Interview With Dr F. W. Reichelderfer

Dr F. W. Reichelderfer in 1960

Dr F. W. Reichelderfer in 1960

Francis Wilton Reichelderfer was born in Harlan in the state of Indiana, USA, on 6 August 1895, the son of a methodist pastor. He graduated from high school in Topeka in 1913, and went on to university at Evanstan, near Chicago, where his principal subjects were physics, mathematics and chemistry. He followed additional courses in English, zoology and psychology, and also derived great satisfaction from taking a three-year course in classical Greek under the eminent Professor J. Scott. His first job was working as a chemist for Calumet, a firm which makes baking powder.

Like many American boys of his age, Francis Reichelderfer dreamed of flying, and in 1917 getting into the war seemed to be the best way of attaining this objective. He looked around for a way to become enlisted. The US Air Force did not exist at that time; there were only small aviation units in the army and the navy.

In 1918 Reichelderfer enlisted in the US Naval Reserve Flying Corps, and after a three-month course in meteorology at Harvard's Blue Hill Observatory, he was ready to be drafted to England for active service.

However, instead of England, he ended up in Canada at a US naval air station at North Sydney (Nova Scotia) where his job was to forecast weather for anti-submarine patrols which guarded convoys crossing the North Atlantic from Halifax. So the war came to an end and he had still not got his 'wings'. Therefore he had himself transferred to a naval air station near Norfolk (Virginia), and it was this move which was decisive for his future career. During the First World War several countries in Europe, and Norway in particular, suffered from a lack of weather information so desperately needed for fishing fleets. Bad weather and storms caused serious damage which could have been avoided with adequate warning. In Bergen, a group of meteorologists under the leadership of Jack Bjerknes embarked upon a serious and in-depth empirical study of weather systems, thereby founding the famous Bergen school. Bjerknes's new method of analysing weather maps became known as frontal analysis'. When Reichelderfer heard about this, he determined to try the frontal analysis technique in the USA, in spite of the scepticism of his colleagues.

In May 1919 there was the first attempt at a transatlantic crossing by flying boats, and Reichelderfer was sent to Lisbon to forecast the weather for them. Four machines were to set out from Rockaway Inlet (Long Island). Two came down in mid-ocean, the crews being rescued by ships. The third developed engine trouble and never left the ground. The fourth flying boat completed the crossing and provided invaluable information.

In   September   of the   same  year,   Reichelderfer  had   his first   experience   as pilot-meteorologist of a balloon when he rode in an open basket to an altitude of about 6000 metres. Perhaps the greatest hazard to balloons in those days was thunderstorms; during an international balloon race from Brussels in 1923, five participants lost their lives when lightning struck their balloons.

When he became lieutenant in charge of the naval meteorological service at Washington, D.C., Reichelderfer put all his effort into means of gaining more information about the upper layers of the atmosphere, and naval pilots flew weather reconnaissance missions for the first time. In 1931 he went to Norway to study with Bjerknes and Bergeron for the greater part of a year. By now airships had reached the apogee of their brief period of celebrity, and he made several long journeys on the ill-fated zeppelin Hindenburg, and in fact was to have returned with her to Frankfurt the time she burst into flames at Lakehurst in 1937.

It was while he was doing a naval officer's obligatory spell of service at sea in 1938 that Reichelderfer was offered the post of Chief of the US Weather Bureau, and he was sworn in on 15 December of that year. From then on things happened with remarkable speed. To begin with, radiosondes had started to be used for taking upper-air observations, and for the first time it was possible to draw a meaningful pattern of the circulation at upper levels. The US Coast and Geodetic Survey already used a calculating machine to forecast ocean tides, and in England, L. F. Richardson had demonstrated that mathematical weather forecasting was theoretically possible, and Rossby at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had developed fundamental equations describing the general circulation of the atmosphere. A group of Rossby's students had come to the US Weather Bureau to form a nucleus for research. Supported by this group, and with advice from mathematical geniuses such as Rossby himself, John von Neumann and Jule Charney, Dr Reichelderfer raised the US Weather Bureau's research group to a state of high competence. In I960 he was jointly responsible for the first orbiting meteorological satelliteTIROS 1. During Reichelderfer's 25-year term as chief, the Weather Bureau's budget grew from US $4.7 millions to more than $60 millions, and the number of its employees went up from 1650 to 6630.

