When the U.S. Government Tried to Make It Rain by Exploding Dynamite in the Sky

Inspired by weather patterns during the Civil War, the rainmakers of the 1890s headed to west Texas to test their theory

(Illustration by Shaylyn Esposito)
smithsonian.com

The skies around Midland, Texas, lit up and thundered with the brilliance and cacophony of military-grade explosives. But it was far from a wartime scene, as on August 17, 1891, a group of scientists were setting off explosives in the first government-funded rain-making experiments.

Robert G. Dyrenforth had traveled by train from Washington, D.C. to a Texas cattle ranch in Texas with a group of other “rainmaking” enthusiasts. They arrived armed with dynamite, kites and balloons, the key ingredients for their rain-making recipe. Following the tenets of the concussion theory of weather modification, which suggested that clouds could be compelled to produce rain as a result of agitation from loud noise, the rainmakers prepared their explosives for detonation.

Among the group was Edward Powers, a former Civil War general who made the observation in his 1871 book, War and the Weather, that rain frequently occurred in the days following a Civil War battle. He theorized that the loud noise accompanying the events of battle had agitated clouds causing them to release the rain holed up inside of them, and his book documented several battles throughout history and the subsequent rain events.

“If lightning and thunder and rain have been brought on by the agency of man, when bloodshed and slaughter were only intended, this surely can be done without these latter concomitants,” he wrote, urging the U.S. Congress to fund research on the topic.

But he was not the first to postulate this theory of concussion, or the idea that loud sounds could disrupt the climate’s equilibrium and force rain to fall. In the second century, Greek essayist Plutarch observed that rain frequently followed battle, and even Napoleon was known to attempt to induce rain by firing artillery into the air.

Two decades after Powers published his book, rain-making believer Senator Charles B. Farwell of Illinois, who had read Powers' book and other studies on the topic, asked the Senate Appropriations Committee to allocate $10,000 for rain-making efforts. Though the House removed the request, the Senate eventually restored it. Eventually settling on a $7,000 allocation, Congress assigned the experiments to the Department of Agriculture’s Forestry Division. Perhaps, explains Kristine C. Harper in Make It Rain: State Control of the Atmosphere in Twentieth Century America, as the bill would have been listed by number among a great many other appropriations, no one paid much attention to the small amount requested for "No. 17."

However, members of the scientific community and the Forestry Division wanted no part of this appropriation and distanced themselves from what they believed to be a wacky and unsound theory. But Dyrenforth, a patent lawyer based in Washington, D.C., had no such compunction and took charge of the experiments. In addition to Powers, Dyrenforth’s team consisted of Smithsonian Institution meteorologist George E. Curtis, patent office chemist Claude O. Rosell, and John T. Ellis of Oberlin College.

Born in Chicago, Dyrenforth studied in Germany, where he attended the Polytechnic School in Karlsruhe and earned a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Heidelberg. He served as a war correspondent in the 1861 Austro-Prussian war and later earned the rank of major for the Union Army in the American Civil War. As a patent lawyer, clients came to him with applications for rain-making inventions, and Dyrenforth became obsessed with the idea himself.

His team’s first experiment took place at what they called “C” ranch on land near Midland that belonged to Chicago meat-packing tycoon Nelson Morris. Twelve hours after they set off the initial round of explosives, rain began to fall, writes James Fleming in Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control. And even though the collected rainfall at the ranch was minimal, Dyrenforth accepted it as evidence of success.

They set off the next round of explosives, 156 pounds of rackarock, on August 21, just as a “norther,” or a precipitation-inducing cold front moved into the area, writes Kristine Harper in Make it Rain: State Control of the Atmosphere in Twentieth-Century America. When mist appeared hours after the explosions stopped, Dyrenforth, of course, took credit.

The final experiment at the ranch occurred on August 25. After firing explosions throughout the day, Dyrenforth reported rainfall around 3:00 a.m:

I was awakened by violent thunder, which was accompanied by vivid lightning, and a heavy rainstorm was seen to the north—that is, in the direction toward which the surface wind had steadily blown during the firing, and hence the direction in which the shocks of the explosions were chiefly carried.

Despite Dyrenforth’s effusive comments, no one measured the rain, and observers later reported it was “nothing but a sprinkle,” writes Harper.

The prevailing view, even among the officials at the newly created U.S. Weather Bureau and others, was that there was not credible, scientific basis for increasing rain from these clouds by using explosive devices, says George Bomar, meteorologist at the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation and author of Texas Weather. “There was a great deal of skepticism,” he says.

One of those skeptics was the team’s own meteorologist, the Smithsonian’s George E. Curtis, who left the group a day before the final experiment and upon returning to Washington, wrote about the experiments in an article for Nature.

“In view of these facts, it is scarcely necessary for me to state that these experiments have not afforded any scientific standing to the theory that rainstorms can be produced by concussions,” he concluded.

But some people, including Dyrenforth, held onto the belief that concussion experiments might have worked. When the mayor of El Paso, Texas, invited the rainmakers to test their methods in the dry desert town, Dyrenforth sent his team to conduct experiments there under the leadership of John T. Ellis.

This time, funded by the city of El Paso, Ellis and the rainmakers purchased six dozen bombshell salutes, 2,000 cubic feet of oxygen and 1,000 pounds of dynamite.

“El Paso is a place where a cloud is a phenomenon, and hence if moisture can be concentrated there, and rain can be thereby brought, the concussion theory in rainfall will have been put to a thoroughly critical test,” wrote the New York Times on September 19, 1981. The day before, Ellis inflated a hydrogen balloon and ascended to the clouds as artillerists fired the explosives.

Later that night, rain began to fall south and southeast of the city, writes Fleming. And although, they were conducting the experiments on the opposite side of town, the rainmakers took credit for the showers.

The rainmakers went on to conduct experiments in Corpus Christi, San Antonio and San Diego with similar inconclusive results. It has since been noted that meteorologists had predicted rain in all of these places on the days that the rainmakers attempted to shake precipitation from the clouds. Even if Dyrenforth and his team were unaware of the predictions, they launched their experiments during the southwest's traditionally rainy season. Precipitation was likely in any case.

A decade later, breakfast cereal magnate Charles W. Post conducted his own experiments in Texas’s Garza and Lynn counties. Every four minutes over the course of several hours, he detonated four-pound dynamite charges. But his years of experiments between 1910 and 1914 were also inconclusive and brought an end to the era of concussion experiments.

Though the concussion theory has fallen out of fashion, the science behind rainmaking continues to evolve. Today, scientists studying weather modification focus their sights on cloud seeding, or the process of inserting silver iodide crystals to make ice droplets in the clouds clump together and fall from the sky as precipitation. A still evolving science, cloud seeding has shown promise but its efficacy is still somewhat unknown.

Edward Powers was not wrong in his observation that rain followed battle. But the likely explanation for this phenomenon is simply that generals tended to avoid fighting on rainy days. So, while Dyrenforth and the rainmakers of the 1890s may have conducted experiments on faulty assumptions, they are just one chapter in the long history of human interference in weather and climate.

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