Though we've been lucky this summer, every Midwesterner knows its keening sound, a reminder that tornado season is upon us once again. Tornadoes remain something of an enigma today, even as technology and YouTube videos make the prediction and experience of storms more routine. But our knowledge of tornados is a very recent phenomenon, as Lee Sandlin chronicles in Storm Kings: The Untold History of America’s First Storm Chasers. It’s actually a bit of a misnomer; Sandlin’s book chronicles the birth of meteorology in general, with primary focus on the pursuit to understand tornadoes. And in his first example, it literally is a pursuit.
On a visit to a Maryland friend, Benjamin Franklin encountered a whirlwind which he rode alongside as he took a closer look, flailing at it with his whip. Franklin survived his encounter, but as Americans pushed further west into areas prone to tornadoes, death tolls rose and debate intensified as competing theories fought it out in American lyceums and scientific journals. It is this debate that is the center of Sandlin’s story. Meteorology was hardly a science at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the field attracted its share of charlatans, gentlemen observers and military men who were sometimes as intent on discrediting their critics as they were to devoting research on storms. Sandlin follows particular players through the years, as ideas both solid and cracked (a particular favorite of mine was the notion that tornadoes were comprised primarily of electricity, and could be stopped by surrounding towns with giant arrays of wires—in essence, a gigantic tornado zapper). Sandlin intersperses accounts of pivotal storms, such as the possible pyro tornado that decimated Peshtigo, WI in 1871 and the 1925 Tri-State Tornado, to illustrate how each added to scientific knowledge and folklore about how storms developed. The Army’s Signal Corps and the civilian Weather Bureau were phenomenally bad at predicting the weather until the 1940s, due mostly to in-fighting. It wasn’t until 1948 that the first successfully forecast tornado struck near Oklahoma City, predicted with the help of radar.
Two and a half centuries after Franklin’s pursuit of the whirlwind, tornadoes still have a grip on the imagination of scientists and amateurs alike. Storm Kings is both a gripping history of the culture and science that went into what knowledge we have of tornadoes today. Readers interested in further exploration of the history of weather forecasting might pair it with Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm or Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather by Mike Smith; those who want personal accounts of tornadoes would enjoy F5, Mark Levine’s account of the 1974 outbreak, or Storm Warning, Nancy Mathis’ examination of the monster 1999 Oklahoma City storm.