We have called tornadoes: twisters and cyclones, whirlwinds and tempests. But another name gained popularity from a children's book and its movie adaptation: the Kansas Cyclone.
Tornadoes sweeping across Kansas and surrounding states on 29-30 May1879, caused many deaths and injury and much destruction. The newspaper headlines The Great Kansas Cyclone describing the outbreak stuck in the mind of newspaperman L. Frank Baum. The deadly Kansas tornado that drew his attention was likely the Irving (KS) tornado that destroyed the town on 30 May 1879, killing 18 and injuring 60 others. Eyewitnesses described the storm enveloping a farm house and whirling it about like a top. The tornado destroyed many buildings, leaving only the foundations behind, and tossed their pieces over many miles.
The memory of that story remained for nearly two decades before Baum used the Kansas location and a tornado to open his now-classic children's book The Wizard of Oz. Although, the 1900 book never actually used the term Kansas Cyclone, the association of Kansas with tornadoes re-kindled an already used term to national prominence.
The first chapter entitled "The Cyclone" tells us Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairie. Though only eleven hundred words long, it leaves us with a lasting image that is an important icon of American culture. Quoting from this chapter of the book:
"Uncle Henry sat upon the doorstep and looked anxiously at the sky, which was even grayer than usual. Dorothy stood in the door with Toto in her arms, and looked at the sky too. Aunt Em was washing the dishes.
"From the far north they heard a low wail of the wind, and Uncle Henry and Dorothy could see where the long grass bowed in waves before the coming storm. There now came a sharp whistling in the air from the south, and as they turned their eyes that way they saw ripples in the grass coming from that direction also.
"Suddenly Uncle Henry stood up. "There's a cyclone coming, Em," he called to his wife. "I'll go look after the stock." Then he ran toward the sheds where the cows and horses were kept. Aunt Em dropped her work and came to the door. One glance told her of the danger close at hand. "Quick, Dorothy!" she screamed. "Run for the cellar!"
"Toto jumped out of Dorothy's arms and hid under the bed, and the girl started to get him. Aunt Em, badly frightened, threw open the trap door in the floor and climbed down the ladder into the small, dark hole. Dorothy caught Toto at last and started to follow her aunt. When she was halfway across the room there came a great shriek from the wind, and the house shook so hard that she lost her footing and sat down suddenly upon the floor."
"Then a strange thing happened."
"The house whirled around two or three times and rose slowly through the air. Dorothy felt as if she were going up in a balloon."
"The north and south winds met where the house stood, and made it the exact center of the cyclone. In the middle of a cyclone the air is generally still, but the great pressure of the wind on every side of the house raised it up higher and higher, until it was at the very top of the cyclone; and there it remained and was carried miles and miles away as easily as you could carry a feather."
"It was very dark, and the wind howled horribly around her, but Dorothy found she was riding quite easily. After the first few whirls around, and one other time when the house tipped badly, she felt as if she were being rocked gently, like a baby in a cradle."
Here in the opening words of the story, a tornado, or more correctly in the vernacular of the day, a cyclone found a place in American literary history.
In 1939, the Metro Goldwyn Meyer (MGM) film studio released its version of The Wizard of Oz, though it was not the first filmed. Four silent versions had been produced from 1908 to 1925 (the latter featured Oliver Hardy of the comedy team of Laurel and Hardy). The film was released during Hollywood's greatest year and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but it only won two Oscars (for the music) as Gone With the Wind (another weather movie?) beat it out for Best Picture. The film because a Hollywood classic and earned high recognition the American Film Institute's "Top 100 Films" of all time ranking sixth (and also ranked 43rd in the list of top thrillers and made the list for inspirational films).
The film's success arose, in part, from its innovative special effects, particularly the opening storm scene from the book. Details of the making of these effects can be found in the book entitled: The Making of the Wizard of Oz written by Aljean Harmetz.
