Shoot Out the Rain

In Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War, historian Michael C. C. Adams writes that “[e]xplanations for the rain varied. Perhaps reverberating cannonades disrupted cloud systems. Or hot air from gunfire condensed in the upper atmosphere to be precipitated as rain. The fanciful opined the storms represented angels weeping over the slaughter.”

Two days after the Battle of Gettysburg (Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s hard to even imagine such concentrated carnage. One of the war’s most horrific moments of killing occurred on July 3, 1863, the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered thirteen thousand soldiers to march shoulder-to-shoulder across open fields and attack fortified Union lines. All told, the Confederates on the field suffered over 50% casualties in just under an hour of combat. 

Michael Shaara ends his 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels with an elegiac baptism of the bloodied Gettysburg landscape. In an obvious homage to the snow “falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling” in James Joyce’s “The Dead,” Shaara writes:

“The light rain went on falling on the hills above Gettysburg, but it was only the overture of the great storm to come. Out of the black night it came at last, cold and wild and flooded with lightning. The true rain came in a monster wind, and the storm broke in blackness over the hills and the bloody valley; the sky opened along the ridge and the vast water thundered down, drowning the fire, flooding the red creeks, washing the rocks and the grass and the white bones of the dead, cleaning the earth and soaking it thick and rich with water and wet again with clean cold rainwater, driving the blood deep into the earth, to grow again with the roots toward Heaven.

It rained all that night. The next day was Saturday, the Fourth of July.”

Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels

JAY: Shaara dedicates alternating chapters to various leaders on both the Union and Confederate side. That closing chapter focuses on Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a Bowdoin College rhetoric professor who led his 20th Maine regiment on Little Round Top, arguably saving the entire battle and, perhaps, the war. 

Chamberlain, a prolific writer after the war during his posts as professor and president of Bowdoin, and four-term governor of Maine, also noticed the trend of rain falling after a battle.

In an 1870 letter to Edward Powers, who would publish his treatise War and Weather, or The Artificial Production of Rain the following year, Chamberlain wrote: “This fact was well noticed, and is well remembered by many a poor fellow who, like myself, has been left lying, desperately wounded, after such engagements—for these rains are balm to the fever and anguish of the poor body that is promoted to the ranks of ‘casualties.’”


JAY: You’re listening to “Hidden Language,” a podcast about tuning into place, bodies, and time and discovering the unexpected ways their stories can be told. I’m Jay Varner.

SCOTT: And I’m Scott Lunsford. Today, Jay tells us about concussionism, a once widely held belief that we might literally shoot rain from the sky. If that mix of unwarranted optimism and alarming violence seems perfectly American, well, you’re right. But how might that relate to our response to climate change?

MUSIC: Memeti by Blue Dot Sessions

JAY: In the January 2020 issue of BioScience, a monthly, peer-reviewed journal published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, over 11,000 of the world’s pre-eminent scientists co-signed a treatise that warned of a dire climate emergency.

Contrary to the American media’s bad-faith attempt to frame the existence and cause of climate change as some type of genuine scientific argument, there is virtually no debate amongst qualified experts. In just the industrial age, mankind has so deliberately meddled with the primordial forces of nature that should things stay on our current trajectory, our species may not see the twenty-second century.

Consider this: you are simultaneously listening to this podcast episode while also living during the sixth mass extinction in the history of planet earth. The extinction event you’re probably most familiar with is Chicxulub, the asteroid which—in theory, at least—ended the dinosaurs. The other four extinctions all occurred due to a rapid increase in atmospheric carbon which, in turn, heated the planet enough to kill most species. We’re on a similar path at the moment.

How we avoid this fate—again, contrary to what you may have heard—is also largely agreed upon in the scientific community due to a preponderance of evidence that reasonably allows us to conclude as much. 

According to those 11,000 scientists, we must:

We must increase energy efficiency and replace fossil fuels with low-carbon renewables. 

We must reduce the emissions of short-lived climate pollutants like methane, soot, and refrigerants used in air conditioning. 

We must work to restore earth’s ecosystems. 

We must eat a mostly plant-based diet and curb the consumption of animal products. 

We must stop extracting and exploiting the limited natural resources available on earth. 

And we must gradually reduce the currently unsustainable population on earth. 

Committing to and achieving these goals is where serious debate should occur because, obviously, we will all be making sacrifices. And that requires nothing short of a full-scale remodeling of our society, which we know that technology has caused to fragment under the guise of connectivity. We also know that our species has an inherent status-quo bias and, sure, perhaps a tendency to be a bit lazy. We could meaningfully re-evaluate our relationship with the natural world. We could reconsider our unsatiated, consumerist instincts. Or could we, you know, get an app or artificial intelligence or some profit-driven tech firm to fix all this? What about Elon Musk or some other huckster?

