Ed Wiebe

at the UVic Climate Lab

Earliest Known Description of Contrails in Print*

Scientific American, 7 June, 1919

“never before had I seen a plane writing in white upon the blue slate of the sky”

A small group of misguided people believe in the conspiracy theory of “Chemtrails”. There are no Chemtrails: they are a fantasy. I don't expect reason to work on these people. They are simply wrong and refuse to make an effort to understand why. However, it's worth demonstrating to them and others that we have known about contrails for a long time. So, after some searching I have found that the oldest known reference in print to contrails or vapour trails or aircraft trails or other similar terms seems to be in a letter to the editors of Scientific American magazine published in June of 1919. The letter was written by the brother of USA soldier stationed in France.

Our attention was first drawn to the sky by the sudden appearance of several strange and startling clouds—long graceful, looping ribbons of white. These were tapering to a point at one end and at the other where they dissolved into nothingness 60 degrees across the sky, were about as broad as the width of a finger held arm's distance from the eye. On close observation we noticed some distance ahead of each cloud point the tiny speck of a chasse plane.

No detailed explanation for the observed phenomenon is offered but for the mention of churning of the air was all that was needed to upset the delicately balanced meteorological conditions and interestingly and a reference to a related and already well-known phenomenon, ship-trails: I had seen ships leave their tracks in the clouds.

The writer mentions “New Year's egg-nog” so I surmise the contrails were noted in October of 1918, the letter written on or soon after New Year's day, 1919. Images of the letter as it appeared in print are below as well as a full transcript.

By the way, chasse refers to hunting. The planes they saw, at least according to the letter writer, were hunting for the enemy.

* Please let me know if you know of an earlier reference in print.

Listen as Sook-Yin Lee from the CBC radio show DNTO interviews Gordon Toole. He's the man who measured Canada's lowest ever observed temperature in Snag, Yukon Territory. It's very interesting to hear him describe the ground-level "contrail" or mixing cloud that can form from your breath as you walk along in those cold temperatures.

Earliest known reference to aircraft contrails, 1919, Scientific American
Earliest known reference to aircraft contrails, 1919, Scientific American

Transcript

Clouds Formed by Airplanes

To the Editor the the Scientific American:

In a recent letter from my brother, Capt. Ward S. Wells, M.C. 60th Infantry, 5th Division, A. E. F., he mentions the observance of rather strange and wonderful phenomena which I think worth passing on to you. They strike me as being quite unusual and perhaps worthy of record, so I am sending the following quotations from his letter.

“The first part of October last we spend several days in the Bois de Hess waiting to take over a part of the front line in the Argonne. The shell holes from the first great Verdun battle were so thick that there were no patches of ground large enough to accommodate even a pup tent and from any of the war pictures you can imagine what was left of the trees.

“There were two or three days of rain, when came a wonderfully clear and beautiful morning, with not a cloud in sight. At the time, some miles ahead, there was going on an especially terrific bombardment.

“Our attention was first drawn to the sky by the sudden appearance of several strange and startling clouds—long graceful, looping ribbons of white. These were tapering to a point at one end and at the other where they dissolved into nothingness 60 degrees across the sky, were about as broad as the width of a finger held arm's distance from the eye. On close observation we noticed some distance ahead of each cloud point the tiny speck of a chasse plane. Apparently the churning of the air was all that was needed to upset the delicately balanced meteorological conditions and precipitate this strange cloud formation. Before, I had seen ships leave their tracks in the clouds, similar to those of little sea animals in the wet sands at the shore, but never before had I seen a plane writing in white upon the blue slate of the sky.

“But that is not all that I have to tell you. From 9 until 12 that day it was our uncanny privilege to see sound waves. Great rings were continualy floating upward and across the sky from the north. It made you dizzy watching these arcs at times for they were very numerous, their centers were at different points along the northern horizon and of course their radii were of varying lenths. As they would meet and merge one would almost expect to see these big rings flatten out when they bumped into each other. They were absolutely definite affairs and were discernible by being darker than the rest of the sky. When they crossed one of the above described clouds there was apparently a refraction of light although this may have been an optical illusion. It was exactly like passing a piece of crooked window glass over the cloud.

“You may skeptically smile when you read this letter, but I assure you that we were all in our right minds at the time and have not had enough New Year' egg-nog today to develop a creative imagination.”

Everett D. Well, Nashua, Iowa.

[The phenomenon of visible sound waves reported in the second part of the above letter, is described in a note published in the Scientific American of November 10th, 1917, page 343. In that note we pointed out—we believe for the first time—the identity of this phenomenon with that of the flashing arc seen in volcanic eruptions, as first described by Perret. The observation of clouds formed in the wake of an airplane is, so far as we know, novel. Perhaps some of our readers can bring forward other examples of this, as well as striking instances of the visible sound wave.—
The Editor.]

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