In this day and age there has been much talk and speculation on the possibility of actually controlling the weather and manipulating it to our own ends. Officially called “geoengineering,” far from the realm of science fiction there have been many serious attempts to control and shape the weather in various ways, ranging from the scientifically plausible to the certifiably insane. Our case here is of the latter variety, and focuses on the desire to create rain by basically bombing the ever loving bejeezus out of the sky, a plan that was actually funded and pushed forward by the U.S. government, and which makes for a colorful and delightfully bonkers historical oddity.
Weather manipulation is not exactly a new idea, and attempts to control the weather are older than many may think. One early scheme happened back in the 19th century United States, and was born from the long-held idea that explosions and concussive force somehow caused rain by agitating the clouds into coughing up the goods. This was actually a very old idea even then, as for centuries it had been believed by many cultures that wars brought with them rain, with generals as far back as Napoleon and beyond making note of this, and during the Civil War it was often mentioned that rain usually followed major battles. This notion, and especially the treatise on the correlation between the Civil War and rain in the 1871 book War and the Weather, by former Civil War general Edward Powers, planted an idea in the head of some in the U.S. government that this phenomenon could be harnessed and used to make rain whenever they wanted. To this end, they went about setting aside funds to actually carry it out.
It is important to note that even at the time few real scientists put much stock in the theory that wars or explosions caused rain, and it was considered a bit of crackpot theory, but the idea was stubborn among some outside of the mainstream, who believed that this concussive force really could rattle the clouds into releasing rain. After all, Powers’ book, although based on circumstantial evidence, seemed to prove it by analyzing over 200 Civil War battles in which it was “proven” that the explosions had brought rain in the aftermath, even though the author was in no way a scientist and was actually criticized by many for displaying a woefully incomplete knowledge of how weather or the atmosphere actually worked. Nevertheless, inspired by this book the government believed it could be done, and with a drought going on at the time they fast tracked the plan and began looking for someone who would help them. Most real scientists refused, calling it folly and scientifically untenable at best, and completely stupid at worst, but they found their man with a patent lawyer from Washington D.C. by the name of Robert G. Dyrenforth.
Now, Dyrenforth was not a scientist, but he was a major rainmaking enthusiast, an ardent supporter of the concussive weather modification theory, and he also had the support of none other than the author of War and the Weather, Edward Powers himself, and was even joined by some real scientists in the form of Smithsonian Institution meteorologist George E. Curtis, patent office chemist Claude O. Rosell, and John T. Ellis of Oberlin College. They were given all of the funding they would need for their strange experiments, as well as a generous amount of land in Texas to carry it all out, and so in August of 1891, Dyrenforth, Powers, and the others arrived at a rural prairie in Midland, Texas, along with their equipment, which was composed of kites, balloons, a battery trigger, and a whole lot of explosives. Their plan? To bomb the hell out of the sky until it rained.
And bomb it they did, starting their experiments on August 17, sending up kites and balloons packed with explosives that caused fierce explosions to reverberate across the sky, not always exactly where they were aiming, but good enough. They had problems with the balloons getting carried away in the wind to explode off course, so they added to the noise by packing prairie dog holes full of explosives as well, and then waited to see what would happen. Amazingly, 12 hours later there was a slight bit of rain in the area and dark storm clouds on the horizon. It must be noted that the amount of rain at the time was negligible and could not really be concretely attributed to the explosions, but for Dyrenforth it was seen as a resounding success, and encouraged him to ramp things up. On August 21 they sent up even more explosives, totaling around 156 pounds of an explosive commonly called “rackarock,” made of a mixture of potassium chlorate and nitrobenzene, which was more stable and produced a bigger punch. The idea was that they needed more boom, more spectacular explosions, and they succeeded in that at least, but Durenforth would think they had proven the theory once again when there was claimed to be slight condensation in the form of what was described as “a mist,” and dew on the grass. Dyrenforth excitedly claimed that this was further proof that their plan could work, and prepared to go to the next stage.
Not everyone on the team was as impressed with these “results” as Dyrenforth was. In particular, the meteorologist Curtis was decidedly skeptical of the whole thing, to the point that he would leave the whole affair before the final experiment was carried out. Other scientists who had looked on from the sidelines with a mixture of twisted curiosity, incredulity, and raised eyebrows were quick to point out that barely any rain had fallen, the season itself was already prone to rain and storms in the region, that any substantial rainfall had happened far from where the experiments were actually being conducted, and the experiments were carried out with such haphazard, arbitrary timing that a couple of drops of rain in no way meant that they had been successful, and it was even pointed out that the team was taking credit for rain that had already been forecast by weather agencies. Even the two reporters who had tagged along to document the experiments from the Chicago Farm Implement News and Dallas Farm and Ranch were skeptical of it all, even as other news agencies around the country spewed out sensationalist headlines that it all had worked, that it was a huge success, and that large amounts of rain were being made, adding to the hype and exaggerating it all relentlessly.
