Nevadas pioneer weatherman: Charles W. Friend | SierraSun.com
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Nevadas pioneer weatherman: Charles W. Friend

Charles William Friend kept his feet on the ground but his eyes to the sky. His lifelong fascination with weather and astronomy benefited Nevada in many ways and his diligent efforts to establish a comprehensive climate record for the Silver State were prescient. So it was only fitting that when the Nevada State Weather Service was established in 1887, the Carson City jeweler/scientist was selected as its first director. Born in Prussia on July 7, 1835, Charles Friend traveled to South America as a young man before immigrating to Folsom, Calif., with his father during the California Gold Rush. Friend apprenticed as a jeweler and optician, the profession that eventually brought him to Carson City in 1867. He was so passionate about astronomy that during 1875 and 1876 he built Nevadas first observatory, a small domed structure equipped with a 6-inch refracting telescope, at his home in Carson City. He outfitted the observatory with standard weather instruments of proven accuracy and reliability, including a precipitation gauge to tally rain and snowfall, sheltered thermometers (both dry- and wet-bulb to measure air temperature and relative humidity), two mercurial barometers to record atmospheric pressure changes and an anemometer to calculate wind speed. In 1880 Friend began gathering local weather data in addition to documenting his celestial observations. He also installed a seismograph in the basement of the Capitol to measure and record earthquakes. In his endeavor to compile a climatological record for Carson City, Friend took weather observations three times a day, every day. Rain and snowmelt were collected in a copper cylinder 16 inches high and 8 inches across. His detailed observations were regularly sent to the U.S. Armys Signal Service Office in Washington D.C. Most important, his meticulous attention to detail was critical to achieving accurate measurements, especially at a time when the standardization of observation times and proper use of weather instruments were woefully lacking. Carson City is located along the east slope of the Sierra Nevada range, a wind-prone area where damaging gusts are a common occurrence, especially during powerful storms that sweep through the region in winter and spring. To develop an understanding of the local winds, Friend utilized an ordinary weather vane mounted atop the observatorys flagstaff to determine the direction of the wind. An electric self-registering anemometer recorded velocity onto a rolled paper sheet. This Robinson anemometer had four hemispherical cups attached to the ends of equal horizontal arms, forming a cross that spun in the wind. During the 1870s, the U.S. Signal Service was doing its best to gather weather data nationally but it needed help, especially from the sparsely populated western states. In 1883 Nevada became the first state in the West to initiate and develop an active weather program when the Nevada State Legislature passed an Act to procure meteorological reports for the State of Nevada, and to provide for the payment of the same. The Secretary of State contacted Charles Friend and purchased the two most recent years of his monthly weather reports for $300. In an effort to help farmers and ranchers throughout the Silver State, the legislature established the Nevada State Weather Service (NSWS) in 1887. Professor Friend was appointed by Governor Charles Stevenson as director of the new State Weather Service, the first such appointment by any state in the nation. The director, according to the Act, would compile an annual report and receive a salary of $600 a year. Friend held that post until he died in 1907. During his long tenure as Nevadas first meteorologist and climatologist, he worked with the U.S. Armys Signal Corp, the transcontinental railroad, and newspaper editors to enlist volunteer weather observers. Over the years the program succeeded in installing 37 weather stations around Nevada. It was a tough challenge for a small shopkeeper, but Charles Friend was up to the task. The data collected were frequently published in Nevada newspapers and used to better understand the states climate and helped make accurate forecasts for the first time. In addition, the information regarding general rainfall patterns, growing seasons, and various microclimates proved highly valuable in the development of natural resources throughout the state. During his four decades as a resident of Carson City, the congenial Friend was well known, highly respected and regarded as one of the best-educated men in Nevada. He was familiar with virtually every scientific subject, yet according to his friends, his modesty was proverbial. Friend was recognized as an accomplished scientist, amateur astronomer, official meteorologist and the local coroner. He was also a successful businessman who owned a jewelry shop across from the Capitol where he sold diamonds, watches, cigars and pianos. In January 1888, Director Friend began receiving the daily weather forecasts from the Signal Service by telegraph from San Francisco. The vital information about storms approaching from the Pacific Coast was considered a boon to northern Nevada farmers. Better yet, the forecast was free because the War Department picked up the tab for the telegrams. A plaque commemorating the memory and lifes work of Charles Friend was dedicated in 1999 on Nevada Day at the site where his Carson City Observatory once stood. The modest monument to the Silver States first weatherman, astronomer, and seismologist can be found in the grassy area just east of the Nevada State Library and Archives on Stewart Street. When Friend died on January 10, 1907, the borrowed telescope was returned to the federal government, the Nevada State Weather Service was abandoned and no official weather readings were taken again in Carson City until the Sierra Pacific Power Company volunteered in 1923. Mark McLaughlins column, Weather Window, appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books, The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm, Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2, and Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly are available at local stores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at mark@thestormking.com.


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