Percy Saltzman Essay: It All Began

Sunday, February 17, 1952.

(CBC Trans-Canada Network)
P. P. Saltzman,
Dominion Public Weather Service, Toronto.

I wonder how many of us can remember the days when weather forecasts were displayed on the sides of passenger trains. Such an idea seems fantastic today when you can get the latest forecast at almost any minute by merely flicking a switch on your radio. Nevertheless, back in the 1880's the system was actually tried for a time and given up only when the station agents became lazy about changing the weather signs on the trains. The signs were ingenious. A large disc like a full moon meant fine weather was expected; a crescent moon­ showers; a star - rain. It became rather annoying to people when they stood huddled under an umbrella while trains went by day after day displaying a full moon - the fine weather symbol.

The history of the Meteorological Service of Canada is filled with such romantic episodes. When you trace the story of any Canadian organization back over 100 years you may find facts which seem a little strange today. The Meteorological Service began in 1839 as a magnetic observatory. The taking of weather observations was almost incidental.

At nine o'clock on Christmas morning, 1839, the thermometer at Fort York in the colony of Canada stood at 26.6 F, a temperature which is by no means remarkable. But, in recording it, a member of Her Majesty's Royal Artillery made our first official Canadian Weather Observation.

Only a few months before, on September 1, 1839, Lieut Riddell, had come from England to set up a magnetic observatory at Montreal. But when Riddell reached Montreal he found that the magnetic character of the rocky terrain did not make it suitable for the observatory. So he moved to Toronto and late in the year found temporary quarters in the barracks of Fort York. Riddell's problems began almost immediately. He, his five assistants, and all his equipment were crowded into one room. What was worse, the barracks were full of metallic objects: guns, sabres, stirrups, cannon, and such like, which threw the delicate magnetic instruments out of kilter. Then too the barracks lay too close to the swampy shore of Lake Ontario, and cholera was feared.

So Riddell and his observatory moved to the site of what is now the MacLennan Laboratory on the University of Toronto campus. There a two-room structure of 12-inch thick logs was built and without the use of iron. The nails were of copper and the locks of brass. Riddell's first set of instruments included a barometer, which remained the standard-for Canada for a full century and hangs at this very moment in the hall oŁ our Toronto Head Office.

Riddell returned to England because of ill-health. To his successor, Captain Henry Lefroy goes the credit for placing the observatory firmly on its feet. He was soon canoeing to Hudson Bay, and later up the Mackenzie River, taking weather and magnetic observations on the way. By requiring weather observations to be taken at the military guard rooms across the colony of Canada, Lefroy collected data from Queenston, Kingston, Montreal, London, Fredericton and Newfoundland. He tried to enlist the Hudson Bay Co. in this project but failed. Today at their trading posts however, this same company is one of our most helpful collectors of weather reports.

Lefroy too had his trials: money was always in short supply, but he confidently borrowed and carried on. There was never adequate staff or space to put them in. Time and again Lefroy was forced to reprimand or dismiss his assistants--for cause-- and until replacements arrived, he took night duty himself. On one notable occasion, he protested to the University regarding the shooting matches which were held on the college grounds, pointing out with some restraint, that "Yesterday afternoon five different discharges passed through the windows of the observatory on the ground floor".

In 1853, thirteen years after coming to Canada, Captain Lefroy, his job done, and his health impaired by the long years of hard work, handed over the observatory to Professor J.B. Cherriman of the University of Toronto, who accepted it on behalf of the Province of Canada. So it was that the observatory passed to civilian control where it has remained ever since. The years since then have been years of vast change and rapid growth , Shortly after Confederation, the Canadian Meteorological Service was established on a dominion-wide basis. In the 1870's the growing telegraph network made weather maps and the issuing of storm warnings practical for the first time. General forecasts for populated parts of Canada soon followed. With the introduction of the radio, the Arctic too. was drawn within the scope of day-to-day Meteorology.

Today Canada's three and a half million square miles are criss-orossed by 20,000 miles of weather teletype lines, and over one thousand stations, a far-cry from Lefroy's guardroom network. Today our weather service, with forecasts so readily available by newspaper, radio and telephone, is far removed from the days when passenger trains carried the little metal disks: - a full moon for fine weather - a crescent for showers - and a star for rain.