Initially, MGM Studio budgeted $8,000 for the design, building, and photographing of the tornado sequence. Special-effects artist Arnold Gillespie knew he couldn't go to Kansas and wait for a real tornado to pick up a house. So initially, he constructed a 35-foot tall rubber cone to simulate the tornado. Unfortunately, the design was too rigid, and the tornado wouldn't move; it just hung there dully.
While pondering how to simulate the storm, Gillespie recalled seeing wind socks at airports which resembled the classic funnel shape of a tornado. He then decided to make the tornado out of muslin which would keep it flexible so that, unlike the rubber cone, it could twist, bend, and move from side to side as needed. When completed, Gillespie connected the 35-foot long, tapered muslin sock at its funnel top to a steel gantry. The gantry itself cost over $12,000, well more than the initial sequence effects budget. It was similar in construction to those used in warehouses to move heavy objects, and this allowed the muslin tornado to move across the soundstage.
The tornado's base went into a slot across the stage floor where a rod emerged that move the tornado bottom from side to side. Combining the movements of the gantry and the inner rod, the muslin tornado could be made to wriggle around its axis as it spun.
To produce the dust and debris that makes a real tornado visible, Gillespie sprayed Fuller's earth a powdery brown dust carbon and sulfur particles from both the top and bottom of the muslin sock through compressed air hoses. The illusion produced resembled a boiling mass or cloud of dirt. And because the muslin was sufficiently porous, some of the dirt mixture came through the material which gave the assembly a fuzziness that made it more realistic in appearance. This also kept the sides of the tornado indistinct, so that it didn't look like a hard surface.
To realistically recreate the ungodly winds associated with a tornado, a combination of compressed air and wind machines was used, but this was no simple task either, according to the MGM press release: "As sending sound apparatus in search of unpredictable cyclones was impossible," the studio hired O.O. Ceccarini whom Albert Einstein declared one of America's five greatest mathematicians." Ceccarini used "delicate mathematical calculations" to develop a formula for the cyclone's sounds "in terms of decimals and electrical frequencies."
"From scientific weather figures he obtained the pressure, velocity, air density and electrical characteristics of cyclones. From these facts he calculated volume and pitch of the sounds that would naturally accompany these phenomena. These calculations completed, he worked out practical methods of creating the sounds; 4,698,271 separate figures and algebraic symbols had gone into 200 pages of calculations before the task was completed." (MGM press release, 1939)
Once the tornado itself had been filmed, the effects department used rear-projection techniques on a translucent screen to run the tornado film behind the actors. As Judy Garland and others moved around the stage, wind machines blew around dried leaves and other debris thrown before them by stage hands.
Miniatures simulated the buildings and cornfields. To recreate the house being lifted into the air by the whirling tornado, a three-foot tall model of the Gale (just love that play on words) farmhouse was dropped from height over a floor painted to look like sky. So it would appear that the tornado had lifted the house, the resulting footage was run backward.
The result was a remarkably realistic tornado sequence, but the scene cost more than any other special effect in the movie. It is no surprise then that MGM later used various takes of the Oz tornado sequence in the movies Cabin in the Sky (1943) and High Barbaree (1947).
Another effective creative device was employed for the scene. The movie opens with the stormy Kansas landscape shot in a bland sepia tone, an allusion to Dorothy's dull life but also the effect often seen when great storms reduce the lighting, then shifts to brilliant Technicolor for the fantasy scenes in the wonderful land of Oz.
The Wizard of Oz made "Kansas cyclone" a popular term for many years I even remember folks using it in my youth in the early 1950s. Then in 1996, another movie stole The Wizard's thunder, and a new term was on everybody's tongue: Twister. But not all agree the effects in Twister were better than those in Oz. Colorado State University meteorologist Matt Kelsch is quoted as saying about The Wizard of Oz, "It's still one of the best tornado depictions to date."
And while "Kansas cyclone" may have dropped from popular usage, another was taken from The Wizard of Oz by tornado researchers. In the early 1980s, meteorologists from the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma deployed a scientific instrument they called TOTO for Totable Tornado Observatory. In homage to both Wizard and NSSL, the Twister meteorologists affectionately call their scientific instrument Dorothy.