None of the criticism deterred Dyrenforth, who continued on to his final experiment on August 25. Once again he sent up his bombs and mercilessly pounded the sky for a full day this time, using both balloons and makeshift mortar rounds, under the impression that an even bigger bang would make more rain. In his opinion it did, as he would write in his report that at 3 AM something remarkable happened, saying:
I was awakened by violent thunder, which was accompanied by vivid lightning, and a heavy rainstorm was seen to the north—that is, in the direction toward which the surface wind had steadily blown during the firing, and hence the direction in which the shocks of the explosions were chiefly carried.
It sounds very impressive, but of course this was the rainy season in the area, and in reality others on site said that there was barely any actual rain at all at the time, despite Dyrenforth’s attempts to hype it all up. By this time skepticism towards the project was at an all-time high, with scientists completely and flatly denouncing it as hogwash even as the newspapers continued to churn out sensationalism about how it was all such a great success. Curtis, who had already quit the experiments, wrote a scathing, withering report on it all, not mincing words at all when he called Dyrenforth “an inexcusable bungler, his botchwork a burlesque on science and common sense,” and writing a detailed breakdown of how wrong the whole theory was, concluding:
In view of these facts, it is scarcely necessary for me to state that these experiments have not afforded any scientific standing to the theory that rainstorms can be produced by concussions.
In response to all of this criticism and blistering commentary from the scientific establishment, Curtis’ paper was never formally published and Congress unbelievably poured even more money into the experiments. However, none of these experiments instilled any more confidence that it could really work, and simultaneously the public was starting to get the impression that it really was all just a sham and money waster, their interests moving on to other things. Congress eventually had to face the reality that they were getting no results and pulled the plug on it. This marked the end of federal funding for these projects, but it was not the end of people continuing to blast the sky to bring on the rain.
In El Paso Texas, the mayor went about using city funding to support similar experiments, tasking a John T. Ellis with carrying it out, with the help of Dyrenforth, of course. The rationale this time was that the region of El Paso was so incredibly dry and cloudless that if they could make it rain there it would be irrefutable proof that the technique worked. Using six dozen artillery rounds, an absurd 1,000 pounds of dynamite, and 2,000 cubic feet of pure oxygen they exploded the absolute living daylights out of the sky, after which rain actually did fall, and although it was a considerable distance away the team took it as a success. They would go on to carry out other experiments across the southwest, but they were never able to really convince anyone that it actually worked, and indeed many of the rains they claimed to have made had already been forecast by weather services.
In later years there would be other sporadic attempts to make it rain through concussive force, but the theory largely just sort of withered away and died out as people increasingly realized that there just wasn’t anything to it. This is not to say that efforts to create rain have been abandoned all together, and in recent years a concept called “cloud seeding” has been pursued, in which silver iodide crystals or other chemicals are delivered to clouds by aircraft, rockets, or artillery to try to mimic the ice nuclei that spurs the growth of water droplets and raindrops and coax the clouds to form rain, but results have been mixed at best. One of the most famous cases of a cloud seeding project was carried out by the U.S. government during the Vietnam War in order to foil the enemy by hindering their communications and supply lines using monsoon force deluges of rain conjured up by loading clouds with flares of silver and lead iodide. Called Operation Popeye, it was a massive operation that the government poured massive amounts of money and resources into, making it a shame that it seems that it didn’t work at all.
Despite the fact that the efficacy and feasibility of cloud seeding remain unclear it has continued to be pursued, with an estimated 50,000 kilograms of silver iodide used every year for this purpose. A similar use of explosions and chemicals has been used in other areas of the world such as Russia and China to have the opposite effect and either keep rain away or stop heavy snowfalls or hail. In the U.S. there has even been invented and even patented a type of cannon device that theoretically creates concussive shockwaves in storm clouds through the use of combustible gas and explosives to prevent the formation of hailstones, which cause a great amount of damage to crops every year. Whether any of this really works or not remains to be seen.
No matter how effective any of this ever was or is, it is clear that people sure do love bombing the clouds in one form or other to try and get rain, and we will probably be doing it for some time to come. Who knows what the future will hold for weather manipulation in its many forms, and it is a point of discussion of whether we ever will be able to achieve it or indeed if we should, but it is undeniably well out of the realm of fiction, and cases like these are a fascinating glimpse into the history of our desire to play God and control the weather.