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