General R.G. Dyrenforth wasn’t a general and he wasn’t really a rainmaker nor was he U.S. Commissioner of Patents, though he claimed all of these titles at one time or another. Officially, he was known as a “concussionist,” one who makes it rain by blasting water from the sky with explosives in the belief that “rain follows the artillery.” The General must have been pretty convincing because was the first (and last) person the U.S. government ever hired to make it rain by virtue of things that go boom in the sky.
For a little more than a year, starting in 1891, Dyrenforth was seen as everything he said he was, but mainly he was the man who could blast rain from the sky. The notion that such a thing could be done had been around for centuries before Dyrenforth came along. Plutarch, in the second century, first observed – or thought he did – that rain followed battles. Napoleon believed it, and so did a man named Edward Powers, who wrote the book on the subject, War and the Weather, in 1871. The book detailed how rain generally fell a few days after a battle, but he neglected to study the probability of rain at that site even if a battle hadn’t been fought there.
Powers persuaded Congress to spend some money – $2,000 initially – to conduct experiments based the theory. Settlers west of the 98th meridian, where rainfall averaged 20 inches or less a year, were mostly receptive to anything that might make it rain. The government chose Dyrenforth to conduct the experiments, and so the self-proclaimed General and concussionist sallied forth to – where else? – Texas in August of 1891.
Dyrenforth and his team of fellow scientific novices arrived in Midland armed with boxcars of dynamite, gunpowder, cannons, kites and balloons designed to go boom. All of this firepower was directed at the sky: Rain or else! Come out of those clouds or we’ll blast you out! That kind of thing.
“I have no doubt that rainmaking will be carried on in portions of the country as a practical thing,” Dyrenforth told the New York Times. “It is certain that rain can be caused by explosion in mid-air. I do not make any predictions as to the general practice, nor am I interested a cent in the question, but, as a matter of cold fact, based on my experiments, I know that rain can be produced.”
Newspapers across the country hailed the experiments as an earth-shattering breakthrough – somewhat literally – in mankind’s never-ending struggle to bend nature to its own purposes. The Washington Post, New York Sun, Chicago Tribune and Rocky Mountain News all reported torrents and gully washers resulting from Dyrenforth’s explosives and gizmos. Of course, none of those papers were located anywhere near Midland; they had to take Dyrenforth’s word for it, and they mostly did.
Two papers that did send reporters to observe the experiments first hand were a couple of agriculture journals, The Farm Implement News and Texas Farm and Ranch. The ag writers had a much different take on the proceedings and their results than Dyrenforth’s press releases. They saw a group of people who mostly didn’t know what they were doing, ill and forlorn, watching their gizmos go boom at the wrong times and catching all manner of things on fire. Flimsy kites, no matter how well-armed, were no match for the West Texas winds. Scientific American magazine followed up on the ag writers’ reports and deemed Dyrenforth’s experiments “an expensive farce.”
Dyrenforth, however, buoyed by his own press releases, went to El Paso where he had to admit that he really didn’t make it rain, not in El Paso anyway, but he had invoked rain a few miles away. His explanation for why this was so is a masterpiece of jabberwocky; it sounds good but makes no sense.
Robert Kleberg of the King Ranch provided some money for Dyrenforth to blast the heavens around his place, and it actually rained there around the time of his experiments. In San Antonio, however, he blew out the windows in a downtown hotel, obliterated a mesquite tree and became an object of ridicule and scorn all over the country. The same papers that once ran his reports word for word now referred to him as “Dry Henceforth.” He went back to working in the patent office and made no more news until after he died, when his will was revealed.
In that document, Dyrenforth, supposedly of sound mind, stipulated that to receive his bequest, Dyrenforth’s 12-year old grandson had to renounced Catholicism, finish high school, and attend Harvard, Oxford and West Point and spent six months in the Army. Oh yeah – he had to attend law school in the U.S. when he was through with all that.
The old man might as well have stipulated that his grandson do something really impossible – like firing explosives into the clouds to make it rain.