In the first few days of 1916, Charles Hatfield and his brother Joel finished construction of a twenty-eight foot tower beside Morena Dam reservoir, about 60 miles east of San Diego. Atop the tower were galvanized steel evaporating tanks, ready to be filled with a secret chemical cocktail of Charles’ design. He had been hired by the San Diego city council to fill the near-empty Morena Dam reservoir, and was offered $10,000 to put it at capacity. Charles Hatfield was known as a Rainmaker, though he referred to himself with the much more scientific-sounding title of “Moisture Accelerator.”
Mr. Hatfield was infamous in America for his rain-making efforts, with enough high-profile “successes” to offset the failures (though whether he was causing the rain or just skillfully predicting it was a subject of lively debate). By the time the San Diego city council hired him, he had already been experimenting with rainmaking chemicals for about thirteen years. Just after the new year, the Hatfield brothers filled the evaporating tanks beside Morena Dam reservoir. Smoke and fumes wafted skyward, and within a few short days, the rains poured. And poured, and poured.
Throughout January, the sky gushed water almost daily. Rivers flooded, bridges washed away, and dams burst… an estimated 20 people were killed in the destruction. “I entered into a contract with the city,” Hatfield responded to the press after the rains subsided, “and it was up to the city to take the necessary precautions.” The city council refused to pay him, implying that if he collected his $10,000 fee, he would be admitting responsibility for the destruction and deaths, and would be liable for lawsuits. Despite his best efforts, he never squeezed a single dime out of the city council. He continued his rainmaking career elsewhere with mixed success, but ultimately had to give it up when the Great Depression struck in 1929, and he went back to his old job as a sewing machine salesman. The secret of his rainmaking formula died with him in 1958.
Earth’s weather is an incredibly complex machine which is influenced by countless factors, large and small. It is feasible that mankind could exert forces to deliberately alter the weather, but such localized influence would have unpredictable results. Despite this, Charles Hatfield was not the only person to claim success with rainmaking machines.
Wilhelm Reich was an Austrian-American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who was trained by Sigmund Freud himself. Because some of his writings were disagreeable to the Nazi party, he fled Austria for Norway, and boarded the last boat to leave for the US before the war in Europe broke out. He held a strong conviction that the universe was filled with a primordial cosmic energy called Orgone, which was responsible for effects as diverse as the weather, gravity, and human emotion. He even enlisted the help of Albert Einstein to try to prove his Orgone theory, and Einstein’s findings reinforced Wilhelm’s belief in the primordial energy.
In 1940, he constructed devices intended to concentrate and focus orgone energy— called orgone accumulators— and claimed that they could be used to cure cancer and other illnesses. He also created some orgone-focusing “Cloudbusters” which resembled anti-aircraft guns. He claimed that these were able to manipulate streams of orgone energy in the atmosphere, affecting the weather by forcing rainclouds to form and disperse at his will.
In 1956, Reich was imprisoned for continuing to market the orgone accumulators as a cancer cure, despite an injunction placed by the Food and Drug Administration. Just one day before he was to due to apply for parole, he died of a heart attack in prison. No scientific journals printed an obituary, but TIME magazine printed the following:
Died. Wilhelm Reich, 60, once-famed psychoanalyst, associate, and follower of Sigmund Freud, founder of the Wilhelm Reich Foundation, lately better known for unorthodox sex and energy theories; of a heart attack in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, Pa; where he was serving a two-year term for distributing his invention, the “orgone energy accumulator” (in violation of the Food and Drug Act), a telephone-booth-size device which supposedly gathered energy from the atmosphere, and could cure, while the patient sat inside, common colds, cancer and impotence.
Despite science’s rejection of his ideas later in life, Reich’s influence is still strongly felt in psychotherapy today.
Researchers still explore methods to wring moisture out of the sky, but their methods are more orthodox than Dr. Reich’s. Introducing some silver iodide or dry ice into clouds is known to reduce cloud density, and is thought to increase precipitation. But much like the observers of Charles Hatfield and Wilhelm Reich, it is impossible for observers today to know how much rain would have fallen without intervention, so the effectiveness of such methods remains in question.