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Cleveland Abbe

Cleveland Abbe

Cleveland Abbe (December 3, 1838 in New York City – December 29, 1916 in Chevy Chase, Maryland) was a famous American meteorologist and advocate of time zones. While director of the Cincinnati Observatory in Cincinnati, Ohio, he developed a system of telegraphic weather reports, daily weather maps, and weather forecasts. Congress in 1870 established the U.S. Weather Bureau and inaugurated the use of daily weather forecasts. In recognition of his work, Abbe, who was often known as Old Probability for the reliability of his forecasts, was appointed the first head of the new service.

Early life

Abbe grew up in the prosperous merchant family of George Waldo and Charlotte Colgate Abbe in New York City, and his younger brother Robert became a prominent surgen and radiologist. In school, Cleveland excelled in mathematics and chemistry, and graduated from the Free Academy in 1857. He then taught engineering for two years at the University of Michigan while at the same time studying astronomy under Franz Brunnow at the University. When the Civil War broke out, Abbe tried to join the Union Army; however, he failed the vision test and spent the War years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working as an assistant to Benjamin Gould (astronomer and head of Longitude Department of the United States Coast Survey). Abbe then studied abroad in Russia and later returned to the U.S. eager to study astronomy. In 1868 he was hired by the Cincinnati Astronomical Society, however, the organization lacked funding and Abbe lost his job less than a year later. It was at this point that Abbe made the decision that would change his entire career path. Remembering that meteorological conditions directly affect the work of astronomers, Abbe decided to begin working in the field of meteorology. He won approval to report on and predict the weather, working on the premise that forecasts could and should be generated at minimal expense and in such a way as to perhaps even produce income.

Meteorological career

In order to compile his information, Abbe required a time-keeping system that was consistent between the stations. To accomplish this he divided the United States into four standard time zones. In 1883, Abbe convinced North American railroad companies to adopt his time zone system. In 1884, Britain, which had already adopted its own standard time system for England, Scotland, and Wales, helped gather international consent for global time

One of the first things that Abbe addressed was the forecasting dimension of meteorology. He recognized that predicting the weather required a widespread, yet coordinated, team. And so, with short term funding granted form the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, Abbe enlisted twenty volunteer weather observers to help report conditions. Western Union agreed to permit the observers to communicate without charge, and Abbe and his team began work. Abbe selected data-collecting instruments that would be critical to the success of weather predicting, and trained Army observer sergeants in their use. Field data was transmitted using code designed to minimize word count, and at the designated times, information flooded the transmission stations. Clerks would then decode and record the messages, and manually enter data onto weather maps, which were then used to predict the weather.

On February 19th, 1871, Abbe personally gave the first official weather report. He continued to forecast alone for the next six months, while simultaneously training others. He was joined in mid-1871 by two army lieutenants and a civilian professor in giving reports, and the team was then able to rotate the heavy workload. Abbe demanded precise language in the forecasts, and made sure every forecast covered four key meteorological elements: weather (clouds and precipitation), temperature, wind direction, and barometric pressure. By the end of the first year of reporting, over sixty copies of weather charts went to Congress, the press, and various scientific institutions. By 1872, Abbe regularly sent over five hundred sets of daily maps and bulletins overseas in exchange for European meteorological data. Abbe also insisted on verifying predictions. During the first year of operation in 1871, Abbe and his staff verified 69% of their predications; the annual report apologized for the other 31%, citing the pressure of time as the cause.

Abbe required that the weather service stay at the forefront of technology. Over time, the instrument division at the headquarters tested and calibrated thousands of devices, and even began to design and build their own instruments. By the end of the century, self-registering equipment came into use and the United States lead the meteorological world with 114 Class I (automatic recording) observation stations. Anticipating an increase in international cooperation, Abbe began to seek quality instruments calibrated to international standards. He enlisted Wolcott Gibbs of Harvard and Arthur Wright of Yale to design improved equipment. For comparison purposes, Abbe ordered a barometer from Heinrich Wild (director of the Nicholas Central Observatory in Russia), as well as an anemometer and several types of hygrometers from Germany. Abbe then invented an anemobarometer to test the effect of chimney and window drafts on barometers in enclosed spaces.

In 1912 the Royal Meteorological Society presented Abbe with the Symons Memorial Gold Medal, citing his contribution “to instrumental, statistical, dynamical, and thermo dynamical meteorology and forecasting.” Abbe died in 1916, after a lifetime of outstanding scientific achievement.


Abbe was also a genealogist, writing the history of his paternal family in the book The Abbe-Abbey Genealogy which was co-authored with Josephine Nichols. His other publications include:

* Annual Summary and Review of Progress in Meteorology (1873-88)

* Treatise on Meteorological Apparatus and Methods (1887)

* Preliminary Studies for Storm and Weather Predictions (1889)

* The Mechanics of the Earth's Atmosphere (1891)

* Physical Basis of Long Range Forecastings (1902)

* Relations between Climates and Crops (1905)

* Townsend Genealogy: A Record of the Descendants of John Townsend, 1743-1821, and of His Wife, Jemima Travis, 1746-1832 (1909)

* Mechanics of the Earth's Atmosphere (third coll. 1911)


* This article incorporates text from an edition of the New International Encyclopedia that is in the public domain.

Further reading

* Reingold, Nathan. "Abbe, Cleveland." in Dictionary of Scientific Biography. (1970). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. Vol. 1: p.6.

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