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Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives


history_bwphotoToday scientists all over the word use modern technologies and techniques to gather, research, and analyze climate change. How can the Smithsonian Institution Archives help in their work? In order to understand changing weather patterns scientist must look into the past. They can utilize data collected in the past, learn from early weather tracking systems, and improve upon earlier notions of climate change. Much of this information can be found in the resources at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For example, did you know that the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry started the first national weather service? Explore our resources to find out much more.

Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry shows weather map to visitors to Smithsonian Institution Castle, c. 1850s.To check the forecast today we click on the news, weather channel, or internet. However in 1846, when the Smithsonian Institution was founded, no national weather service existed to predict the weather or warn people of bad storms. By 1849, the first Secretary or head of the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry, organized 150 volunteers to participate in a national weather service. With an annual budget of $4,400, Henry’s volunteer corps sent monthly weather reports to the Smithsonian via telegraph. The reports included daily weather observations including barometric pressure, humidity, wind, temperature, cloud conditions and precipitation amounts. Thus, the United States first weather service began.

Click on the following links to learn more about early weather reporting in the United States!


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Dendrite star, Photograph by Wilson A. Bentley, Smithsonian Institution Archives.Like the individuals who helped in the Smithsonian’s weather service, many other amateur scientists spent their lives gathering meteorological data. One example is Wilson A. “Snowflake” Bentley (1865-1931) of Jericho, Vermont. Bentley photographed over 5,000 snowflakes throughout his life. and discovered that no two snowflakes are exactly alike.

Click on the following links to learn more about Bentley, read some of his letters, look at some of his scientific literature and learn how to identify snowflake structures. After viewing, try to make some of your own scientific observations about snowflakes!


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A researcher uses calipers to measure a tree on Barro Colorado Island. In the 1970s, the Smithsonian began an Environmental Monitoring Program at its Environmental Research Center on the Chesapeake Bay and at its Tropical Research Institute in Panama. The sites collected basic measurements of temperature, rainfall, solar radiation, and relative humidity. Over time, they added data about biomass, hydrology, and other factors, and extended data collection to numerous other sites. Today, the Environmental Sciences Program maintains terrestrial and marine long term monitoring programs and makes the data available to all scientists in real time. The terrestrial program includes meteorology, hydrology, tropical plant reproductive biology and population dynamics. The marine program includes meteorology, ocean water quality, productivity and biomass, the Panama Coral Reef Monitoring Program, a Marine Environment Assessment Study, and the Mangrove Monitoring Project. The Smithsonian Archives maintains the records of the Environmental Monitoring Program, as well as oral history interviews with its scientists.

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Charles G. Abbot with bolometric apparatus.Data collected for one purpose can often be used for other studies; such is the case with the scientific data collected by Smithsonian Secretary Charles Greely Abbot. Abbot worked for 78 years at the Smithsonian and helped the Smithsonian’s Astrophysical Observatory gather data on the solar constant using a bolometer to record data. The data on the bolometric plates was used to study whether the sun’s output of energy is constant throughout time.

Though Abbot’s conclusions proved to be inaccurate, modern day scientists have used Abbot’s data to answer new questions about the atmosphere. In the 1970s, the data on Abbot’s bolographic plates was reanalyzed to study changes in the ozone layer of the earth’s atmosphere.

Click on the links below to learn how NASA scientists have used Abbot’s data for modern science.


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If you have questions, contact us at SIHistory@si.edu.