Vincent Schaefer, Irving Langmuir, and Bernard Vonnegut invent Cloud Seeding
Vincent Schaefer (1906–1993) discovered the principle of cloud seeding in July 1946 through a series of serendipitous events. Following ideas generated between himself and Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir while climbing Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, Schaefer, Langmuir’s research associate, created a way of experimenting with supercooled clouds using a deep freeze unit of potential agents to stimulate ice crystal growth, i.e., table salt, talcum powder, soils, dust and various chemical agents with minor effect. Then one hot and humid July 14, 1946, he wanted to try a few experiments at General Electric’s Schenectady Research Lab.
He was dismayed to find that the deep freezer was not cold enough to produce a “cloud” using breath air. He decided to move the process along by adding a chunk of dry ice just to lower the temperature of his experimental chamber. To his astonishment, as soon as he breathed into the deep freezer, a bluish haze was noted, followed by an eye-popping display of millions of microscopic ice crystals, reflecting the strong light rays from the lamp illuminating a cross-section of the chamber. He instantly realized that he had discovered a way to change supercooled water into ice crystals. The experiment was easily replicated and he explored the temperature gradient to establish the −40 °C limit for liquid water.
Within the month, Schaefer’s colleague, the noted atmospheric scientist Dr. Bernard Vonnegut (brother of novelist Kurt Vonnegut) is credited with discovering another method for “seeding” supercooled cloud water. Vonnegut accomplished his discovery at the desk, looking up information in a basic chemistry text and then tinkering with silver and iodide chemicals to produce silver iodide. Together with Professor Henry Chessin, SUNY Albany, a crystallographer, he co-authored a publication in Science Magazine and received a patent in 1975. Both methods were adopted for use in cloud seeding during 1946 while working for the General Electric Corporation in the state of New York.
Schaefer’s altered a cloud’s heat budget, Vonnegut’s altered formative crystal structure – an ingenious property related to a good match in lattice constant between the two types of crystal. (The crystallography of ice later played a role in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle.) The first attempt to modify natural clouds in the field through “cloud seeding&rduo; began during a flight that began in upstate New York on 13 November 1946. Schaefer was able to cause snow to fall near Mount Greylock in western Massachusetts, after he dumped six pounds of dry ice into the target cloud from a plane after a 60-mile easterly chase from the Schenectady County Airport.