Rain of Error

Dry enough for you? It was for General R.G. Dyrenforth, whose bizarre attempts more than a century ago to solve Texas' little drought problem precipitated only ridicule.

August 2003By Comments

GENERAL R. G. DYRENFORTH SUBSCRIBED to the theory, successfully field-tested by countless twelve-year-old boys, that there is nothing wrong with the world that a little gunpowder won’t fix. He was a concussionist, which meant that he believed rainfall followed great military battles and that therefore a great deal of gunfire, cannonading, and martial carrying-on could produce rain, on command, anywhere. In the drought-ridden last years of the nineteenth century, as American homesteaders pushed into the arid lands west of the ninety-eighth meridian, this was a tantalizing idea. And though the science behind concussionism was of the humours-and-vapours variety, there was little in the nascent discipline of meteorology to disprove it. “After each explosion,” Dyrenforth explained in 1892 in a superbly authoritative and widely embraced piece of scientific double-talk, “the subsequent inrush of columns of air . . . will, perhaps by the motion of the earth on its axis, not be just end to end or point against point, but, the columns passing each other, a whirl or whorl will be started which, widening as it extends upward, will present a vortex, whereby heavy or moisture-laden air will be drawn from afar . . .”

On the strength of such clear thinking, Dyrenforth became the first, and the last, person the U.S. government ever hired to make it rain by blowing things up. In 1891, as a special agent of the Department of Agriculture, he was charged with the task of coaxing rain from the skies above Midland, El Paso, and other Texas cities. Congress could not have found a better person for the job. Dyrenforth was a man untrammeled by such petty constraints as the scientific method. Broad-shouldered, capable, extravagantly optimistic, and relentlessly self-promoting, he saw vast possibilities where others did not. He asserted that man’s dominion over the continent could be extended to the heavens and to the four winds. And with many tons of government-financed ordnance behind him, he was hard to ignore. He arrived in West Texas accompanied by boxcars filled with gunpowder, dynamite, “rackarock” explosives, cannon, mortar, and exploding kites and balloons. And in a series of loud, concussive “battles” with the reluctant sky, he detonated all of it. And it rained. Sort of.

For a brief, iridescent moment, Dyrenforth and his wildly ambitious experiments captured the imagination of Gilded Age America. While he and his team were staging weather battles across Texas in 1891 and 1892, the country watched and cheered. Newspapers carried breathless accounts of the “sky skirmishers” and “cloud compellers” who stood on the vast Texas plains and, in the media’s version of Olympian battle, hurled thunderbolts back at Jupiter. Poems were written, paeans composed. Intellectual journals debated Dyrenforth’s techniques. He played along, fudging and exaggerating his results, trumpeting his apparent successes and obscuring his failures. People bought it. Farmers rejoiced. Dyrenforth was famous, if not quite a household name.

His celebrity lasted about fifteen months—not bad, considering how utterly silly his project was. By 1893 he was widely known and ridiculed as “Dryhenceforth,” a laughingstock, a butt of jokes, a target of editorial cartoonists. If he is tragic in a minor way, he is also, in hindsight, with his pseudoscientific maneuverings and Colonel Blimp-like self-importance, hilariously funny. Think of this as a tale of Manifest Destiny gone terribly wrong.

LIKE MANY ENTERPRISING AMERICANS OF his era, Dyrenforth was not exactly who he said he was. He was not a general, for one thing. Though you would never have known it from his writings, he had no training at all in the field of meteorology, and he knew little about explosives. Nor was he ever the U.S. commissioner of patents, as he once claimed. He was born in Chicago in 1844 (last name: Dhyrenfurth) and educated at a military college in Germany. He fought for the Union in the Civil War and later in the Indian campaigns, attaining the rank of major. He made a career in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., rising from second assistant patent examiner in 1872 to assistant commissioner by the time he resigned in 1885. He subsequently worked as a patent attorney. He was described at the time as a “tall, well-proportioned, vigorous man with a strikingly strong face—the face of a thinker, of a diplomat, of a man of the world.” At the Patent Office he encountered people seeking to register rainmaking techniques. He soon became an ardent convert to concussionism.

It was an old idea, one of innumerable rainmaking practices in human history that include women walking naked at night to streams (Hindus), starving sheep to death (Incas), dancing with rattlesnakes in one’s mouth (Hopis), and burning tobacco (Iroquois). Plutarch, writing in the second century, had been the first to observe that rain follows battles. As early as 1539, cannon were fired at clouds to produce rain. Napoléon Bonaparte accepted as fact that gunfire changed the weather. In the seminal work on concussionism, War and the Weather, published in 1871, American author Edward Powers observed that rainfall had followed most battles in the American Civil War. (He neglected to investigate the fact that battles fought in temperate places like Virginia, which averaged rain every four days, almost always started in good weather, which practically guaranteed that rain would follow the battle.) Over the years, Powers had badgered various legislators to make an appropriation to test his theories. He found a powerful backer in Senator Charles Farwell, of Illinois, who in 1890 persuaded Congress to spend a modest $2,000 for what amounted to a feasibility study. To carry it out Powers chose his friend and fellow concussionist, R. G. Dyrenforth.

