Manufacturing the Weather

Cover of 1954 Collier's magazine on climate engineering.

An image of a technocrat pulling the world's weather levers appeared on the cover of Collier's magazine in 1954. Courtesy estate of Frederick Siebel.

In the 1830s meteorologist James P. Espy developed the theory that convection was the primary cause of rain. As heated updrafts rose into the sky, they cooled and their moisture condensed, resulting in cloud formation and precipitation. This innovative theory led to Espy’s employment by the U.S. Army as the nation’s first meteorologist, and posed a question that remains with us today: can humans mimic this natural process? He embellished his theory with the notion that under favorable conditions lighting huge fires along the Appalachian Mountains would provide the heat, smoke, and particulate matter needed to trigger storms and enhance the nation’s rainfall. Espy pitched his idea to Congress, likening his plan to the creation of artificial volcanoes. He claimed that if fires were set each week (he preferred Sunday evenings), the regular rains would eliminate droughts, heat waves, and cold snaps; keep the rivers navigable; and render the air healthy by clearing it regularly of noxious vapors.

James Espy. 
Othmer Library of Chemical History, CHF.

Today some climate engineers claim they are the first generation to propose the deliberate manipulation of the planetary environment. History says otherwise. Over the past two centuries dreams of weather and climate control have produced a series of ill-considered and ill-fated interventions aimed at what at the time seemed the most pressing issues of the day: from health and farming in the 1830s, western drought in the 1890s, and fog and aviation in the 1920s, to cold-war attempts to use weather as a weapon, and on to current heroic responses to global warming.

Although Espy was justifiably celebrated for his convective theory, his reputation was tarnished by the ridicule his rainmaking proposal received. Nathaniel Hawthorne thought Espy belonged in the “Hall of Fantasy”—a marketplace of wild ideas perfectly suited to the fantasies of rain kings and climate engineers: “Professor Espy was here,” reminiscent of Aeolus, the god of the winds, “with a tremendous storm in a gum-elastic bag.” A popular writer, Eliza Leslie, pointed out that Espy’s manufactured weather could never satisfy everyone’s weather desires.

Fifty years later a new generation of weather alchemists set out to confront drought in the American West. Robert St. George Dyrenforth, a flamboyant patent attorney from Washington, D.C., was certain that explosions in midair could cause rain. Dyrenforth, with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, took a team of artillerists to Texas to attack the atmosphere on multiple fronts with dynamite and blasting powder, mortar shells, smoke bombs, electrified kites, exploding oxy-hydrogen balloons, and even fireworks.