rainmaking, or a history of pluviculture

Ever heard the term pluviculture? It means rainmaking, particularly applied to the pseudoscientific hucksters and con men of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—pluviculturalists—who plied their moisture accelerating trade throughout the American (mid)west. Their methods and practices, almost always bearing a slippery Teflon coating of scientific legitimacy, ranged from the peculiar to the outlandish.

Rain Science

James "Stormy" Espy
James “Stormy” Espy

Let’s back up to James Pollard Espy, born 1775, who in the 1830s played an instrumental role in systematizing American meteorological practices and developing networks of weather observers. In fact, Espy was America’s first federally funded meteorologist; apparently Poor Richard’s NSF funding requests kept getting rejected.

In 1841, Espy published a popular treatise called The Philosophy of Storms. In it, he expounded on his theory that storms were caused by moist air rising to the upper atmosphere, where it was rapidly cooled—what he called the “latent caloric” or “Espian thermal process.” Like any good theory, this one leads to some predictions, which is where things get fun: if you could force moist air upwards, you could produce rain. Did anyone attempt this? Oh my yes.

Espy himself was enchanted by the idea of using massive blazing infernos to produce columns of heated air that, he theorized, would displace air upwards and therefore produce rain. In 1849, he paid $60 to burn a 12-acre pine forest; no rain was produced. Espy fell so far down the fiery rabbit hole that his friends began to worry over his “want of prudence;” another thought the idea so crazed that “should one of his enemies get hold of it,” not even his influential friends could save Espy’s reputation. And it was impractical: an 1882 estimate found that marginally increasing rain production in Sydney, Australia through Espy’s process would require burning 8.9 million tons of coal a day.

File photo: Espy test
File photo: Espy test

If fire is not your style, then hop on over to the post-Espy blowers-and-conduits crowd. How about huge towers with fans at the bottom, or a giant earthen ramp for the wind to roll right up, or a 20-foot diameter pipe laid up the side of a mountain (to which the head of the national weather bureau responded: “your schemes are ingenious, but nature does not fit them.”)? Maybe you could direct moisture laterally, say by erecting a network of 1000 steel towers spaced 500 feet apart, with a 1000-horsepower propeller at the top of each. Or, best of all: a 1930s plan to shear off the top of some of the Rockies, thus unencumbering eastward-moving weather fronts (which may as well have been the plot of Action Comics #12, foiled by Superman). None of these got past the “planning” stages (a term I use loosely).

Concussions

Perhaps the most common and tenacious belief was the “concussionist” theory, which held that explosions could, in a literal sense, shake rain loose from the clouds. To believers, it explained the long-held notion—dating back to Plutarch—that rains follow great battles. That theory was hammered home in the 1871 book / monument to confirmation bias War and the Weather, which recounted tale after tale of great storms that followed in the wake of historical battles, and was no doubt fueled by hundreds of thousands of Civil War veterans vividly recalling miserable muddy slogs between battles.

One such veteran was CSA general Daniel Ruggles, who in 1880 invented a rain-producing device that was, more or less, a balloon with a stick of dynamite attached to it. He sought federal funding for testing, but was ignored until a decade-long drought and the 2nd edition of War and the Weather caught the attention of Congress, who allocated $10,000 to study the concussion theory.

Preparing explosives, to make rain
Preparing explosives, to make rain

They chose as the tester a patent lawyer and concussion theory apologist named Robert St. George Dryenforth. He collected a small army and a massive artillery—cannon, rifles, dynamite, blasting powder, kites with bombs attached, and balloons filled with hydrogen—and traveled to Texas to stage “a beautiful imitation of a battle.” The results were inconclusive, in part because Dryenforth waited until the weather bureau predicted rain before bombarding the sky.

Unswayed, Congress renewed his budget for another year, when tests were even less successful. “The sky remained clear as the complexion of a Saxon maid,” said one paper; another called it the “silliest performance that human ingenuity could devise.” The extremely niche-market Farm Implement News was particularly harsh:

Farm Implement News cartoon, lampooning Dryenforth (from Fleming, 2011)
Farm Implement News cartoon, lampooning Dryenforth (from Fleming, 2011)

The concussion theory didn’t go away. One group of Kansas towns, plagued by drought, banded together to assault the sky: “hundreds of men and boys with guns blasted away at the skies until 2 p.m., when the clouds opened their reservoirs and drenched the earth … just as the Weather Bureau had earlier predicted they would.” The facetious An Ode to Pluviculture even referenced it: “There were cannon, and mortars, and lots of shells / And dynamite by the ton / With a gas balloon and a chime of bells / And various other mystic spells / To overcloud the sun”.

