to contribute a piece for the journal.

Even those outside the field of meteorology were familiar with Abbe’s work. In 1876, Mark Twain made this observation about Abbe’s forecasting abilities:

“Old Probabilities has a mighty reputation for accurate prophecy, and thoroughly well deserves
it. You take up the paper and observe how crisply and confidently he checks off what today’s
weather is going to be on the Pacific, down South, in the Middle States, in the Wisconsin region.
See him sail along in the joy and pride of his power till he gets to New England, and then see
his tail drop. He doesn’t know what the weather is going to be in New England. Well, he mulls
over it, and by-and-by he gets out something about like this: Probably northeast to southwest
winds, varying to the southward and westward and eastward and points between, high and
low barometer swapping around from place to place; probable areas of rain, snow, hail, and
drought, succeeded or preceded by earthquakes, with thunder and lightning. Then he jots down
his postscript from his wandering mind, to cover accidents. ‘But it is possible that the programme
may be wholly changed in the mean time.’ “

Association with the Signal Service and the Weather Bureau meant that Abbe made his home in Washington D.C. for many years. There he was active in many of the scientific societies prevalent in the capital at that time. One night in January 1888, he attended a meeting held at the Cosmos Club when a new such organization was born, the National Geographic Society. Abbe served on the Society’s Board of Managers for two years, and elected to pay $50 to become a life member so as not to have to be bothered with yearly dues, but otherwise it is not known what further contributions he may have made to the fledgling organization.