Numerical Dreams Numerical Reality

The idea of using mathematics to solve the weather forecasting problem was not a new one in 1946—Vilhelm Bjerknes had made a case for such an undertaking in the early 20th century and Lewis Fry Richardson of Great Britain had made an abortive attempt to do so during World War I. Both Bjerknes and Richardson realized that numerical weather prediction would not be practical until calculations could be made much more quickly than was possible with pencil, paper, and adding machines and/or slide rules.

Electronic calculating machines capable of handling complex problems first made their appearance during World War II, primarily to solve ballistics problems. Army units needed a way to compute "fire control solutions," that is, to take into account the size and weight of the ordnance being fired, the wind at its multiple flight levels, and the terrain in which it was being fired. At this time, computers with little computational capability took up entire rooms. Furthermore, they were individually designed and built to solve a given problem. Each army unit would not have a computer, but a single computer could produce tables that could be used to extract the fire control solution on distant battlefields.

Electronic digital computers emerged from this starting point in 1946. The brilliant Hungarian-born mathematician John von Neumann (190357) of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, was ready to design and build such a machine. He had garnered support from the Office of Naval Research, which was eager to have access to such a computing machine for a variety of military purposes. Von Neumann still needed a project for his computer. With a significant background in fluid dynamics, von Neumann did not need much encouragement from his friend Vladimir Zworykin (1889-1982), a physicist best known for inventing the scanning television camera at the RCA Laboratory (just a short distance away from von Neumann's offices in Princeton), to apply the computer to the weather forecasting problem.

When Francis W. Reichelderfer (1895-1983) chief of the Weather Bureau, visited Princeton at the end of 1945, he heard about Zworykin's recommendation to use computers to forecast the weather. This sounded like a terrific idea to Reichelderfer. The Weather Bureau, always strapped for money and personnel, could use an objective method for forecasting the weather. If Zworykin's idea worked, then all meteorologists would start out with a machine-produced forecast map that would only take into account the equations that defined the atmosphere and data collected from observation stations. These maps would replace the subjective method of chart production in which meteorologists would plot the data, look at past weather information, and then try to picture the future atmosphere in their minds before representing it on a weather map. Subjective prognostic charts were created from a feel for the atmosphere. In Reichelderfer's opinion, computer-generated charts would not only save money, but lead to better forecasts.

Reichelderfer pursued this idea by asking von Neumann and Zworykin to present their work at a confidential meeting of Weather Bureau, air force, and navy meteorologists at Weather Bureau headquarters in January 1946. The participants all agreed that numerical weather prediction held great promise. Academic meteorologists such as University of Chicago's Carl-Gustav Rossby were approached to advise on the theoretical aspects of such a problem. By the end of 1946, the navy had once again provided money to von Neumann—this time for the Meteorology Project that would create the mathematical models to run on the new computer being developed by von Neumann's Computer Project.

Although von Neumann had anticipated that his new computer would be built and operational within two years, it would not actually come alive until the early 1950s. That was just as well, because the meteorological problems were extremely difficult to solve and the models were ready only a year before von Neumann's computer. The American mathematician-turned-meteorologist Jule Charney (1917-81)—one of the many men who entered the atmospheric sciences as a result of the war—joined the Meteorology Project in 1948 and played a critical role in developing the equations that would define the atmosphere. With the help of an international team of meteorologists, particularly those from Scandinavian countries, the Meteorology Project took the first steps toward a more thorough understanding of the atmosphere and set the stage for operational numerical weather prediction in the next decade.

Although it might appear that the purpose of numerical weather prediction would have been to predict the weather, in fact the ultimate goal of Zworykin and von Neumann was not weather prediction, but weather control. Both of these distinguished scholars thought that if they could program the computer to produce the weather that people wanted by changing different meteorological variables in the machine, then others could change those same variables in the real world and produce weather on demand. They were not the only ones with this idea. While they were busy with their projects in Princeton, scientists at the General Electric Laboratory in Schenectady, New York, were developing and applying weather modification techniques.

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