The Blue Hill Observatory was conceived and constructed by Abbott Lawrence Rotch when he was 25 years old. This fascinating man, born in 1861, was the seventh child of a prominent Boston Family, which had acquired its wealth in the whaling and shipping industries. As a youth, Rotch traveled extensively in Europe with his family and was enrolled in schools in Paris, Berlin, and Florence where he learned to speak French and German fluently.
Rotch’s first interest in weather is not known but a small diary of the weather, which he began in 1878 while living in Boston, reveals that he was a proficient observer. He graduated from MIT in 1884, and was inspired by his parents to erect an Observatory on the Great Blue Hill near their summer home in Milton.
One year later, at a cost of $3,500, he constructed a small stone weather Observatory. At midnight on 31 January, 1885, fireworks were set off, and Rotch commenced a weather observational program that has continued uninterrupted to the present day. This makes it the oldest, continuously operating weather Observatory in the United States and a benchmark for world climatology.
The first year of operation was fraught with endless difficulties ranging from leaks in the walls, freezing indoor temperatures, and frequent instrument failure due to the severe weather on the barren, windswept hilltop. All of these events, as well as the weather of each day, were meticulously recorded in the hand of Willard P. Gerrish, observer for the first year.
Rotch soon became world-renowned in the field of meteorology as he met with European and American meteorologists and embarked on the systematic acquisition of meteorological books and data. His annual trips to Europe provided his new Observatory with the best complement of recording instruments in the Western Hemisphere.
Henry Helm Clayton, age 24, arrived in 1886 to replace Gerrish. Clayton was already interested in clouds and soon started recording their amount and type each hour. He was also interested in forecasting and modifying the Signal Service forecasts that Rotch arranged to receive by telephone and broadcast by means of "Weather flags" from the tower. A year later Clayton brought Sterling P. Fergusson, age 19, to the hill. Fergusson was a mechanical genius and soon had the instrumental problems under control. Clayton and Fergusson, under the guidance of Rotch, made an excellent team. By 1890, the first detailed cloud statistics in America were being accumulated. These observations provided the first basic climatology of cloud types, height and velocities in the Western Hemisphere.
On 4 August, 1894, a series of five kites, made by William A. Eddy, lifted a specially constructed thermograph off the ground at Blue Hill. This marked the beginning of worldwide soundings of pressure, temperature, humidity, and sometimes wind speed. Thereafter the work advanced rapidly, reaching a peak of activity in 1896, when 86 soundings were made. A maximum height of 15,793 feet about sea level was reached in 1900.
Some flights were made by alternately reeling in and out to sound vertically for periods of 24 and 36 hours, thus sampling changes with time. Other flights were made through thunderstorms, rain, and snowstorms. The work was extremely arduous, especially when breakaways occurred, which required a search for the kites and meteorograph, and retrieval of long lengths of restraining wire.
Rotch improved the Observatory structure three times. In 1889 the east wing was added to make a library and fireproof vault upstairs, with a shop and bedroom below. In 1902 the west wing and bedrooms were added. This housed the "new" library upstairs and storage for kites downstairs. In 1908 the two-story stone tower was torn down and replaced by the present three-story concrete tower.
Rotch died suddenly on 7 April, 1912 after an undiagnosed ruptured appendix. Letters of condolence poured in from Europe and America. According to his wishes, the
Observatory was bequeathed to Harvard with $50,000 to be set up in an endowment fund to operate the facility. Six years earlier Rotch had been named the first professor of meteorology at Harvard.
On 1 October, Alexander George McAdie was appointed professor of meteorology and Director of the Observatory. He would serve as Director for the next 18 years. McAdie was a kind, witty, and articulate man. His personal charm played an important role in raising $170,000 for endowment, an outstanding service to the Observatory. He had a penchant for writing and while some of his work was purely philosophical, some brilliant reasoning in regard to cloud physics appeared in his writings from time to time.
During the 1930's and 40's the Observatory became known around the world for its research and writing in the field of meteorology. This was the period of time when Dr. Charles F. Brooks was Director. Under his leadership, and as headquarters for the American Meteorological Society, the library grew to an estimated 25,000 volumes and scores of research projects and studies were conducted. It was also during this time period when one of the most important accomplishments was achieved: the development of the radiosonde.
In 1932, Brooks supplied instrumentation and observer training for the new Mt. Washington Observatory, which marked the start of a long-time close association with Blue Hill. Radio transmission experiments at ultrashort wavelengths followed, and soon regular communication by radio was open between the Observatories.
In 1954, the first of a series of contracts was obtained with the Air Force for the study of clouds and precipitation, and weather radar was installed on top of the Great Blue Hill. When Brooks retired in 1957, John H. Conover served as acting director until Richard M. Goody became director in July, 1958. A year later the Blue Hill observational program was taken over, on a diminished scale, by the United States Weather Bureau.
Under the directorship of Goody the work of the Observatory was to change to studies of the high atmosphere, so the intervening period was used to wind down all activities. The library was dismantled, the Observatory was remodeled and a new machine shop was set up.
Although research and numerous studies continued until the 1960's, the long time affiliation with Harvard University came to an end in 1971. At that point the Observatory was turned over to the Metropolitan District Commission and was scheduled to be discontinued as a National Weather Service Observing Station. Fortunately, through the efforts of several loyal supporters, the observing continues to the present day.
In 1981, under the direction of Dr. William Minsinger along with the hard efforts of Chris Tingus and a few others, the Blue Hill Observatory Weather Club was formed . Since that time an uncompromising battle has been waged to save the building and restore it to its former glory. In 1989 the building was declared a National Historic Landmark and work began in earnest to raise the money necessary to transform the Observatory into a Weather Museum and Science Center.
With the entire restoration and modernization funded by a grant from the Metropolitan District Commission, this National Historic Landmark is now ready to undertake its new and greatly expanded mission. While continuing to maintain a meticulous record of climate study, the expanded mission will focus on increasing public understanding of, and appreciation for atmospheric science.
Adapted from: Highlights of the History of the Blue Hill Observatory and the Early Days of the American Meteorological Society, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Volume 66 Number 1 January 1985 by John H. Conover
To maintain the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory, a National Historic Landmark, and to continue our over century long study of climate and weather while expanding public knowledge and awareness of the weather.
This timeline gives a detailed chronology of the events leading from the early days of the hill to present time.
The Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory remains a center for the study of weather and climate. Scientific research continues with a new focus on public education, teacher/student enhancement programs, and publications in order to better serve the public. Using the ever changing world of weather our mission is to motivate students and teachers to broaden their knowledge in math, science, and technology thereby sharpening their life skills. Observe, Measure, Postulate, Explore!