Boomers Witnessed the Evolution of Weather Forecasting

As long as people have been aware of their surroundings, there was a need for some form of weather forecasting. In ancient times, attempts were made to predict weather by observing the sky, astrology, observing plant and animal behavior under changing conditions, and then, as they were were invented, with measuring instruments (such as the barometer in the 1600s). Sayings such as, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning,” have been circulating for more than two thousand years. Variations existed for shepherds and farmers.

Humans stumbled along with day-to-day weather as best they could until, in 1904, a Norwegian mathematician named Vilhelm Bjerknes surmised that weather might be predicted by using mathematical equations. British mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson took the concept to heart and quickly came to the conclusion that a huge number of calculations — taking all the variables into account (wind speed and direction, temperature, pressure, to name a few) — would need to be made for even a small weather prediction to be possible, let alone in a timely manner. It took until the 1940s for a team of meteorologists and mathematicians at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, to employ early computers to work the tens of thousands of calculations needed in weather forecasting.

But, hey, Mister Boomer, what does this have to do with the Boomer Generation? Fast forward to a time young boomers were hearing stories about World War II. The onset of our generation appearing immediately after the War meant movies, books and family remembrances were readily available for interested boomers. A story often told in various cultural forms was about Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. One of the amazing facts of that historical battle on June 6, 1945, is that the order to go or no rested in the hands of a team of British and American weather forecasters. The need for accurate weather forecasting became crucial to the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Despite far from ideal weather conditions for days on end, General Dwight D. Eisenhower took the team’s advice that a lull in the rain, wind, fog and rough seas would occur within a three-day window beginning on June 5. In his report on the operation, Eisenhower wrote, “I thank the Gods of War we went when we did.”

After the War, the advances made in forecasting for battles, in combination with a more developed radar system, ushered in a new era of weather forecasting. By 1950, the team of scientists at IAS in Princeton, New Jersey, led by Jules Carney, successfully predicted a series of forecasts in North America, ten years after first applying computers to the challenge. By the mid-50s, the U.S. Weather Bureau was issuing regular forecasts across the country. Boomers were the first generation to benefit from this forecasting, and TV helped get the word out.

In 1960, the U.S. launched the first weather satellite (TIROS) to monitor the Earth’s cloud cover. It was operational for a mere 78 days, but the Genie was out of the bottle — that more data from both terrestrial and space sources were going to assist in future forecasting.

Nowadays, with weather forecasting available on your phone, right down to an hour-by-hour prediction for your Zip Code, it’s difficult for us to remember that this type of forecasting — and its increasing accuracy (though we still complain) — was non-existent before the boomer years.

One last example will illustrate how boomers had a front-row seat to the evolution of weather forecasting, and that involves tornados. There was not a clear understanding of what conditions caused tornados, nor was there enough data gathered before the boomer years. The result was that predictions of tornados were generally not attempted. A little known fact is that from 1887 until 1950, the Weather Bureau forbade or highly discouraged the use of the word “tornado” to avoid a public panic from these fearsome and deadly storm events.

In March of 1948, a tornado devastated the Tinker Air Force base in Oklahoma. The base commander, looking to avoid another disaster, ordered two meteorologists, Captain Robert Miller and Major Ernest Fawbush, to work on the prediction problem. The two developed a system and successfully predicted several tornado outbreaks in 1948. At that time, predicting tornados was considered career suicide for weather forecasters. Captain Miller later wrote, “I wondered how I could manage as a civilian, perhaps as an elevator operator.” In 1950, the Weather Bureau dropped their opposition to mentioning the word, just in time for boomers to watch weather forecasts on television.

Despite the unpredictability of storms like the tornados, hurricanes, wildfires, floods and numerous weather disasters that have befallen our country in the past few months alone, the death toll for these events is dramatically lower than what would have been just a few decades ago.

Do you remember watching the weather forecasts on TV, boomers? Did you ever base what you wore to school on the weather forecast you saw on TV?