Dr Reichelderfer became an influential and respected member of many national bodies, and, in his capacity as member of the Executive Council of the International Meteorological Organization, he played a very important part in framing the World Meteorological Organization Convention, adopted by the Conference of Directors at Washington, D.C in 1947. First Congress in 1951 elected him President of WMO and Second and Fourth Congresses elected him member of the Executive Committee by acclamation. (At Third Congress he was already an ex-officio member by virtue of being president of Regional Association IV).

Reichelderfer is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the Executive Committee of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the Royal Meteorological Society, the Geophysical Society of Lima (Peru), the Philosophical Society of Washington, and the Washington Academy of Sciences. Among the honours bestowed on him from abroad may be mentioned the Order of the Sacred Treasure (Japan 1960) and other international medals or parchments from Chile, Cuba and Peru. He received the ninth IMO Prize in 1964. In his home country he has received medals for meritorious service from the US Department of Commerce and the US Air Force. The American Meteorological Society conferred on him the Cleveland Abbe award in 1964 and a special recognition award in 1972. He is the author of numerous technical and scientific papers.

Throughout his career, Reichelderfer demonstrated a remarkable ability to find solutions to the most complex problems. He always remained calm even in the most provoking circumstances. His sincere and friendly advice had always been appreciated by his colleagues, who spontaneously refer to him as a 'Gentleman'.

On the occasion of his retirement on 1 October 1963, Dr Reichelderfer received the following letter from the President of the United States of America:

Dear Dr Reichelderfer,

You have held the post of Chief of the Weather Bureau with great distinction under four Presidents, and it is with regret that I accept your resignation, effective upon the appointment and qualification of your successor.

In your forty-five years of service to the United States, you have distinguished yourself as a naval officer, as Chief of the Weather Bureau, and as a leader in international scientific co-operation.

As chief of the Weather Bureau, you presided over the evolution of meteorology and weather forecasting from an art to a science.

I appreciate your desire to devote more time to the problems of world meteorology, so uniquely important to international affairs and the spread of goodwill among nations. I know that a man of your vigour and ability will continue to serve the world of science with distinction, and in doing so to serve the nation.

I am glad to know that we can call upon you for assistance in the future.

Sincerely, John F. Kennedy

This interview took place at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C on 28 July 1981. The Editor of the WMO Bulletin was very pleased to see Dr Reichelderfer again and grateful to him for having agreed to contribute to the series. In spite of his 86 years he was extremely sharp, clear in mind, eloquent in conversation. He gives the impression that he is still that resolute naval commander and young scientist seeking to push back the boundaries of our knowledge of the atmosphere.

H.T — Dr Reichelderfer, could you start by saying something about your childhood and family?

F.W.R. — I was born in the small town of Harlan in the state of Indiana on 6 August 1895. My father was a Methodist pastor, and during my childhood we lived in three or four different towns in north-eastern Indiana. The close-knit upright family circle— consisting of my parents, my younger sister Janet and myself, surrounded by many aunts, uncles and cousins living nearby—influenced my subsequent outlook on life, and probably my career too, far more than I realized at the time. These people were genuinely but not fanatically religious. I graduated from the high school at Topeka in 1913. We then moved to Evanston (just north of Chicago) so that my father could go to the well-known Protestant college for ministers and I could follow a course at the Northwestern University.

H.T. — What subjects did you choose?

F.W.R. — I had done as much mathematics, physics and chemistry as I could at high school, and so my course was centred on science. It seems to me that nowadays most young people take the fewest and easiest subjects they can in order to graduate. Without wishing to appear immodest, I took all the courses that my faculty counsellor would allow, which was about 25 per cent more than was required. I decided quite early that I should make chemistry my profession. So my course was based on physics and chemistry, but I also took English, mathematics, zoology, psychology and three years of classical Greek. This last course turned out to be immensely valuable to me because of the extraordinary personality and knowledgeability of Professor John Scott. He succeeded in broadening my horizons in far more directions than simply classical Greek.