Even into the 1930s the concussion theory held enough sway for hucksters to rely on it, producing some of the greatest examples of flim-flam colloquialisms and coinages in history. Dr. George Ambrosius Immanuel Morrison Sykes (great name) was the “director of ordnance” at the “Hatfield Rain Precipitation Corporation,” which promised to shake loose what rain it could through means chemical, explosive, and even astrological, asking farmers to sign contracts for “detonationary services” (at $10,000 per inch of rain; and by the way, keep the name Hatfield in mind). Sykes, according to the ultimate authority figure (himself), controlled the weather through an “Ethereal Conduit” and a dizzying array of completely made-up things: “dynurgy, xurgy, psychurgy … isogonic force, quantumie … Bolecular energy, freenurgy—especially freenurgy … and thermurgy.” And that’s just where his neologistic insanity gets started:

Weather control lingo
Weather control lingo (from Spence, 1961)

 

There’s always a question, with people like this, whether they believe what they’re selling, or if it is a purely cynical money grab. One of the Hatfield corporation’s heads sold it straight: “All first-class Boob Traps must contain a real smart Ace-In-The-Hole.” Rainmaking was a boob trap, but iron laws of probability were the company’s ace in the hole: they used historical records, weather bureau tables, and meteorological predictions to create a “pari-mutuel handicapping” system for rain. In other words, if you could predict incoming rain with some accuracy, you could pretend to have created it. And like modern sharps, they didn’t need to get much better than chance—they estimated 55%—to be profitable. There is something weirdly fascinating about scams with that much effort put into them.

Chemical Rain

Perhaps the most common, and the most apparently “scientific,” approach to rainmaking was via chemicals. One of the first famous chemical rain producers was Frank Melbourne, whose secret process created a cloud of unknown gas that brought rain. Chemical rain production was seen as successful enough that it eventually led to franchises, under the aegis of “Inter-State Artificial Rain Company,” the head of whom said “we have got the world by the horns with a down-hill pull and all wear diamonds pretty soon.”

Most of these “secret” formulas, it turned out, were a lot of mixing and boiling of various solvents just to produce a cloud of hydrogen. There were some more experimental approaches, such as the dispersal of carbonic acid in the atmosphere, which, like Espy’s towering infernos, demonstrated a “ridiculous inadequacy of means to the end.” Even by best estimates, it would require some $400,000 of carbonic acid to produce a quarter inch of rain in one square mile of land.

Among the most famous, and probably the longest-lasting rainmakers was Charles Hatfield, whose name was later co-opted for that slick company I discussed earlier. Hatfield made a name for himself by bringing rain to LA in 1904. So much rain, in fact, that people concerned the annual tournament of roses parade would be washed out appealed to the “great moistener” (gross) to pull back on the reins.

In 1916, San Diego was holding the Panama-American Exposition, celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal (not to be confused with basically the same expo happening in San Francisco at exactly the same time—world’s fairs were very weird). Drought stricken, the town contacted Hatfield, who offered a bevy of options: fill the reservoir for $10,000, or pay $500 for each inch of rain past 30 inches, or $1000 for each inch of rain past 40 inches, and get a free chamois if they order now. Thirty inches was not a number pulled from thin air: at least that much rain had fallen in 14 of the last 28 years, which Hatfield assuredly knew.

Hatfield's apparatus
Hatfield’s apparatus

He was hired—under what pricing plan we do not know—and secreted himself on the outskirts of town, where he erected some towers and set to mixing his proprietary chemical formula. It worked rather too well: torrential rains overflowed the reservoir, burst dams and destroyed bridges, and killed dozens of people.

In the wake of the aquatic disaster, the city refused to pay Hatfield, sparking a long court battle. Hatfield was actually in something of a pickle: to get paid, he needed to claim credit for causing the rain, but that also meant he was responsible for the death and destruction rendered by the inundation. The case was eventually thrown out after 20 years of hemming, hawing, and appealing; the court called the floods an act of god. San Diego—I swear I’m not making this up—hired a rainmaker again in 1948, but this time took out insurance against damages.

A 1970 article about Hatfield begins with the following: “The best remembered facts about Hatfield the Rainmaker are that when he ministered to the sky it rained torrents, and when he tried to collect $10,000 from the City of San Diego the mayor and council welshed.”

 

The History of Rainmaking

James Fleming, a historian of science, divides the modern history of weather control into three cycles of hype and letdown. Pluviculture, starting with James Espy and ending in the 1930s, was the first. The second began with the discovery of cloud seeding in the 1940s started the second cycle, which lasted through the cold war. We’re in the third cycle now: dystopian and terrifying geoengineering schemes aiming for large-scale weather disruptions, such as military plans to “own the weather,” because nothing bad can happen when you try to control the atmosphere, right?

Pluviculture, Fleming says—from Espy’s heat-based plans, concussionist theories, chemical rainmakers, to the various and sundry con artists—is an example of a pathological science. A pathological science isn’t a strictly defined term; mostly it means pseudoscience, but aims to capture less the existence of a pseudoscientific idea than the persistence of those ideas—how they hang around long after they should have been discarded, whether that adherence comes through bad experiments, good salesmanship, or a desire to believe. And then the cycle repeats.

Notes & Sources

Fixing the Sky, by James Rodger Fleming (wins points for having a great cover). For a short review, see “The pathological history of weather and climate modification: Three cycles of promise and hope,” also by James Rodger Fleming, pdf here.

“A Brief History of Pluviculture,” by Clark Spence.

For more on the story of Hatfield and San Diego, see the in-depth story here.

More about George Dryenforth and his experiments can be found here.

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