One solution those 11,000 scientists did not endorse is known as climate engineering. That we must reduce carbon is obvious, but what if we cannot reduce those emissions fast enough to avert disaster? Solar-geoengineers propose that we artificially cool earth by reflecting sunlight back into space. To do this, we must shoot some kind of particles into our upper atmosphere. If we can wrest control of nature, we can freely belch carbon–no need to re-evaluate a thing.

This makes me think of Rachel Carson. Her 1962 book, Silent Spring, first showed us the detrimental impacts pesticide use had on our natural environment. However, the working title of the book was The Control of Nature. Carson writes that: “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.”

CANNONS sound off

MUSIC: Wildhorse (Instrumental) by Chad Crouch

Those who believed that explosions on earth caused rain in the sky were known as concussionists. 

The strangest of them was Robert Saint George Dyrenforth, the only man ever officially hired by the United States government to wage a literal war against the sky. As a 2003 Texas Monthly feature noted, Dyrenforth was the perfect man for the job: “broad-shouldered, capable, extravagantly optimistic, and relentlessly self-promoting, he saw vast possibilities where others did not.”

In the dry, late summer of 1891, Dyrenforth led a team of self-proclaimed experts to Midland, Texas. Congress had dedicated $10,000, or roughly a quarter of a million dollars today, for explosive experiments. A 2015 Politico article by Cynthia Barnett, author of Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, lists the contents of their accompanying freight car: “mortars, casks, barometers, electrical conductors, seven tons of cast-iron borings, six kegs of blasting powder, eight tons of sulfuric acid, one ton of potash, 500 pounds of manganese oxide, an apparatus for making oxygen and another for hydrogen, 10- and 20-foot-tall muslin balloons and supplies for building enormous kites.”

Dyrenforth, wearing a pith helmet, drew up battle lines and angled mortars at the sky. And then, for ten straight days, fired everything he could at it.

So who was this Robert Saint George Dyrenforth? He spent his boyhood spent in Chicago, then he was educated in a German military college. Though contemporary writings referred to him—perhaps at Dyrenforth’s insistence—as a general, he never rose above the rank of major in the U.S. Cavalry during the Civil War and subsequent Indian wars. After the military, he worked for the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., resigning in 1885 to enter private life. 

When it came to science, Dyrenforth never mentioned that he had no training in meteorology or explosives. However, the rainmaking patents he had read during his stint in the Patent Office impressed him so much, he became a convert of concussionism. He launched his war just as settlers in western Texas discovered that the place was not the lush, fertile paradise they’d been promised. 

And it wasn’t just Dyrenforth and those desperate farmers who believed. Newspapers dedicated banner headlines to the experiments. The Washington Post declared “the programme is elaborate, the material abundant, and the science involved exhaustive.” And Dyrenforth kept up the ruse, sending out press releases explaining the amount of rain that followed a day of explosions. He rushed back to Washington and lobbied Congress for more money, somewhere between a half-million to a million dollars based upon the success of his experiments.

In October of 1891, he wrote a rambling article in the North American Review called “Can We Make It Rain?” which urged a larger financial commitment from the government. By the end of page fourteen, Dyrenforth finally answers the question by relaying the findings of his experiments. Explosions affect atmospheric conditions “probably by disturbing the upper currents.” When the atmosphere is in a “threatening” condition such as draught, explosions jar together “the particles of moisture which hang in suspension in the air.” Dyrenforth claimed this could occur as soon as twelve-seconds after an explosion.

MUSIC Down Day by Podington Bear

But here’s the thing: While Dyrenforth no doubt enjoyed detonating an armory’s worth of ordnance, nothing of note actually fell from the sky. Most of the observations of rain were all fabrications. And what little rain that did fall came during the region’s rainy season, when passing afternoon storms or showers weren’t uncommon, even in a severe drought. In fact, the Weather Service had already predicted each period of rain—in many instances days before the explosive experiments.

That Dyrenforth bamboozled the public with his experiments should have come as no surprise. Nearly a decade earlier, an article in Science magazine mentions that Henry Chamberlain Russell, an Australian astronomer and president of the Royal Society of New South Wales, addressed the group about the artificial production of rain. Russell told of a French naval officer who witnessed waterspouts destroyed by cannon shot while at sea. After the man retired to an area beset by violent rain and hail storms, the man constructed a battery to fire at the storms. 

Russell claimed the man saw so much success that the practice became widespread in early 19th Century France. Francois Arago, a celebrated French scientist, politician, and director of the Paris Observatory, studied the weather record at the astronomical center to test the theory in the 1840s. He paid particular attention to days surrounding ordnance practice at a nearby military fort. The soldiers fired around 150 shots on certain days throughout the week. Arago found that, out of the 662 days that he recorded, Arago saw no correlation between shooting artillery and cloudy days, thus proving that the discharge of heavy artillery does not seem to have the effect of dissipating the clouds.