H.T. — And after you graduated, what sort of work did you decide to do?

F.W.R. — When I obtained a bachelor's degree I had an option on several positions. I chose to go to the Calumet Company's chemistry laboratory on the west side of Chicago, and started there in June 1917 immediately after graduating. However, since I had not yet been drafted for military service I decided to volunteer. I was attracted by aviation, and so together with a close friend from university I enrolled in the United States Naval Flying Reserve Corps. We were called up for active duty in May 1918 and sent to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 'ground school' training in preparation for going on to the Naval Aviation Flying School. However, my friend and I rather naively offered ourselves for immediate service abroad, thinking we could get our flying training in England which was still at war with Germany. So we followed an intensive training course in meteorology. Then one of those absurd little incidents occurred which changes the course of one's whole life. A British officer was looking through the list of names of candidates for assignment in England. When he came to mine he protested 'Reichelderfer! Why, the last two people you sent over had German names. Haven't you someone with a more English-sounding name?' Well, there was nobody there to plead for me, so they blithely put me down to fill a vacancy as meteorologist at the US naval air station at North Sydney, Nova Scotia.

H.T. — That British officer unwittingly did a great service for the meteorological community! So what did your work as meteorologist entail, and what facilities were available?

F.W.R. — When I arrived at North Sydney I discovered there were no meteorological facilities whatsoever. The aircraft went out to search for enemy submarines waiting to attack convoys as they set sail for Europe. To forecast for these missions I had to make arrangements with the Canadian Meteorological Service to obtain whatever synoptic reports were available, which did not amount to more than about a dozen observations. Thus it was an extremely primitive kind of forecast office, but in a few months the Armistice was signed and 1 was posted to the naval air station at Hampton Roads, near Norfolk (Virginia), where once again I had to establish a weather observing and forecasting office. We received copies of synoptic reports collected by the US Weather Bureau and made our own charts.

H.T. — You had been done out of your flying training in England. Did you still want to learn to fly?

F.W.R. — Very much indeed, and I had put in a strong request for this to the Navy Department. They agreed, and in February 1919 I was sent to Miami for preliminary flight training and then to Pensacola for more advanced training. However, I had only just started the course at Pensacola when I was ordered back to Hampton Roads for a special assignment. I was to be the meteorological officer at Lisbon (Portugal) which was the point of arrival of the first attempt at a transatlantic crossing by flying boats. The Commanding Officer at Pensacola was sympathetic to me in my predicament and let me arrange night and day training so that I was able to complete the advanced flying course in about ten days instead of the usual two months.

H.T. — Tell me about the transatlantic crossing by flying boats. What was your responsibility?

The NC-4 flying boat

The  NC-4 flying boat  landing off Lisbon after its successful  transatlantic crossing in 1919 (Photo: National Air & Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

F.W.R. — I was to forecast the weather on the legs from the Azores to Lisbon and Lisbon to Plymouth in the south of England. You know the rest—one of the four aircraft made it successfully. Incidentally, the meteorological forecaster at the point of departure for the actual crossing—which was Trepassey Bay in Newfoundland—was Willis Ray Gregg. Gregg later succeeded Professor Marvin as Chief of the US Weather Bureau and I took over this post on Gregg's death in 1938. The meteorological community was very closely knit in those days; we knew each other well and there was a great esprit de corps which made the profession really satisfying. At the end of the First World War I had to decide whether to go back to my job with the Calumet Company which had been kept open for me, or whether to stay in meteorology.

I felt sure that there was a better future in meteorology than in chemistry; meteorologists were very few, I was convinced that aviation was on the threshold of an explosive growth, and the opportunities for research and development in aviation meteorology seemed infinitely better than in chemistry. So I chose meteorology, and needless to say I am very glad that I did.

H.T. — Can you tell me how you came to be involved in ballooning?

