Wisconsin has a proud history of producing science that has greatly improved the lives of both Wisconsinites, as well as the nation as a whole. Increase Allen Lapham, Wisconsin’s first citizen scientist and father of the National Weather Service, was a testament to the power of scientific inquiry and the potential of our region.

Weather has a very strong impact on our lives in the Milwaukee area. It affects our plans, shipping, commerce, and safety. Being able to predict the weather and follow storms is an important factor in keeping us safe and productive, whether in the form of timely tornado warnings, to planning snow removal to keep roads clear, to planning fishing trips. The beginnings of our modern weather infrastructure and sciences can trace some of their roots back to Milwaukee in the 1800s.

In the United States, the vast majority of weather-related data and much of the forecasts are provided by a single governmental agency, the National Weather Service (NWS), a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NWS also provides much of the measured weather and climate data that modern climatologists use to develop and improve their models of how the climate is changing. Prior to the formation of the NWS, weather was reported by telegram to the Smithsonian from points further west, by volunteers making observations from specific points. These telegrams could then be aggregated into a larger report that could track storms as they happened. However, as the United States expanded further out, and the desire for more data grew stronger, there was a need for more infrastructure, and the desire to form an agency that could manage it. One of the main pushers for this agency was a Milwaukee scientist, by the name of Increase Allen Lapham (1811-1875).

Lapham was a citizen scientist in the truest sense of the term. With no formal training, and armed only with his drive to know more, he taught himself the fields of engineering, geology, ecology, and meteorology. Within his first year of moving to Kilbourn Town (present day Milwaukee), he published Catalogue of Plants and Shells, Found in the vicinity of Milwaukee, on the West Side of Lake Michigan, one of the first American scientific works published west of Lake Michigan, but certainly not his last.. Lapham would also become one of the state’s first environmentalists, warning of the consequences of clearing forest land for farming, publishing On the Disastrous Effects of the Destruction of Forest Trees, Now Going on So Rapidly in the State of Wisconsin in 1867.

He founded the Wisconsin Natural History Association (now the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters), produced the first major book of Wisconsin geography in 1844, and created his first map in 1846. Later in life, he would lobby Congress and the Smithsonian institution to create an agency capable of forecasting storms on the Great Lakes and the coasts. Lapham would make the newly formed weather service’s first forecast:

High wind all day yesterday at Cheyenne and Omaha; a very high wind this morning at Omaha; barometer falling with high winds at Chicago and Milwaukee today; barometer falling and thermometer rising at Chicago, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo and Rochester; high winds probable along the Lakes.

Lapham eventually retired to his farm on Oconomowoc Lake, where he spent time cataloging plant and animal life on the lake until his death in 1875. He would be found in his rowboat, a dedicated scientist to the end.

‍Lapham Peak, former site of one of the earliest weather relay stations.

Lapham’s legacy lives on, through the National Weather Service, rock daisies (named Laphamia in his honor), and a peak named after him in Waukesha County. Lapham Peak is the site of one of the early weather relay stations created after the formation of the U.S. Weather Service (now NWS), and is now a state park. He also leaves behind a testament to the power of citizen science, that by just going out to observe, make a hypothesis, and record data, anyone can be a scientist.

Written by John Uhrig for the Milwaukee Area Science Advocates (MASA)


Further Reading:

Janik, E. Citizen Scientist. Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine, 2007. Retrieved from http://dnr.wi.gov/wnrmag/html/stories/2007/feb07/lapham.htm

Grice, G. K., ed. The Beginning of the National Weather Service: The Signal Years (1870 – 1891) as Viewed by Early Weather Pioneers. Retrieved from http://www.nws.noaa.gov/pa/history/signal.php

Lapham, Increase, 1811-1875: Wisconsin’s First Scientist. Wisconsin Historical Society. Retrieved from http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Content.aspx?dsNav=N:4294963828-4294963805&dsRecordDetails=R:CS527

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