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March-April 2010

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Retrospect: April 26, 1884: Earliest Known Tornado Photograph

Caption: U.S. Signal Service Daily Weather Map for 7:00 a.m. (ET), April 26, 1884. A strong area of low pressure is centered over western Kansas, moving northeastward. A severe thunderstorm associated with the low produced a tornado around 5:30 p.m. local time that was photographed as it passed just northwest of the town of Garnett.

Caption: U.S. Signal Service Daily Weather Map for 7:00 a.m. (ET), April 26, 1884. A strong area of low pressure is centered over western Kansas, moving northeastward. A severe thunderstorm associated with the low produced a tornado around 5:30 p.m. local time that was photographed as it passed just northwest of the town of Garnett.

For decades, storm chasers have used photography as a means of documenting their meteorological conquests. Although the concept of storm chasing was nonexistent during the 1880s, the decade saw the growth of photography in terms of both technological advancements and the range of subjects photographed. It was only a matter of time before the new technology would be used to capture images of weather phenomena, including tornadoes.

In recent years, the question has come up occasionally as to what was the first tornado to be photographed successfully. Some confusion seems to surround this issue, based on the frequent citing of a photograph taken on August 28, 1884, of a tornado in Dakota Territory as the earliest. That photograph, taken by F. N. Robinson, shows a powerful tornado descended from its parent thunderstorm cloud and flanked on both sides by smaller funnel clouds, a phenomenon meteorologists refer to as “satellite tornadoes.” Adding to the drama of the photograph, a well-defined debris cloud is visible, evoking within the viewer a sense of the destructive power possessed by the storm. Indeed, this tornado was part of an outbreak that killed at least six people and resulted in extensive property damage and loss of livestock.

Caption: Photograph of a tornado as it passed just west of Howard, Dakota Territory, on August 28, 1884. This photo, taken by F. N. Robinson, is often miscredited as being the earliest known photograph of a tornado.

Caption: Photograph of a tornado as it passed just west of Howard, Dakota Territory, on August 28, 1884. This photo, taken by F. N. Robinson, is often miscredited as being the earliest known photograph of a tornado.

The only problem with this claim is that there appears to be another tornado photograph, taken just four months earlier, on April 26, 1884, near the small town of Garnett, Kansas. Though less dramatic than its Dakota counterpart, the photograph, taken by A. A. Adams, who operated a photo gallery in the nearby town of Westphalia, shows a less-powerful, though well-defined tornado in the rope stage, apparently as it was dissipating. An account of the tornado appeared in the April 1884 issue of Monthly Weather Review, which reported that the tornado “was plainly visible from Garnett for about 30 minutes, and moved so slowly that it was successfully photographed during its progress.” The written description that “the cloud was almost vertical near the earth, but the upper portion was inclined northward” also matches the visual depiction of the tornado in the photograph. According to the Kansas State Historical Society, in whose collection the original photograph resides, Adams “took this photo of the storm from a downtown street corner as the tornado passed just northwest of the town. He later sold many copies of the image around the country.” Unlike the Dakota tornado, no deaths were reported. However, according to Monthly Weather Review, “About three miles north of Westphalia a wagon laden with lumber was struck by the tornado. The lumber was scattered over the prairie, and the driver and horses were carried a considerable distance in the air.” The Kansas State Historical Society identifies the driver as David Metheney and reports that he suffered “severe internal injuries” as a result of the incident.

Apparently, both Adams and Robinson sold copies of their photographs, and both were published in several journals—with the Kansas tornado appearing in the American Meteorological Journal and the Dakota tornado in Nature. Reproductions of both photographs appeared in the February 20, 1885, issue of Science, along with the following note:

Although the destructive effects of tornadoes have often been photographed, we believe these are the first views ever taken of the tornado itself. No others of the kind are found in the great collection of the tornado illustrations in the U.S. signal-office at Washington. It is due to our readers to say that our knowledge of the authenticity of these two views depends simply on the tacit guaranty given by their owners, and that the second one especially bears evidence of having been somewhat “touched up;” but, in any case, they are certainly unique. It is to be hoped that there may be additional examples reported of this new use of the camera before the coming season is over.

Caption: Photograph of a tornado as it passed just northwest of Garnett, Kansas, on April 26, 1884. The photographer, A. A. Adams, took the photograph from a street corner near the United Presbyterian Church. It is reported to be the earliest known photograph of a tornado

Caption: Photograph of a tornado as it passed just northwest of Garnett, Kansas, on April 26, 1884. The photographer, A. A. Adams, took the photograph from a street corner near the United Presbyterian Church. It is reported to be the earliest known photograph of a tornado

More recently, in 1984, Dr. John Snow of the Department of Geosciences at Purdue University (and now Professor of Meteorology and Dean of the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences at The University of Oklahoma) published an article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society titled, “Early Tornado Photographs.” In it, he discusses both photographs, concluding that the “wide publicity [the Dakota] outbreak received (because of the loss of life) probably resulted in Robinson's photo being improperly identified as the first image, both at the time, and on a number of later occasions….” He also blames editors and printers of souvenir cards for perpetuating the confusion. The latter, he suggests, occurred “perhaps intentionally to promote sales.”

Although Snow contends that “a definitive statement concerning the identification of the first tornado photograph probably can never be made,” he does offer substantial evidence from a variety of sources suggesting that the photograph of the Garnett, Kansas, tornado is the oldest known. While meteorologists and historians alike may debate the authenticity of these photographs and whether earlier examples exist, the lasting legacy of both Adams and Robinson may lie not so much in who was first, but rather in that both pioneering photographers were able to exploit an emerging technology to document one of the most destructive forces of nature—thereby paving the way for legions of storm chasers who would follow.

Weatherwise Contributing Editor SEAN POTTER is a New York-based Certified Consulting Meteorologist (CCM) and science writer with an interest in weather history.

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