Reichelderfer takes down the data to compute upper winds for a balloon race in about 1929

Reichelderfer (right) takes down the data to compute upper winds for a balloon race in about 1929

F.W.R. — If there is any craft which is really at the mercy of the weather it is the free balloon. The US Navy decided to enter a national balloon race in 1919, and to stand a chance of winning you need to know where the wind will take you and what conditions you will encounter. So they looked around for a meteorologist to go along as one of the crew. There were not many, most of the meteorologists in the navy had resigned at the end of the war and gone back to civilian life. I was sent to Akron (Ohio) for training in free ballooning and then took part in the race from St. Louis. This all took place in 1919. When you are in a free balloon you are effectively a particle of air and one learns a great deal about air currents and especially vertical motion. After a time one develops a feeling for the weather which is difficult to describe and which cannot be found elsewhere. In 1923 I had a most exciting experience. The US Navy entered the Gordon Bennett international balloon race which started from Brussels, and I went along again as meteorologist.

There was a large crowd there and we took off on schedule, even though the weather was not good. Besides being meteorologist, I was also navigator. We drifted in and among cumulus clouds, and it became clear that our course was more northerly than we wanted if we were to remain over the continent. One active cumulus carried us much too high and we had to release gas to come down to a level where we could see the ground. By then night had fallen, and the lights below had a definite boundary which could only be the sea coast. We had no desire to go out across the North Sea and perhaps up into the Arctic, so the pilot brought us down in a field of turnips about 800 metres from what was then known as the Zuider Zee in the Netherlands. Next morning we learnt that the US Army's balloon had been struck by lightning and the pilot and co-pilot killed. Three other balloonists had also lost their lives due to lightning, so we had been very lucky.

H.T. — About this time the Bergen school under Jack Bjerknes was very active. Did you have any contact with that group, and did you try out their new frontal theory?

F.W.R. — I don't remember learning about the Bergen school until about 1920 or even early 1921. But one day in 1921 I was on a bombing exercise off the Virginian Capes. I had forecast scattered thunderstorms, but on our way back to base we ran into an extremely ugly-looking line squall and conditions became far more severe than I had expected. Some of the aeroplanes had to land on the beach to escape the storm. Now it happened that I had just received some of Bjerknes's papers on the structure of moving cyclones—up until then our concept of a depression was based on Abercromby's * model which did not recognize fronts or wind-shift lines—and to me this was an exciting revelation and one which should permit us to be much more specific in our forecasting. So I sent for all the material that I could get of Bjerknes and began to draw in fronts as best I could on our daily weather maps. I believe this was the first time it had been done as regular practice in the USA.

H.T. — I see that in 1923 you became a regular Lieutenant in the US Navy, and that you were responsible for weather research. What work did this involve?

F.W.R. — When the officer who had been in charge of the naval meteorological organization in Washington, D.C. resigned, I was ordered to Washington after 1 had passed the examination for transfer into the US Navy as a regular officer, and took up this job. In fact I had to reorganize and build up the entire naval meteorological organization—personnel, selection of stations, instruments, operations, analysis and forecasting methods—in other words I was the 'main guy'.

H.T. — I understand that you enlisted the services of Carl-Gustav Rossby, a student of Bjerknes. How did this come about?

F.W.R. — Rossby had come to the USA on an American-Scandinavian foundation fellowship and he had a corner of a small office in the Weather Bureau headquarters. The senior forecasters in the Weather Bureau were dedicated and highly capable men, and they insisted that nobody should be a forecaster before having had an apprenticeship of five or six years. My work obliged me to visit the Weather Bureau each day to take down the synoptic reports and draw my weather maps, which I then took back to the naval headquarters for briefing the navy aviation people. So I came to make the acquaintance of Rossby—we were about the same age and had similar innovative ideas. The Weather Bureau had not yet got to grips with the main problems that faced aviators, for instance it was not the Bureau's practice to forecast fog! The well-known financier H. Guggenheim was creating an air service in California to set the standard for future airlines and he wanted to include a model aviation weather service which would show the Weather Bureau what was needed in this respect. I was asked for advice, and it was on my recommendation that Rossby was sent to California to help in setting up the aeronautical weather service. I kept in touch with him and it was clear he was doing a good job. During the same time I had managed to organize a postgraduate course in meteorology for naval officers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—I believe this was the world's first formal course in meteorology for graduates—and I was instrumental in getting Rossby appointed as instructor. He designed the course to meet the requirements of the Navy and ran it himself. This was positively the beginning of an explosive growth in meteorological education, and Rossby deserves credit for his pioneering work.