As luck would have it, they were embarking on their project just as another set of rain myths was proving untrue. It was around that time that settlers in the mostly treeless lands west of the ninety-eighth meridian—a line of longitude running roughly north through Austin and marking the point where the average annual rainfall drops below twenty inches—began to discover that the promises made to them by railroad touts and town-site promoters were bogus. Homesteaders had settled the land in the 1870’s and 1880’s, aided by the invention of a practical barbed wire in 1874 and by the destruction of the Comanche. But instead of a Western Garden of Eden, as the brochures promised, plains residents instead got prairie dog-size hail, blowtorch winds, sandstorms, hard water, dry rivers, blue northers, tornadoes, and persistent drought. It was to them, above all, that concussionism seemed like a dream come true. America in that era was not about skepticism and defeat. It was about optimism and happiness and the conquest of land.

ENTER, WITH TRUMPET FANFARE, R. G. DYRENFORTH. Since Congress’ first appropriation, the general had been hard at work planning a grand experiment that would prove once and for all that extremely loud noises brought rain. At Senator Farwell’s urging, Congress had earmarked another $7,000 for rainmaking in March 1891. Dyrenforth was off and running. In August 1891 he arrived at the 228,000-acre C Ranch, 23 miles northwest of Midland, with a small team of men and a great deal of equipment for making explosions. He chose Midland because it was dry country in the middle of a drought; success there would be indisputable. He had also been offered the use of the ranch, which belonged to a Chicago meat packer. Beginning on August 9, he staged a roughly two-week-long battle, shooting off homemade mortars packed with gunpowder, detonating dynamite and rackarock (an explosive easier to transport than dynamite) in prairie dog holes and mesquite bushes, launching large balloons filled with oxyhydrogen gas and exploding them at high altitudes, and flying kites with sticks of dynamite on timed fuses attached to their tails.

Across America, the experiments were front-page news, and everywhere editors believed that Dyrenforth knew what he was doing. “The programme is elaborate, the material abundant, and the science involved exhaustive,” gushed the Washington Post. Dyrenforth soon met their expectations. After firing some initial rackarock cartridges on August 10, his party telegraphed Senator Farwell in Washington: “Preliminary. Fired some explosives yesterday. Raining hard today.” The newspapers rushed the news to print. “They Made Rain!” said Denver’s Rocky Mountain News. “Made the Heavens Leak” read the headline in the New York Sun.

As the days wore on in West Texas, Dyrenforth’s team kept up a steady stream of breathless “specials” (press releases) about the immense explosions they had made and the rain that had followed. On August 18 they reported that, after firing their ground batteries for twelve hours and exploding a “large quantity of oxyhydrogen gas” in ten-foot-diameter balloons, rain “fell in torrents for two and a half hours.” On August 25, after more ground fire, detonations, and balloon explosions, they said that several more inches of rain fell during the night. Dyrenforth and his fellow rainmakers claimed full responsibility.

And the American media gave them full credit. The Rocky Mountain News said that rain had fallen almost daily since the beginning of the experiments. In a glowing story about Dyrenforth’s success, the Chicago Tribune asserted that the rainmakers had caused a “drenching shower” four times. The New York Sun even ran a poetic tribute: “I am Cloud-compelling Dyrenforth, a mighty able wight; / I can call the clouds together with a load of dynamite.”

FLUSH WITH VICTORY AND BUOYED by dazzling headlines, Dyrenforth hustled back to Washington to capitalize on his successes. He berated the “scientific wiseacres” who had doubted him, insisted that his group had caused rain a dozen times, and wrote what amounted to a lengthy victory lap in the October 1891 issue of the North American Review under the title “Can We Make It Rain?” He and Farwell immediately began to lobby for more money from Congress. This time Farwell had in mind $500,000 to $1 million.

There was just one problem: Much of what Dyrenforth and his colleagues had told America, and most of what the newspapers had reported, was not true. While the big-city papers had chosen not to send reporters to cover the rainmaking, two agricultural trade papers had. The accounts in Farm Implement News and Texas Farm and Ranch of what had happened on the C Ranch completely contradicted the press releases. They formed the basis of a Scientific American story in January 1892 ridiculing Dyrenforth’s experiments as “foolish fireworks” and “expensive farce.” The magazine said that his reports were “in most instances grossly exaggerated and in some cases wholly destitute of truth.”

What the ag reporters found when they arrived, in fact, was a group of inept scientific novices who, battling severe cases of diarrhea brought on by drinking alkaline well water, watched helplessly as their balloons caught fire or were blown miles away by high winds, their homemade mortars self-destructed, their hydrogen generators became engulfed in flames, and their kites refused to fly. While the dailies carried stories of drenching rains, the one government meteorologist on the expedition, George Curtis, was recording “inappreciable” precipitation. On August 18, when Dyrenforth claimed to have produced a torrential downpour, Curtis recorded two hundredths of an inch of water. This was the “hard rain” that the Washington Post insisted had fallen for four hours and twenty minutes. The rain Dyrenforth had reported on August 26 did fall but had in fact been predicted by the Weather Bureau.

