Segment from Revisionist Climate

Rain Man

Producer Eric Mennel recounts the story of Hatfield the Rainmaker, an amateur scientist in the late nineteenth century who believed he could make rain fall from the sky.


The Mountain by Podington Bear

Pythagoras by Podington Bear

Dark Water by Podington Bear

Two Boys and a Girl by Podington Bear

Not Much by Podington Bear

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

ED: Most Americans might not have been aware of climate change until the 1980s, but that didn’t stop them from trying to change the weather. Now just to be clear, climate and weather aren’t the same thing. Climate refers to weather and other atmospheric conditions over an extended period of time and space. And that’s how business Franklin would have understood it. Weather, by contrast, refers to the heat, humidity, and other atmospheric conditions right now. And it was this weather that Americans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries tried to change.

Radio producer Eric Mennel researched various schemes to make it rain, for example. He discovered one desperate city that tried to boost its rainfall with unexpected and unwanted results. Here’s Eric.

ERIC MENNEL: In 1915 the city of San Diego could be summed up in two different numbers. The first, it’s exploding population. In the previous 35 years the city’s population had gone from 2,600 to more than 40,000. The second number that could describe San Diego, average yearly rainfall. That number was stagnant. And San Diego needed to find water for its new residents.

They sent a telegraph to Los Angeles, to a guy named Charlie Hatfield. Because Charlie Hatfield had a very particular skill. Charlie Hatfield knew how to make it rain.

It’s easy to roll your eyes at the idea of rainmaking, but in reality Hatfield wasn’t the first person to claim that he could control the clouds. During the Civil War many soldiers and scientists noticed something strange. Every time there was a battle, a big one with lots of explosions, it seemed to rain very shortly after.

MALE SPEAKER: “If lightning and thunder, and thunder and rain have been brought on by the agency of man, when bloodshed and slaughter only were intended, this surely can be done without these latter.”

ERIC MENNEL: This is Edward powers writing in his 1871 book, War and the Weather. In the book he lists 153 civil war battles that were followed by rain. He then comes to what seems like a logical conclusion–

MALE SPEAKER: Rain has been, and can be brought on by heavy discharges of artillery.

ERIC MENNEL: Powers, like many others, believed that cannon fire caused the rain. He imagined an experiment, 300 cannons placed in a circle one mile wide, all facing inward and upward, all fired simultaneously. He thought that the shells would turn up the air and push any moisture together forming drops of water that were heavy enough to fall. In hindsight it feels a little like America’s third grade science fair project.

20 years later, the United States Congress took out the rainmaking mantle. They appropriated nearly $20,000 to shoot explosives into the air in Midland, Texas. Those experiments failed, but it didn’t end the fascination with rainmaking. CW Post, as in Post Cereals, you know, Fruity Pebbles? He spent $50,000 on rainmaking experiments between 1911 and 1914. He was apparently pleased with the outcome of his experiments and convinced there was a future in rainmaking.

Back in San Diego with the water crisis looming, they received a reply from Charlie Hatfield. It was an offer.

MALE SPEAKER: I will fill the Morena Reservoir to overflowin’ between now and next December, 1916, for the sum of $10,000.

ERIC MENNEL: Morena was a 15 billion gallon reservoir in the mountains above San Diego. And since it was built it had never been much more than one third of the way full. So for $10,000 Hatfield would supply the city with more rain than it had ever seen. This would give the city a nice reserve for its rapidly growing population. And if he couldn’t meet the goal, all 10 billion gallons of it, the city wouldn’t owe him anything. So for San Diego it was a win-win.

And Hatfield’s method of rainmaking was slightly more advanced than the cannon fire of earlier decades. He built wooden towers, maybe 20 feet tall, and on top of them burned chemicals into the sky. Presumably these chemicals would cool the upper atmosphere and provide solid particles for the moisture to grab onto and fall.

Hatfield set up his tower on January 1st, 1916. By January 10th his chemicals were burning. And he felt a little drop on his head, and another, and then a couple more. And then the sky let loose. For the next few days it seemed like just a much needed storm, that even the local meteorologist had predicted several inches of rain.

But then the flooding started. Roads became impassable, telephone lines began to fall, San Diego was becoming an island. On day seven of this remarkable storm the local papers front page asked, Is Rainmaker at Work? Somehow Hatfield managed to make a call from the reservoir to City Hall.

MALE SPEAKER: I just wanted to tell you that it is only sprinkling now. Within the next few days I expect to make it rain right. Now just hold your horses until I show you a real rain.

ERIC MENNEL: Supposedly one resident pleaded, let’s pay Hatfield $100,000 to quit. After two weeks the rain stopped. But a second round of storms came through. Five days later, a dam in the mountains above town burst.

MALE SPEAKER: I heard a great roar that cannot be described in words. C. Killingsworth, a resident of San Diego described the rush of water from the broken dam.

MALE SPEAKER: Before I realized what was happening the water was upon me. The waters towered with seemed 100 feet in the air. Folks living in the valley were running for their lives.

ERIC MENNEL: Dozens of homes washed away. At least 20 people were killed. Downtown San Diego had become the American Venice. All the while, up in the mountains, Charlie Hatfield must have been celebrating. Because enough rain had fallen to fill Morena Reservoir. He added 10 billion gallons of water in just one month.

It didn’t take long for people to start pointing fingers. If Hatfield was responsible for the rain, wasn’t he also responsible for the damage, for the deaths? And he never got his money. He had written his own contract. And the city of San Diego found plenty of loopholes to exploit.

Hatfield’s flood didn’t and the quest for control of the weather, far from it. In 1946 General Electric experimented with weather modification. They found a way to concentrate moisture at high altitudes. They could make it snow. But they canceled the program. General Electric got scared, because when you control the weather, there’s no such thing as an act of God. When something goes wrong, you’re the one to blame.

BRIAN: Eric Mennel is a former producer for BackStory. He recorded that piece a few years ago for an episode on the history of extreme weather.