H.T. — In 1931 the Navy sent you to Norway to study the air-mass and frontal analysis techniques practised by the Bergen school. Had you not already learnt all about this through their published papers and through contact with Rossby?

F.W.R. — We thought we had, but when I went to the air-base at Lakehurst (New Jersey) to forecast for airship operations, I arranged for the maps drawn up by Rossby's group at M.I.T. to be mailed to us, and found that our analyses did not compare very well with theirs. We were unable to find out why, so it was decided that I should go and see just how Bergeron, Bjerknes, Petterssen, Solberg and the others did their analyses. On my way to Norway I spent three or four weeks in England and saw how the British Meteorological Office functioned and how they drew up their weather maps. Once in Norway, it soon became clear to me that they had a skill, an artistry, that we could never have acquired from just reading their papers. I became thoroughly engrossed in learning their technique and was still in Norway more than six months later, although my visit had originally been planned for only a week or two. When I got back to the USA I wrote an official report on the Bergen school analysis technique, partly in order to explain my long absence. I did not consider it as being a final treatise, and so when I addressed the report to the Navy Department I marked it 'Restricted' to imply that it was to be used only for naval purposes and not published. For some reason this made the Weather Bureau and the Air Force suspicious that I had obtained some special information which was not to be divulged outside the Navy. Of course this was not at all true. Anyway they managed somehow to obtain a copy which they duplicated and circulated in hundreds of copies to staff in the Weather Bureau and the Air Force. So this absurd incident probably had much to do with the adoption of frontal analysis methods in the USA.

H.T. — After a spell of two years' sea duty, you returned to Lakehurst in 1935 with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. Did you go back to meteorological forecasting duties?

F.W.R. — My increasing seniority in the Navy prevented me from spending very much time as a real meteorologist. It is true that they still needed my meteorological experience, but during my second spell at Lakehurst I was also saddled with the more administrative tasks that are the lot of the person in authority. Nevertheless I kept in close touch with meteorology, and took part in a number of balloon races so that I was able to apply my knowledge. Also, I had the opportunity to fly in the airships which used Lakehurst as a terminal.

H.T. — What were your impressions of travelling in an airship?


The German airship  Hindenburg  in  which  Dr  Reichelderfer made several flights before it was destroyed by fire in 1937 (Photo: Dornier GmbH)

F.W.R. — It was delightful. So quiet. On the Hindenburg there was a separate dining room, music room (with a grand piano), smoking room and we all had small staterooms. Of course the walls were of fabric, not metal or wood. I think my most memorable trip was from Rio de Janeiro to Frankfurt. We had to fly against the North-east Trades and they seemed to be stronger than usual. I could sense an increasing anxiety among the German crew that they might have to make an emergency landing because of lack of fuel. The route they normally followed was across the Bay of Biscay and up the English Channel to follow the River Rhine.

A shorter route was through the Straits of Gibraltar and up the Rhone valley, but France imposed very strict air space limits and if they were to drift off the line of the Rhone, as they easily might in bad weather, there would be all sorts of problems. Well, the crew calculated that they couldn't make it by the English Channel, and chose to risk the French route. I was in the control car as we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar and had a remarkable panoramic view in all directions. Suddenly we heard the thud of gunfire from the Spanish fort at Ceuta on the African side. There was some fear that it might have been aimed at us, but in fact it was the first shot to be fired in the Spanish Civil War, a ranging shot aimed at a submarine, which was followed by a salvo of five more shots, but the submarine got away. Once over the Mediterranean we had tail winds and flew up the Rhone without problem.

H.T. — I suppose airships were highly vulnerable to bad weather?