MUSIC Rain Suite by Livio Amato

Henry Chamberlain Russell agreed—and in his talk to the Royal Society of New South Waleswent, he pushed Arago’s theory even further: It would be all but impossible to ever manipulate the complex atmospheric conditions found in nature.

By November of 1892, Dyrenforth had returned to Texas with forty tons of explosives. However, others began to suspect something didn’t make sense. George Curtis, a federal meteorologist assigned to the original expedition, had spent the subsequent months lambasting Dyrenforth’s project as a “burlesque on science and common sense.”

And while no newspapers bothered to send reporters to Texas, two agricultural trade papers had writers on the ground to witness the experiments. In January of 1892, their work provided the evidence of a Scientific American article that noted Dyrenforth’s press releases were complete concoctions. In fact, many of Dyrenforth’s jerry-rigged explosives either failed to detonate or blew up when not intended.

The criticisms and skepticism cascaded. The New York Tribune wondered that if explosions could cause violent storms, perhaps the opposite would occur if orchestras were sent in balloons to soothe violent storms.

Congress shrugged. They gave Dyrenforth $10,000 for a return trip to Texas. A large crowd greeted Dyrenforth when he arrived in San Antonio. He chose a spot four-miles from downtown for his first experiment. And then, when he detonated that explosive inside a mesquite tree about five-hundred feet from the Argyle Hotel, he obliterated not only the tree but also every window in the hotel. 

That’s what caused the Secretary of Agriculture to write Dyrenforth and demand that he return all unspent money to the U.S. Treasury, saying “we do not desire to cannonade the clouds any longer at government expense.”

During World War I, The Atlantic noted that the winter of 1914-15 brought excessive rain to European battlefields. Science writece Alexander McAdie wondered: “has the bombarding not only caused clouds but forced the clouds to send down rain?” 

McAdie had a unique perspective on the topic—he had forecasted weather throughout much of America and, near the end of the article, correctly predicted that meteorology would eventually include atmospheric science.

McAdie dismissed that 1871 Edward Powers book War and Weather, or The Artificial Production of Rain. Powers had used anecdotal stories like the one by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain to conclusively claim that Civil War battles were followed by heavy rain. McAdie had actually witnessed experiments similar to those of Dyrenforth under “favorable conditions” and saw no “causal relation between the detonations of the dynamite and the showers.” McAdie deemed Dyrenforth such a con artist that he refused to even mention his name in the article.

So, if war didn’t cause abnormal weather, what did? McAdie had no idea. His best suggestion was that “excessive rains have occurred in previous years when there were no wars; and in all probability will occur again, regardless of the prevalence of gunfire.”

Dyrenforth made headlines one final time in 1910. By then, he had returned to his old life in Washington D.C. and faded into obscurity as a patent attorney. After a particularly nasty divorce, Dyrenforth redrafted his will in April of 1909 and then died a year later. 

He left his estate to the twelve-year-old grandson he had adopted a few years prior. However, in order to inherit the estate, Dyrenforth listed a series of prerequisites for the boy. First, he was to renounce Catholicism. Secondly, he should avoid all women and that meant disowning his own mother and sister. He was to graduate high school by the age of 14 and then attend Harvard, during which time he would visit each country in Europe, including England, where he would study law at Oxford. By the time he graduated Harvard at the age of 18, he should have also learned a manual trade, athletics, and dance, and become proficient in both violin and piano. At this point, the boy would attend West Point and enlist in the Army. After his  military career ended, the boy would need to be thoroughly educated in the law. If he did all of these things at the required ages, he would inherit Dyrenforth’s estate when he was 28.

All of this obviously implied that Dyrenforth had a substantial estate. But he didn’t. Like everything else in his life, Robert Saint George Dyrenforth had greatly exaggerated. 

But it got good press.


JAY: You have been listening to Hidden Language. For a list of episodes, transcripts, and show notes, be sure to visit 

Theme music by Jay Varner. Other music for this episode was provided by Samual Corwin, Blear Moon, Blue Dot Sessions, Chad Crouch, Podington Bear, and Livio Amato. Thanks to Danielle DeRise and Patrick Culliton.  

If you enjoy this podcast, please spread the word using whatever language you see best fit. . . .


Music was provided by the following artists through, with the respective Creative Commons licenses:

Rain and Thunderstorm at Lallgarh Palace, Bikaner by Samuel Corwin, CC BY-NC 4.0

Cold Summer Landscape by Blear Moon, CC BY-NC 4.0

Memeti by Blue Dot Sessions, CC BY-NC 4.0

Wildhorse (Instrumental) by Chad Crouch, CC BY-NC 4.0

Down Day by Podington Bear, CC BY-NC 3.0

Rain Suite by Livio Amato, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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