Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/January 1881/Sketch of General Albert J. Myer

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GENERAL ALBERT J. MYER, extensively known as a meteorologist and the organizer of the United States and International Storm-Signal Service, was born at Newburgh-upon-Hudson, on the 20th of September, 1828. While still very young, his father removed to Buffalo. A maiden aunt took charge of the boy's education, and he early became a telegraph operator. Later, he went to school, and when sufficiently advanced entered Hobart College, Geneva. He graduated in 1847, and, having decided to study medicine, he went through the Buffalo Medical College, and obtained his degree of M. D. in 1851.

A predilection for military life impelled him to seek a field of usefulness for his surgical talents in the army, where he obtained a commission. He was ordered out upon the Plains, and it is said that one day, seeing some Comanche Indians waving their lances, the idea struck him that such motions might be utilized for army-signals, similar to those in use in the navy. The subject soon occupied a great deal of his attention, and, the more he thought about it, the more interesting it became to him, until finally he had invented an ingenious code of signals. The doctor's transformation into an inventor was noised abroad upon his return to the East, and the authorities, becoming interested in his idea, appointed a Signal Corps and placed him in command of it, and from 1858 to 1860 he was engaged in special duty, perfecting his system and educating his eighty-odd men in its use. In July, 1860, he was commissioned major, and made chief signal-officer of the army. During the remainder of this year and until May, 1861, he was ordered to New Mexico and the Rocky Mountains by Secretary Floyd, for the purpose of giving his corps an opportunity to have actual practice in the field. On the breaking out of the war. Major Myer identified himself with the Union army. One of his lieutenants went over to the other side and succeeded in creating no little confusion, for with him he took a knowledge of the signal-service system, and it was not long before each army was able to read the signals of the other, so that constant changes in the key became necessary. He next served on General Butler's staff, at Fortress Monroe, and was General McClellan's chief signal-officer during the entire Peninsular campaign. In November, 1862, he took charge of the Signal-Office at Washington, Here he performed service which compelled recognition and remuneration at the hands of the Government, however unwillingly tendered, and he was brevetted as lieutenant-colonel for services at Hanover Court-House, colonel for services at Malvern Hill, and brigadier-general for "distinguished services in organizing, instructing, and commanding the Signal Corps of the army, and for its especial service October 5, 1864," when, by timely signals, were saved the post and garrison of Allatoona, Georgia.

It is said that General Myer was a strict disciplinarian, and exacting to the degree of intolerance. He had indomitable firmness, and it is possible that these traits of character may have been the causes why the overbearing Secretary of War, Mr. Stanton, took a dislike to him. But, whatever the causes, the Secretary's hatred took a violent form. When Myer was with Farragut before Mobile, he received an order, signed by Stanton, informing him that he was dropped out of the army on the ground that his appointment to the colonelcy had not been confirmed. Myer then came on to Washington, took a house, appealed to the Senators and Congressmen, and fought the matter out till he was reestablished. At the close of the war Colonel Myer began to turn his attention in the direction of meteorology, and to connect that science with the art of army signaling. The Smithsonian Institution had entered upon a system of taking weather observations in different parts of the country, and Colonel Myer began to work upon this basis, and more completely to elaborate a method of forecasting meteorological probabilities.

"In 1868 General Meyer published a 'Manual of Signals for the United States Army and Navy,' and about this time it was that his field of labor began to broaden and tend upward. By virtue of an act of Congress, approved February 9, 1870, he was charged with the special duties of observing and giving notice by telegraph and signals of the approach and force of storms on the Northern lakes and the seacoast, at military posts in the interior, and other points in the States and Territories. He reorganized the meteorological division of the Signal-Office in June, 1871. By an act approved March 3, 1873, he was placed in charge of special duties of telegraphy, etc., being authorized to establish signal-stations at lighthouses and life-saving stations wherever they might be convenient to his purposes. The training school at Fort Whipple, the signal-service drill, and the strict discipline of the weather corps, were all due to General Meyer's directing mind.