F.W.R. — The airship was able to take care of itself without danger provided it could avoid the severe updraughts in thunderstorms. The US airship Shenandoah was lost mainly on this account. When I travelled on the Hindenburg I used to draw synoptic maps from weather reports intercepted on the radio (there was no responsibility attached to this, it was simply a bit of co-operation). The German airship officers certainly knew what they were talking about when it came to meteorology. On 6 May 1937 I packed my bags to return with the zeppelin to Frankfurt. The captain wanted to make a quick turn-round without refuelling at Lakehurst in an attempt to establish a world record, but the Hindenburg was not allowed to land immediately because of turbulent thundery conditions, and had to stall around a short distance off the coast. At that altitude the electrical charge would probably be quite different to that on the ground. When the zeppelin eventually came in to land she came very quickly. She released her 200-foot 'drag-ropes' which got wet, and it seems to me very likely that as soon as one of these touched the ground the potential difference caused a spark to the metal framework which ignited a pocket of hydrogen and set fire to the airship. Twenty-six people lost their lives.

H.T. — Being a regular naval officer, you would have to do periods of duty at sea from time to time. Was this as a meteorologist?

F.W.R. — No. I was drafted to the enormous aircraft carrier Lexington where I was responsible for the seaworthiness of the vessel. I was fourth in the line of command. There were 1285 separate watertight compartments which I was supposed to inspect. I learnt a lot during that spell. Then I was transferred to the battleship Utah where I was second in command. That splendid naval officer Captain Walter Brown gave me the responsibility of bringing the huge ship into harbour on a number of occasions, and the thrill of doing this is indescribable.

H.T. — It was while you were at sea that you received a telegram asking you whether you would accept the post of Chief of the Weather Bureau?

F. W. R. — This came as a complete surprise. At the same time it was a terrible shock to learn that my good friend Willis Gregg had died. I was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt and took the oath of office on 15 December 1938. At that time there must have been a total staff of between 150 and 200 at the Weather Bureau headquarters, and another 1500-2000 who were working at the regular synoptic stations throughout the country. It was a loyal and dedicated organization but, as I have already said, it had not managed to keep up with the rapid advances in meteorology. So the challenge and opportunity presented to me were such as few men are afforded.

H.T. — So what were the first things you did?

F.W.R. — As meteorologist at Hampton Roads I had been plagued by the idea that meteorology could be made much more an exact science if greater attention were paid to the relevant physics and mathematics. Therefore, one of the first things 1 did was to try to interest the International Business Machine Company and others in developing an electronic computer which could be used for numerical methods of weather prediction. The U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey already had a good machine for predicting tides, but I soon found that it would be inadequate for the complex processes in the atmosphere. I had to set about getting greater financial appropriations so that we could expand research activities as quickly as possible and get meteorology accepted as a key role in national affairs. Rossby was much committed to his work at M.I.T., but he agreed to come to the Bureau as Assistant Chief for a year or two and did an excellent job, both in research and in the domain of education. When he returned to M.I.T. and later to the University of Chicago, we got Congressional approval for Bureau staff to be sent for graduate training there. With the onset of the Second World War there was a pronounced surge of interest on the part of the military services and some supplementary funding could be obtained from that quarter. We had what was called the Joint Meteorological Committee which was largely instrumental in this. We pressed on with efforts at applying computers to the weather prediction process.

H.T. — How did you manage to enlist the services of such an astonishingly large number of highly capable and prestigious people in the research effort? To name just a few there was Byers, Charney, Machta, Namias, von Neumann, Smagorinsky and Wexler.

F.W.R. — To a large extent this just happened naturally. During the Second World War and immediately thereafter there was more incentive to follow a scientific career in the US Government, particularly in the field of meteorology which was seen as being particularly promising.

H.T. — I believe that at one time you had some difference of opinion with Rossby?

F.W.R. — Well, there was nothing personal about this. The problem arose from the normal and healthy competition which exists in meteorology between the academic and the governmental sides. I thought that Rossby when he was at the M.I.T. promoted this feeling, down-playing the Weather Bureau. Then, during the period that he was Assistant Chief of the Weather Bureau, he was trying to go much faster than the money could be supplied.

H.T. — It was not so many years after numerical weather prediction became an established procedure that the first meteorological satellites were rocketed into orbit. How did you feel about this?

