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Charles Hatfield, The Rainmaker

Charles Hatfield the rainmaker

«Censure and ridicule are the first tributes paid to scientific enlightenment by prejudiced ignorance»... [LPDS/Wombo Art]

Although the terms geoengineering, climate engineering, climate modification or cloud seeding are increasingly present in our daily lives, and not precisely with positive connotations, already between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th documented cases of which then they came to be called rainmakers have been found. They used their techniques with the aim of benefiting or getting certain places that were going through long and harsh droughts out of a pitiful situation, with the consequent and dire consequences for its inhabitants, fauna, flora and the ecosystem in general. The story we are going to tell has its own name, that of Charles Mallory Hatfield, known by some as the «king of the cloud compellers», who was even described as «probably the most successful rain maker of modern times», and that for more than two decades he would practice his chemical arts in several countries.

It's been said that southern California was for a long time the cradle of characters who were somewhat eccentric for their time, among whom were faith healers, avant-garde artists or unconventional religious cultists. Although born in Fort Scott, Kansas, USA, in 1875, Hatfield came with his family to San Diego during the boom of the mid-1880s. After he finished his education in the ninth grade, his first foray into employment would be as a salesman for the New Home Sewing Machine Company in Los Angeles. Although the origin of his interest in artificial rain is not clear, it would be towards the end of the 1890s, and by his own account, when he tried his method for the first time from an old windmill tower on his father's ranch in Bonsall, although he never patented it for fear that «rain producers would spring up like mushrooms all over the country».

«I do not make rain. I merely attract the clouds and they do the rest»

Charles Hatfield the rainmaker
[LPDS/Wombo Art]

Hatfield would also recount how his early experiments had had his kitchen as an operating room, after realizing that certain chemical combinations caused steam from the kettle to move towards them. Hatfield described his secret method as «mainly chemical affinity with the atmosphere. I have nothing to do with bombs, dynamite or explosives of any kind whatever. My methods are original», adding that «I do not make rain; that would be an absurd claim. I merely attract the clouds and they do the rest. It is a mere matter of cohesive attraction, and the conditions that produce rain are drawn by my system just as a magnet draws steel. My system consists of chemical combinations that work in harmony with the very law that makes rain in a natural sense.»

Thus, after his first attempts near San Diego in 1902 and 1903, Hatfield moved north to the Los Angeles area, where in February 1904 he erected a twenty-foot evaporating tower in the area of La Crescenta. Working with his 17-year-old brother Paul, he crafted his gases for a week, reclaiming the rain that fell, which the Meteorology Office said was part of a much larger storm system that stretched over most of the north of California. Although our rainmaker was convinced of the success of his operations, there were not exactly few who not only questioned his methods, but directly attacked him harshly through the newspapers, as happened with the Los Angeles' official meteorologist, George E. Franklin, who in the Los Angeles Daily Herald accused Hatfield of «being drunk on rainwater», adding that «when he becomes sober he will bring his chemicals to the city and ask for Mr. Franklin's place.» However, not everything was unpleasant for the young chemist, and so the Daily Times reported that the «Hatfield's water factory» had succeeded nineteen out of twenty attempts.

One thousand dollars for 18 inches of rain in four and a half months

A gifted being to some, a mere sideshow charlatan to others, Hatfield would make a serious proposition to the people of Los Angeles, guaranteeing at least eighteen inches of rain between mid-December and the end of April 1905 getting in exchange $1,000 - more than $33,000 today. «The regular fall rarely exceeds eight or ten inches», he noted, making it clear that he would not receive any payment if it fell less than the agreed amount. Considering that the previous ten years had been drier than usual, the chances for him increased. In fact, he told the population to prepare for a rainy winter from December 15. The second fortnight of the last month of the year passed between mocking and without a drop, and even on New Year's Day it was dry; but as 1905 progressed, the rains came. When a reporter interviewed Hatfield in his tent in mid-March, he was only a third of an inch short of his goal and he still had a month and a half to go. Reporters found him calm and sincere, neither selfish nor eccentric, despite his small arsenal of knives and guns. «Censure and ridicule are the first tributes paid to scientific enlightenment by prejudiced ignorance», he told them. Both the press and the public began to take Hatfield more seriously and to consider the possibility that he really was capable of making rain at will.

Hatfield received the thousand dollars in cash, in addition to the great publicity that his later experiences in the forced search for rain would thereafter have. The press now surrendered at his feet. «A Successful Rainmaker», «Young Wizard of Meteorology Proves His Ability to Fill Orders for Rainstorms» or «A Chat with the World's Greatest 'Rain-Maker'», could be read in the tabloids of the time. Back home, where dealers advertised «Genuine Hatfield's Umbrellas» at $2.50, $3.50, and $4.50 each, and where the word raining was occasionally replaced with a new one, Hatfielding, the master of rain began a lecture circuit to discuss «How I Attract Moisture Laden Atmospheres.» Ticket prices for his speech at the Simpson Auditorium on May 12 ranged from twenty-five cents to a dollar; and was also scheduled to perform in Riverside, Redlands, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, and San Diego before leaving to test his chemicals in Arizona and New Mexico.

