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February 2, 2017

World's Earliest Tornado Photos: Storm Chasers Took Some of Fearless Photographs From the 19th Century

Watching a livestream of a tornado outbreak has become the norm for many Americans in today's world of Doppler radar and instant communication. But for those living in the Great Plains in the 19th century, blows from Mother Nature often came without warning.

In the late 1800s, meteorology was still in its infancy. In 1883, the government had banned the word "tornado" from official forecasts because they were concerned the word would cause widespread panic.

Historically, the only extreme weather images were from eyewitness sketches. Very few Americans had actually seen a tornado until the 1880s, when photographers released the earliest known tornado photographs. Photographic evidence provided experts with valuable insight and proved fascinating to a public more familiar with legend than science.

A stereoscopic view by D. S. Camp of the aftermath of a tornado in Wallingford, Connecticut (August 9, 1878) (via New York Public Library)

These early photos also paved the way for the legions of storm chasers who would follow. Today social media, smartphones and more affordable technology have inspired a growing number of self-made and amateur storm chasers.

In the late 1800s, early photographers relied on cumbersome box cameras, with exposure times ranging from two to ten minutes or more, to capture tornadoes. The first two known photographs of twisters emerged in 1884 — one in South Dakota and another in Kansas.

Photograph of a tornado in Howard, South Dakota, said to be taken August 28, 1884 (courtesy National Geographic)

A. A. Adams’s photograph of a tornado in Garnett, Kansas (April 26, 1884) (via Kansas Historical Society)

Photograph of a tornado in Ponca City, Oklahoma (1890–1920) (via Library of Congress)

Photograph by Clinton Johnson of a tornado in North Dakota (1895) (via Library of Congress)

The May 12, 1896, tornado photographed by Thomas Croft in Oklahoma City (courtesy University of Tulsa Special Collections and University Archives)

“Oklahoma Cyclone” (1898) (via Library of Congress)

(via The Weather Channel and Hyperallergic)



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