F.W.R. — The idea came from secret military developments at meetings of the Joint Meteorological Committee. We saw photographs taken from early rocket flights which dramatically impressed on us the enormous potential aid these could be for weather prediction. At the IUGG Assembly in Rome in 1954 there was talk in the corridors about launching an Earth-orbiting satellite, and in fact three years later the Soviet Union put up Sputnik-1. We were extremely excited when our own TIROS was so successful, and it encouraged us to push for a weather satellite service as part of our routine facilities. The meteorological satellite has made all the difference in the world to the accuracy of predicting the approach of storms to highly populated areas and thereby saving countless lives.

H.T. — When did you first became associated with IMO? I know that you played an important part in drawing up the Convention of WMO.

F.W.R. — The officers of the IMO called an Extraordinary Conference of Directors (of Meteorological Services) in London in February 1946. Here I again met such personalities as Dr Theodor Hesselberg of Norway who had been President of the International Meteorological Committee, and Sir Nelson K. Johnson of the United Kingdom who was to preside over the famous Conference of Directors in Washington, D.C. the following year which adopted the new Convention changing the IMO from a non-governmental into a governmental organization—WMO. Now much of the credit for drawing up the Convention must go to Hesselberg. During the Second World War he had been reflecting deeply on the terms of an ideal constitution, and it was largely his draft that we discussed in Paris at the meeting of the International Meteorological Committee in June 1946 when we drew up the draft convention for approval by the Washington Conference.

H.T. — You were a vice-president of the International Meteorological Committee and of the Washington Conference, and First Congress in 1951 elected you first President of WMO. You were also member of the Executive Committee until your retirement. In retrospect, how do you view the organization in its early days?

Dr Th. Hesselberg with Sir Nelson Johnson and Mr Andre Viaut

Paris, April 1951 — At the First World Meteorological Congress. Left to right: Dr Reichelderfer (President of WMO 1951-1955); Dr Th. Hesselberg (President of IMO 1935-1946); Sir Nelson Johnson (President of IMO 1946-1951); Mr Andre Viaut (President of WMO 1955-1963) (Photo: WMO)

F.W.R. — The policies and concepts of the IMO bore more directly on the science of meteorology and related technical aspects because they arose from a consensus of the Directors of Meteorological Services, without having to take account of administrative or political aspects. It is no criticism of the UN system of organizations but simply a fact of life that all sorts of interests, opinions and plans have to be considered before a major decision is taken by WMO nowadays. So I think in the early days the problems were more straightforward and tangible, so that at the sessions of the Executive Committee it was relatively easy to arrive at a consensus on programmes and budgets which seemed to be in the best interests of Meteorological Services. The membership was smaller which also helped. Some of us were opposed to enlarging the Committee, not because we ignored the desire and right of other nations to be represented, but because we knew that the Committee's proceedings would become more cumbersome. However, we knew the changes would have to come, and I believe the decisions made were wise and just. But nevertheless they made life considerably more complicated for the Organization.

H.T. — How do you see WMO now and in the future?

F.W.R. — When you think how critical the weather and climate is to human beings and wild life, an international organization dealing with meteorology and hydrology just has to be one of the most important in the world.

Mrs Reichelderfer; Dr A. Nyberg, President of WMO; Mr A. Viaut, former President; Dr Reichelderfer; Mrs Viaut

In Geneva after the award of the ninth IMO Prize in November 1964. Left to right: Mrs Reichelderfer; Dr A. Nyberg, President  of WMO; Mr A. Viaut, former President; Dr Reichelderfer; Mrs Viaut

Among the specialized agencies of the United Nations, I believe WMO is envied because it has managed to avoid some of the divisive difficulties of a political nature which have been encountered elsewhere. I sincerely hope that the present and future officers of WMO will take great care to continue in this line, and foster the progress of science and the application of meteorology rather than make administration the all-important consideration. I remember that at the time satellites started to be used I felt the need for a United Nations resolution which would define the role of WMO with respect to scientific meteorology. Whereas I wanted the other agencies to have full freedom to act, I did not want them to overwhelm the interests and responsibilities of WMO in this new domain.

