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Independence Day history: Jefferson and Franklin as two of America’s first weathermen

Monday, July 4th, 2011 3:29pm MDT
Two of the most famous signers of the Declaration of Independence could also be considered weathermen.

Two of the most famous signers of the Declaration of Independence could also be considered weathermen.

Certainly anyone who has studied the Founding Fathers is well aware of Benjamin Franklin’s electrifying kite-flying experience.  What many Americans may not know is that he was one of the first storm chasers and his fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, was a weatherman in his own right.

Benjamin Franklin’s interest in the weather spanned virtually his entire lifetime.  He was intrigued by the weather and deduced the movement of storms going on to accurately theorize about low and high pressure as the basis for weather patterns.

His Poor Richard’s Almanac featured some of the nation’s first weather forecasts, penned by Franklin under the pseudonym of Richard Saunders.  Later in life he would record weather observations during his numerous Atlantic crossings and six years before his passing he published a number of “Meteorological Imaginations and Conjectures.”

Franklin also was one of the nation’s first storm chasers.  In a letter to Peter Collinson dated August 25, 1755 Franklin relayed his experience chasing what he called a whirlwind in Maryland the prior April.

He wrote, “We saw, in the vale below us, a small whirlwind beginning in the road and showing itself by the dust it raised and contained. It appeared in the form of a sugar-loaf, spinning on its point, moving up the hill towards us, and enlarging as it came forward. When it passed by us, its smaller part near the ground appeared no bigger than a common barrel; but widening upwards, it seemed, at forty or fifty feet high to be twenty or thirty feet in diameter. The rest of the company stood looking after it; but my curiosity being stronger, I followed it, riding close by its side, and observed its licking up in its progress all the dust that was under its smaller part.”

America’s first statesman goes on to detail how he followed the meteorological phenomena saying, “I accompanied it about three-quarters of a mile, till some limbs of dead trees, broken off by the whirl, flying about and falling near me made me more apprehensive of danger; and then I stopped, looking at the top of it as it went on, which was visible, by means of the leaves contained in it, for a very great height above the trees.”

Certainly it would appear Franklin encountered a strong dust devil or possibly even a weak tornado.

On July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson was doing more than just signing the Declaration of Independence – he also was buying a thermometer for £3-15 in Philadelphia from merchant John Sparhawk.  The author of the document that started the United States of America bought nearly 20 of the instruments over his life.

Just three days prior, on July 1, Jefferson began his first “meteorological diary.”  From then on his daily routine included checking a thermometer at dawn and in the late-afternoon and recording the readings.  Occasionally he would also use a barometer and hygrometer to supplement his measurements.

Jefferson believed that to understand the climate measurements would need to be taken across the young nation and he tried to spur others to do the same.  He wrote that documentation would require “steady attention to the thermometer, to the plants growing there, the times of their leafing and flowering, its animal inhabitants, beast, birds, reptiles and insects; its prevalent winds, quantities of rain and snow, temperature of mountains, and other indexes of climate.”

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