In the 19th and 20th Centuries, both the federal and state governments of the United States explored ways to control the weather. Initially these were not particularly serious, but by the Cold War the United States was looking for any advantage it could find over the Soviet Union. Professor Kristine C. Harper’s new book, Make It Rain: State Control of the Atmosphere in Twentieth-Century America, published by The University of Chicago Press explores the bizarre and ridiculous history of state-funded attempts to control the weather.
Here is our interview:
In an episode of the TV show White Rabbit Project, the hosts describe how in 1915 the city of San Diego hired rainmaker Charles Hatfield to end a drought. Needless to say, it went horribly wrong. Soon after Hatfield was hired, San Diego experienced the largest and deadliest flood in its history. Hatfield was fairly notorious and even inspired the Burt Lancaster movie “The Rainmaker.” When did the state and federal governments begin to see rainmakers, such as Hatfield, as legitimate options?
While the federal government did not hire people like Hatfield, who generally used “secret” concoctions that were supposed to induce rain, it did finance rainmaking tests in the Texas Panhandle in 1891. These experiments did not mean that government scientists had accepted its efficacy, only that Illinois Senator James Farwell, who owned semi-arid land in Texas that would be more profitable with additional water, managed to slip in an appropriation for the US Department of Agriculture to conduct such experiments. Several individuals, including meteorologist James Pollard Espy, had been arguing for the possibility of using smoke from burning brush or exploding ordnance to create clouds that would ultimately provide needed rain. Even into the early twentieth century, when the City of San Diego hired Charles Hatfield, most self-described rainmakers were hired by agricultural interests and not by municipalities. Federal, state, and municipal interest did not ramp up until the late 1940s as the post-World War II idea that there was a technological fix for whatever ailed the country took hold.