"From national observations it was quite in the natural order of things that General Myer's work should expand to international dimensions. The success of the United States Signal-Service Bureau excited the greatest interest abroad, and similar institutions were inaugurated in several of the European countries. Long before, General Myer had conceived the bold idea of a system of simultaneous observations in all parts of the Northern Hemisphere, and as soon as he could do so he pushed the matter onward, until in September, 1873, an International Congress was convened in Vienna, and he was sent there as the delegate from the United States. To this Congress General Myer proposed that 'it is desirable, with a view to their exchange, that at least one uniform observation, of such character as to be suited for the preparation of synoptic charts, be taken and recorded daily and simultaneously at as many stations as practicable throughout the world.' This proposition was unanimously adopted, and, as the delegates were virtually empowered to speak for their several countries, this vote assured the existence of the international system. From its very inception this system has proved a wonderful success, and now the following countries are taking simultaneous observations and exchanging them: Algiers, Australasia, Austria, Belgium, Central America, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Greenland, Iceland, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunis, Turkey, British North America, the United States, the Azores, Malta, Mauritius, the Sandwich Islands, South Africa, South America, and the West Indies.

"On the 1st of July, 1875, General Myer began to issue from the Army-Office at Washington the daily printed bulletin. July 1, 1878, the same office began to publish its daily international weather-map, which added to General Myer's triumphs. He also instituted a system of observations in ocean meteorology, simultaneous with the international observations. These have proved of immense value, and at present nearly a hundred observers are engaged therein. Thus the work has gone forward, constantly extending, constantly progressing in accuracy.

"General Myer paid a second visit to Europe last year, ostensibly for rest. At the request of the Italian Government, he gave valuable information concerning the system, and instead of a pleasure-trip this turned out a laborious one, and finally at Venice General Myer was prostrated by the trouble which eventually has caused his death.

"Like so many other men who have won eminent position through their own efforts, General Myer was a victim of overwork. His field of labor was an ever-widening one, and his ambitious brain knew no discretion in the matter of rest, but pushed him onward beyond his powers of physical endurance. Once before, his ceaseless industry laid him low—at a time, too, by a curious yet characteristic chance, when he was supposed to be recuperating his energies in a foreign trip. In spite of this warning, which was certainly severe enough to be heeded, he refused to leave Washington this summer, and obtain the relaxation he so much needed, but kept at his post until he became so ill that he could not sign his name. Then he was obliged to leave at a time when, as it afterward proved, he had waited too long. He was brought to Buffalo, but instead of going to his beautiful summer home at Lake View, he took apartments in the Palace Hotel, Dr. Rochester, his family physician, taking charge of his case. His trouble was a painful complication of heart and kidney troubles, and, his blood becoming poisoned by the latter disease, he became delirious. In spite of the careful treatment and perfect nursing which he received he sank slowly and died, August 24th, at the early age of fifty-two, leaving a wife and six children.

"Although dying thus in the very height of his usefulness, and when he could ill be spared from his great work, General Myer lived to see his idea of an international signal-weather system in successful operation, and already sanctioned and supported by the leading nations of the Northern Hemisphere. His great idea has passed its experimental stage, and his friends have the satisfaction of knowing that competent and enthusiastic men will carry it forward to its fullest fruition. His legacy is a grand one, comprising an honest name, an heroic record, a stainless reputation both as soldier and citizen, the honor of an unpatented invention and application of telegraphy which materially helped to save the Union, and the glory of having originated one of the grandest ideas of the century—an idea the practical application of which has already saved many lives, and which is destined when more perfectly developed to work a revolution in the science of meteorology, and to banish, in part at least, that great cause of terrestrial waste—meteorological uncertainty.

"In appearance 'Old Probabilities' was a fine-looking, soldierly appearing man, with high forehead, firm mouth, and earnest, thoughtful eyes. He wore a short-cropped, full beard, and an abundant head of hair. His physiognomy indicated great decision of character and executive ability, and these signals from Nature's code were fully confirmed in his character and life."

We are indebted for the foregoing particulars of General Myer's career to an admirable sketch in the Buffalo "Daily Courier" of August 25th.