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19th-Century Storm Chasers Took the First Tornado Photographs

Tornado photographed by Thomas Croft in Oklahoma City (May 12, 1896) (courtesy University of Tulsa Special Collections and University Archives)
The May 12, 1896, tornado photographed by Thomas Croft in Oklahoma City (courtesy University of Tulsa Special Collections and University Archives)

In the 19th century, when photography was developing into a mass medium, a few intrepid early adopters pointed their glass plate cameras at one of the most intimidating natural forces on Earth: the tornado. With whipping winds, accompanying rain and hail, and that foreboding electric coolness in the air, tornadoes are no easy subject — especially given their unpredictable paths of destruction.

The McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa (TU) in Oklahoma recently acquired a photograph of a tornado that hit Oklahoma City on May 12, 1896. Taken by Thomas Croft, who also documented the reservation life of the pre-statehood Oklahoma and Indian territories, it’s one of 24 cabinet cards acquired by TU from the collection of Esther Hoyt.

Marc Carlson, librarian of special collections and university archives at TU, explained to Hyperallergic that he suspects Croft took “a glass plate image in a view camera on a tripod. Eastman was producing photographic roll film in 1889, but Croft is unlikely to have upgraded his equipment to the new experimental format that early. The blur is caused by the time of the exposure.” He added in a blog post that it “was an F2 tornado that hit five miles NW of downtown Oklahoma City, striking four farms, destroying one barn, killing some poultry, and tearing the kitchen off a farm house.”

The first tornado forecast dates to 1948, when two F3 storms hit Oklahoma City’s Tinker Air Force Base. So even less powerful tornadoes in the 19th century could be catastrophic, as there was little warning, and most white settlers were living in wooden homes. Another version of Croft’s photograph in the collections of the DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University is zoomed out to show the small homes dwarfed by the slender cyclone:

The May 12, 1896 Oklahoma City tornado photographed by Thomas Croft (courtesy DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)
The May 12, 1896, tornado photographed by Thomas Croft in Oklahoma City (courtesy DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)

TU calls Croft’s 1896 image “the first known photograph of a tornado,” yet there are other contenders. National Geographic states that the oldest is an April 26, 1884, image by an unknown photographer of a three-funnel twister over Howard, South Dakota:

Photograph of a tornado in Howard, South Dakota, said to be taken August 28, 1884 (courtesy National Geographic)
Photograph of a tornado in Howard, South Dakota, said to be taken August 28, 1884 (courtesy National Geographic)

But wait! There’s a reportedly older twister photograph out there, and it appears much less doctored than the South Dakota image. The Kansas Historical Society references an April 26, 1884, photograph by a Kansan “farmer and amateur photographer” named A. A. Adams, who took advantage of a lackadaisical rotating funnel “to assemble his cumbersome box camera and capture this singular image. Positioned near the United Presbyterian Church in Garnett, Adams was standing just 14 miles from the cyclone.” The Society adds a note about the more famous Howard tornado: “A more dramatic photograph of a tornado that struck South Dakota four months later soon overshadowed his work. Now thought to have been altered, the South Dakota photograph depicted three cyclones and achieved more notoriety because the storm caused fatalities.”

A. A. Adams' photograph of a tornado in Garnett, Kansas (April 26, 1884) (via Kansas Historical Society)
A. A. Adams’s photograph of a tornado in Garnett, Kansas (April 26, 1884) (via Kansas Historical Society)

All of these images are incredible in their own ways. Meteorology was still a dawning science then; it was only in the early 19th century that amateur sky enthusiast Luke Howard presented a classification system for the clouds. Standing with their tripods out before the storms, these photographers added to the science, and visualized something of the tornadoes’ fleeting forces of destruction.

"Oklahoma Cyclone" (1898) (via Library of Congress)
“Oklahoma Cyclone” (1898) (via Library of Congress)
Photograph by Clinton Johnson of a tornado in North Dakota (1895) (via Library of Congress)
Photograph by Clinton Johnson of a tornado in North Dakota (1895) (via Library of Congress)
Photograph of a tornado in Ponca City, Oklahoma (1890-1920) (via Library of Congress)
Photograph of a tornado in Ponca City, Oklahoma (1890–1920) (via Library of Congress)
A stereoscopic view by D. S. Camp of the aftermath of a tornado in Wallingford, Connecticut (August 9, 1878) (via New York Public Library)
A stereoscopic view by D. S. Camp of the aftermath of a tornado in Wallingford, Connecticut (August 9, 1878) (via New York Public Library)

Read more about Thomas Croft’s 1896 tornado photograph at the University of Tulsa Special Collections and University Archives.

h/t John Overholt

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