Most Americans will not recognize the name Increase Lapham. But one of his major achievements is known to all. Many contemporaries considered him the Father of America's weather service.
Enticed by an annual salary of $1,000, young Lapham, a canal engineer, moved to the nascent village of Milwaukee in 1836. When Congress granted the Wisconsin Territory statehood in 1848, he was already its prime authority on local natural history, geology, and native peoples.
By 1850, Increase Lapham realized the economic value of timely weather predictions. He believed accurate forecasts could make the Great Lakes safer for shipping. For the next two decades, Lapham lobbied the Smithsonian Institution, the Wisconsin legislature, and Congress to establish a national weather agency, believing only a powerful government agency could coordinate the many required observations, assemble them, and distribute that information in time to be of practical use.
Professor Lapham constantly sent Milwaukee Congressman Halbert Paine clippings of maritime disasters on the Great Lakes, asking if it was not the Government's duty to try to prevent such sad losses in the future.
Finally swayed by Lapham's arguments, Paine introduced a Joint Congressional Resolution in February 1870 requiring the Secretary of War "to provide for taking meteorological observations . . . and for giving notice on the northern (Great) lakes and on the seacoast . . . of the approach and force of storms." The resolution passed.
On November 8th, Lapham issued the weather service's first "cautionary storm signal" for an impending Great Lake storm. Sent from Chicago at noon, it warned: "barometer falling with high winds at Chicago and Milwaukee today; . . . high winds probable along the Lakes."
Not merely the first official American weather forecast and warning, but also the first correct one.
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