None of this seemed to bother the rainmakers. While Dyrenforth lobbied in Washington, his team, now led by Oberlin College professor John Ellis, remained in Texas and immediately took on two new rainmaking assignments. The first was in El Paso, where the city’s mayor had engaged them to shoot off their charges from the summit of Mount Franklin. This experiment was a more obvious failure. After “lots of firing” on September 18, no rain fell. According to the team’s ever-optimistic report to Congress, however, “it was ascertained that soon after midnight, rain had begun to fall within a few miles of El Paso.” This was to become a familiar refrain: They had caused rain to fall, but it had simply fallen elsewhere.

The second experiment was partly financed by King Ranch owner Robert Kleberg and was conducted in Corpus Christi and in the small town of San Diego, near the King Ranch headquarters in South Texas. After an inconclusive firing in Corpus because of wet weather (which did not prevent the Minneapolis Tribune from reporting a major success), the team moved to San Diego and set off a truly enormous amount of ordnance: 800 charges of dynamite, 1,500 pounds of rackarock, and 7,000 cubic feet of oxyhydrogen gas. The team reported that at four o’clock the next morning “rain was pouring down in torrents.”

DYRENFORTH’S UNDOING CAME IN SAN ANTONIO in the fall of 1892. He had believed, ironically, that this instance of rainmaking would be his crowning success, the final proof needed to pry millions of dollars from Congress. Aided by his voluminous report to lawmakers in early 1892, in which, while insisting that his results were “preliminary,” he clearly claimed credit for making rain, Dyrenforth had managed to extract another $10,000.

Yet criticism of his activities was mounting. Curtis, who had long since returned to Washington in disgust, published articles critical of Dyrenforth. Representative Buck Kilgore, of Texas, called the experiment a “dead failure.” In a blistering commentary, the editor of the Nation said that what Dyrenforth was doing was as absurd as dispatching “the North Atlantic Squadron to melt the icebergs on the [Grand] Banks by bombarding the Gulf Stream off New York.” Political cartoons depicted Dyrenforth as a charlatan. The New York Tribune suggested puckishly that, since explosions created rain, would not string orchestras, sent aloft in balloons, soothe the clouds and stop severe storms?

Undeterred, and awash in new congressional money, Dyrenforth arrived in San Antonio in November and, in front of a large crowd, proceeded to make a fool of himself. This time he was armed with forty tons of explosives. He chose a place near the Argyle Hotel in Alamo Heights for his experiment, some four miles north of downtown. In his first test, he placed a large quantity of an explosive called Rosellite in a mesquite tree about five hundred feet from the hotel. When it went off, it both obliterated the tree and broke every window in the hotel. As usual, many things went wrong. The San Antonio Daily Express noted that his mortar shells “either exploded within the guns or nearby on the ground, failing miserably to attain their objective in the skies.” He blasted on for days, without result, while, according to the Express, “an ungrateful public jeered the dauntless General Dyrenforth.” When it rained hard in Laredo, residents of that city sent mocking congratulations to the rainmakers. Even Edward Powers, the influential author who had started it all, publicly turned against Dyrenforth and his inept methods.

Everyone, it seemed, turned on him at once. “The scheme has gone up like a rocket and come down like a stick,” reported the San Antonio Evening Star in an editorial headlined “Fakes and Fakirs.” The once-fawning Washington Post wrote that “the whole hullabaloo did not lead to any more water than would furnish a canary bird with its morning bath.” The Chicago Times said that the money would have been “less ridiculously employed if it were devoted to the manufacture of whistles out of pigs’ tails.” And the government pulled out of the experiments with breathtaking speed. Dyrenforth was soon asked to return the unspent balance of $5,000 to the U.S. Treasury.

Thus ended the government’s rainmaking experiments in the nineteenth century. What it did not end, however, were private concussionist experiments, which went on for years. In 1902, in the West Texas town of Carlsbad, a man named Charles Hatfield sent up balloons loaded with sticks of dynamite to make it rain. For four years, starting in 1910, cereal magnate C. W. Post spent $50,000 on 23 Dyrenforthian rain battles at Post City, near Lubbock. He died in 1914 believing that he could “shoot up a rain” whenever he wanted to. In 1912 a series of locally financed firings were made in Wichita Falls, Anson, Hamlin, Stamford, San Angelo, and Thurber. Not until French studies during World War I proved that there was no connection between explosions and rainfall did the idea finally lose its momentum.

Dyrenforth, meanwhile, faded back into obscurity, apparently to finish out his days as a Washington, D.C., patent attorney. The next time he appeared in the headlines was at the time of his death, in 1910—and then only because of a bizarre provision in his will. He had stipulated that, to receive his bequest, his twelve-year-old grandson had to renounce Catholicism, complete high school and then an academic program at Harvard, read law at Oxford, do a full course of study at West Point and six months’ service in the Army, and then attend law school in the U.S. It sounded crazy—almost as crazy as waging war against the sky.

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