Eventually a draft resolution was drawn up providing for inter-agency co-operation, but with WMO having full responsibility, not only for strengthening national Meteorological  Services, but also for the scientific research  aspects which  could not be separated from the Organization's role without causing harm. Later it came to my notice that the draft had been changed by certain groups representing the academic viewpoint to give more power to other agencies at the expense of WMO. I quickly called up Secretary-General Davies and my colleague Andrew Thompson of the Canadian Meteorological Service, and through other organs they were able to get the draft changed back to essentially the original version. This gave rise to some misunderstanding and even a bit of ill feeling in certain quarters, but the resolution protected WMO and allowed it to maintain its scientific interest in full co-operation with other agencies concerned.

H.T. — You are a member of a great many learned societies, including the US Academy of Sciences. Do these activities take up much of your time nowadays?

F.W.R. — The societies in fact take the time you choose to spend on them. I find that there are others who devote the time needed on matters concerning, for instance, the special meteorological committees of the Academy, and although I was very active earlier, 1 do not feel there is now the same need for my active participation. I turn to things which nobody else has taken up.

H.T. — Can you say something about the awards you have received?

Dr and Mrs Reichelderfer on the occasion of their golden wedding anniversary in June 1970 at Angola. Indiana

Dr and Mrs Reichelderfer on the occasion of their golden wedding anniversary in June 1970 at Angola. Indiana

F.W.R. — The United States Air Force International Service Awards are a recognition of meritorious co-operation in connexion with wartime meteorological needs of the USA and in collaboration with the Army, Air Force and Navy. My Cuban award in 1944 (under the previous regime) arose from the extension of our national hurricane warning service to include Cuba and for the provision of certain meteorological equipment. Then I received the Second Order of the Sacred Treasure from Japan in 1960. I believe this was largely because of my active support of Japan's request to join WMO. When I retired in 1963 I had a fine gold medal given to me by Andre Viaut on behalf of the French Government. This was in recognition of my long years in international meteorology, and it came as a complete surprise. As did the award to me of the IMO Prize in 1964. I was highly appreciative of this decision by the Executive Committee, particularly since in the past it had been given mostly to research scientists.

H.T. — You have many publications to your credit. Were you able to continue your scientific work after you became Chief of the Weather Bureau?

F.W.R, — No. I would really rather have been a scientist than an administrator, but when I took up my appointment in December 1938 there were so many problems, plans and possibilities that I no longer had any time for serious research work.

H.T. — What about your leisure-time activities. Do you still do much gardening?

F.W.R. — I have never had 'green fingers' but I enjoy gardening and still grow some vegetables nearby. In my youth I did farm work of all kinds during high school vacation. I always loved swimming and played water basket-ball at university, in fact I indulged in various water sports even when in my seventies. My son graduated from the US Naval Academy and so I got some sailing through that. Also there were favourite seaside resorts where I enjoyed occasional vacations, with my son and my wife Beatrice. In my closing remarks as President of WMO at Second Congress in 1955 I had an opportunity to express my appreciation for her vital assistance as my 'life-partner', a role she continued to play until 1975, making a total of 55 happy years.

H.T. — What would you say to young people nowadays about making a career in meteorology?

F.W.R. — I would say that the science of the weather certainly deserves close consideration. I believe there are great possibilities in technology and industry for meteorologists to advise about weather factors. Weather permeates everything mankind does. I once had stationery printed with an inscription on the letterhead 'Meteorology - the universal community of interest'. But while there are great opportunities for those specializing in meteorology in the future, it will not be as easy as in the past. With the processing of data by computer, the intimate personal involvement where you make your weather forecast from beginning to end is no longer possible. Nevertheless if you adjust yourself to the computer age and use mathematics, you have an equally challenging and satisfactory career in front of you.

H.T. — Dr Reichelderfer, thank you for according me this interview. On behalf of the readers of the WMO Bulletin may I congratulate you warmly on your long and fruitful career and wish you many more years of active retirement.


  • * Abercromby, R. (1885): Principles of forecasting by means of weather charts. Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 123 pp. [back]



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