WEATHER BROADCASTING BY TRAIN
By R L Kennedy
A Century ago, when the railway played a more significant role in the daily lives of most people, there were many services provided. Not just passenger, express, mail and freight; but also milk delivery to dairies, newspapers, telegrams, money orders, and even weather broadcasting.
While most towns and villages had newspapers, important news was received by telegraph, and people would rely on the station agent to spread the word to those assembled around the station. This included weather forecasts that were posted outside the station.
The Meteorological Service of Canada was headquartered at King's College (now University of Toronto) in Toronto, it began in 1871 having been born out of earlier efforts at Fort York to record weather. In October 1872 Charles Carpmael, (born 1846 in England and educated there), was appointed its Deputy Superintendent, and in 1876, Superintendent, as well as Director of the Magnetic Observatory. Storm warnings were the most valuable feature of the early weather service, where their absence had meant loss of life and ships. As the railway spread out across Canada, so did the weather stations. By the end of 1888, there were 354, but only 27 reported by telegraph.
In 1883 he was also given superintendence of the time service for Canada as well. In Toronto, at 11:55 a.m. the fire alarm bells were rung. For many decades into the late 20th Century, the railway relied on a daily time signal from the Dominion Observatory, sent by wire all across Canada. Railway clock and watches were correct to within 10 seconds! They could be no more than 9 seconds fast or slow without having to be changed.
Broadcasting of weather forecasts was a problem in the 19th Century, and so to give the widest and easiest broadcast, Carpmael devised a system of signals in the form of a large disc displayed on the side of passenger trains! This was first tried in 1884 on the Grand Trunk Railway out of Toronto on morning trains heading out into the Grey and Bruce area of Ontario. The discs were either; Full Moon (round), and the word "fine"; a Crescent Moon for "showers", or a Star for thunderstorms "rain". The iron discs, about 3 feet in diameter, were fitted into brackets on the side of the baggage car and were large enough to be easily seen by farmers and others as the train passed by. It was a seasonal service, June to September, since when winter came you didn't need anyone to tell you! It quickly spread to other cities and railways, and soon covered much of Canada.
The small staff of about 25 people, were aided by volunteer observers and about three dozen station agents who were given an honourarium of $10 per YEAR to report daily by postcard, what disc had been displayed on what train. This was to offset an early complaint that discs were not accurate due to being left up from previous days. The signal (one word) was telegraphed at 1 a.m. daily and it was up to the railway to display the appropriate disc. Unfortunately, as is so often the case even in the 20th Century, while management of the railways were agreeable, the employee was sometimes less enthusiastic. Not too surprising seeing as how he wasn't being paid extra to hoist the large disc up to its place, it was after all not the railway that was doing this, but the government. No doubt when the crews found out the station agents were getting paid to report on them and they were getting nothing to do the work, enthusiasm waned somewhat.
The complaints about incorrect disc being displayed increased to the point were in November 1900, it was decided to discontinue the effort and the railways were so advise in April 1901.