Boomers Learned a New Definition for “Fob”

Fifty years ago, if someone told us our car would unlock itself as we approached it, and could start itself up at the same time, we would have thought we were living in an episode of The Jetsons. Cars were a marvel of engineering to us in our boomer years, and the key to harnessing its power was just that — a key.

Most boomers recall the elation of getting their first car; the thrill of personal freedom rang out the second you were handed the keys. In the 1950s and ’60s, cars had two keys: one that unlocked the doors, and that also fit the ignition switch to start the vehicle; and another to open the trunk. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, cars began to feature a pull switch installed in the interior of the car to pop open the trunk, which precipitated the shift to a single key for all locks on the car.

Mister Boomer remembers a car key story that happened when he was walking home from school one day. He was all of eight or nine years old when he saw a 1955 Chevy parked in a driveway with it its trunk wide open, keys dangling from the slot in the middle. He knew the car model because his uncle had one just like it. Thinking the owner forgot the keys, Mister B pulled them from the trunk as he closed it, and walked up to the front door of the house. He knocked and a man quickly answered. Mister B held out the keys and said, “You forgot your keys in the trunk lock.” The man was perturbed and responded that he did not forget them at all, and admonished Mister B to mind his own business and put them back where he found them. He walked down the steps to the car and, slipping the keys back in the lock, he unlocked the trunk. Once it swung up to its maximum height, he could hear the house door slam shut. Mister B resumed his walk home, a little dumbfounded at the exchange. Mister B thought he was being a good Samaritan. The man thought this kid should have kept walking. There was certainly an attitude about keys — especially car keys — that existed in our day. Many people left their cars and houses unlocked. By the mid-60s, boomer households became less trusting.

Fast forward fifty years, and Mister B found himself renting a car while visiting his home state. He was handed what he learned was a “key fob,” a palm-sized device that actually held no keys at all. It is also referred to as a car remote, echoing the name of another invention boomers learned about in their early years, the TV remote. He had heard of a watch fob (a chain that secured the watch to a pocket or belt loop), because his grandfather had one attached to the pocket watch that he carried with him. But a key fob, while not entirely new, seemed to advance in the intervening time between Mister B’s car rentals. If you don’t own a current model vehicle, and rent a car while on vacation, then you know what he means.

Once upon a time not so long ago, people had a small plastic case attached to their car keychain. It usually held two or three buttons to unlock the car, open the trunk, and activate the car alarm. Some had the ability to start the car, a welcome addition for colder climates. These days, however, the key fob is an electronic brick. It sends a signal to the vehicle as you approach it, automatically deactivating the alarm system and unlocking the doors. Some even start the car when you open the door. There is no longer any need for inserting a key into an ignition switch! If the car didn’t start on its own, you’ll find a start button on the steering wheel column where the ignition switch used to be located. We have achieved the push-button world envisioned in 1950s and ’60s futuristic prognostications.

Mister Boomer had to admit, sitting behind the wheel of one of those new models, he was panic-stricken. Ultimately, he swallowed his pride and went back to the car rental counter for some help. One advantage to being older is people don’t expect us to understand new technology, though Mister Boomer has used a computer at work every day since 1986. Nonetheless, as the rental assistant walked him back to the car, the key fob in Mister B’s hand unlocked the doors when they approached. As the agent swung open the door, a perplexed Mister B pointed to the digital dashboard and asked, “How the hell do I turn on the headlights? How do I turn on the windshield wipers if I need them?” The man didn’t even chuckle. He just patiently showed Mister B what to do, as if this were a regular occurrence. Feeling ancient, Mister B imagined the agent saw a blinking 12 o’clock reflected in Mister Boomer’s eyes. Easy to operate switches, dials and hand-crank windows were all Mister B ever had in the cars he has owned. It’s a brave new world, boomers.

How about you? Have you embraced car technology or long for the days when turning a key started a car and “programming” a car radio meant pulling out a button and pushing it back in?