History may call him rainmaker, but Charles Hatfield always preferred the term “moisture accelerator”. And by his estimate, the city of San Diego still owes him $10,000 for services rendered in 1916, when he filled up the bone-dry Morena Reservoir with rainwater during a terrible drought.
Hatfield was born in 1875 and a sewing machine salesman by trade, but spent his free time studying pluviculture, the scientific term for rainmaking. He began to develop his own methods, and by 1902 had created a secret mixture of 23 chemicals in large galvanized evaporating tanks that, he claimed, attracted rain. He hired a promoter and it wasn’t long before he was being hired to create rain for ranchers, farmers, and water-dependent mines. A string of successes brought about an ever increasing demand for his skills.
In 1915, with 17 prior jobs on his resume and his secret chemical formula, Hatfield entered a verbal agreement with the city council of San Diego to make it rain for the price of $10,000. The city was desperate. A long drought was in progress, and the city’s main reservoir was 2/3 depleted.
He made no claims to be able to control the amount of rain, saying “I simply attract clouds, and they do the rest.” And so he went about attracting the clouds, erecting a 20 foot tower by the reservoir in January, 1916. When the tower was completed, he dumped his secret formula into troughs at the top, ignited it, and let the fumes drift towards the heavens. The city didn’t have to wait long. Within days, the rainfall began.
At first, the city was jubilant. But that turned to concern when the rain just wouldn’t stop. It rained heavily all month, and the parched land wasn’t ready to accept the water, which tallied 30 inches by the end of the month. Washouts and flooding occurred all over, causing homes to collapse, telephone lines to snap, and roads and railroads to crack. Then it got even worse. The Morena Reservoir filled as promised, but so was the Lower Otay Reservoir, where the pressure caused the dam to break. The rushing and pounding waters killed up to 50 residents.
Hatfield soon knocked on the door of the council looking for his money, but the city simply couldn’t justify paying him for rain that had destroyed much of the city. They turned him away, where he waited for the water to settle and then filed a lawsuit. The suit would take two decades to be decided, but would ultimately be dismissed by the courts. But the episode only bolstered Hatfield’s career, and his reputation brought him jobs in many other places before advancing water storage techniques made his rainmaking obsolete.
But did Charles Hatfield actually create rain or was he just an elaborate con-man? Surprisingly, he was probably actually making it rain. He had most likely developed an early form of cloud seeding, which is a modern method of modifying the weather by dispersing substances into the air that serve as cloud condensation or ice nuclei, which alter the microphysical processes within the cloud. China used a similar technique to prevent rain during the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics. Of course, their version was a bit more sophisticated, using 1,104 rain dispersal rockets from 21 sites within the city.
Lauryn Ricketts, broadcast meteorologist, NBC4 Washington, D.C., explains that cloud seeding can be accomplished with chemicals like silver iodide, which have a similar molecular structure to ice, creating an abundance of “nuclei for water and ice droplets to fuse with, creating precipitation that will eventually fall out of the clouds.” Hatfield didn’t have rockets to launch, so he used fumes to carry the chemicals. Ricketts hypothesizes his chemical concoction included silver iodide and salt, and it might have also contained hydrogen and gunpowder. Whatever it was, it worked.