Ridding London of its fog and watering the Sahara

Charles Hatfield Rainmaker Sahara
[LPDS/Wombo Art]

It seems that Hatfield, now Professor Charles Hatfield, surely because of his popularity, began to lift his heels somewhat from that ground of reality on which he had walked until now. Thus, in his talks, he suggested that he would be able not only to rid London of its fogs, but even dared to say that «I should like to have the contract for watering the desert of Sahara as soon as the French Government can be made to appreciate that I can really make as much rain as my employers order.» He even mentioned an agreement with «a big Chicago corporation» to turn western Kansas into grain farmland for a fee of $5,000 on a «no rain, no pay» basis. The trip to Kansas never happened.

As successes in his technique for increasing rainfall kept going, it was rumored in the press that Hatfield would soon leave under the auspices of the British government and nine owners of diamond mines and sheep farms «to stab the clouds wich float over» South Africa, an adventure from which he hoped to return «with fresh laurels and bulging pockets.» It was also reported that he had signed an agreement to produce rain for owners of placer-mines in Australia. In any case, none of these opportunities came to fruition, but they certainly contributed to enhancing Hatfield's figure and abilities.

But in the meteoric and fruitful career of the rainmaker an unexpected fact was going to come across. At the end of 1915 Hatfield and his agent Fred Binney - who expected a 5 percent commission - proposed to the San Diego City Council an offer to fill the city's reservoir - the Morena Dam -, initially obtaining a response between skeptical and humorous. «I will fill the Morena Reservoir to overflowing between now and next December 20, 1916, for the sum of $10,000, in default of which I ask no compensation.» The drought was already severe and the dam was only a third full, so finally the City Council authorized the drafting of a contract, which was opposed by only one of the five councilors, describing it as «rank foolishness».

«Hatfield's Flood» or «an act of God»?

Charles Hatfield Rainmaker San Diego 1916
[LPDS/Wombo Art]

On January 1, he was already working on the Morena Dam with the youngest of his brothers, Joel, reporting a good rain on the 5th. A few days later, the official San Diego meteorologist spoke about the arrival of a storm that brought cotinuing intermittent rain for more than a week. The month saw record rainfall and soon made Hatfield's name «more famous locally than that of Yorkville or any of the handicap winners at the Tijuana racetrack». Everything seemed to flow too well, and never better said, because on January 27 the Lower Otay Dam, to the southeast of the city, gave way, which resulted in considerable material damage and loss of life - it is estimated that around 50 -. Rail links washed out, streets flooded and houses in ruins.

This was known as the «Hatfield's Flood». A front-page cartoon in the San Diego Union showed an irate farmer chasing the rainmaker into the bay. It was rumored that armed vigilantes went looking for the Hatfield brothers and that Charles fled on horseback across the desert toward Yuma. But what is certain is that both fo them, well armed, walked the sixty miles back to San Diego, and on the afternoon of February 4 Charles gave a press conference in Fred Binney's office, announcing that he had fulfilled his promise to fill the reservoir and would now formally submit his claim for ten thousand dollars. The city attorney argued that there was no written and signed legal contract, and that until proven otherwise, the flood should be considered «an act of God.» Following the recommendation of his attorney, the City Council rejected Hatfield's claim, although more than one member believed they had an unwritten obligation with the rainmaker. Arguing that his reputation was more important than money, Hatfield announced that he would settle for four thousand dollars instead of the verbally agreed ten thousand. When this too was rejected, he filed a lawsuit against the City Council. In the meantime, the city's lawyers vowed to recommend paying every penny of Hatfield's claim if he signed a declaration assuming responsibility for the flood, freeing the City from liability for damages. With some $3.5 million in claims, most of which would never come to fruition, it was obvious the rainmaker couldn't afford to agree. Technically, his suit stood until 1938, when it was dismissed as the matter was dead. The City of San Diego still remembered him in 1948, when it hired a cloud seeder to make it rain and took care to take out damage insurance this time.

The legend of Charles Hatfield across the pond

Although it may seem impossible after what happened, in early 1921, Hatfield's agent, Fred Binney, again proposed to the San Diego City Council that they hire him to end the drought; and a local journalist, perhaps jokingly, recalled 1916, when the rainmaker made all the river valleys in the county «look like the fiords of Norway». Jokes aside, Hatfield's fame continued to build and it even seemed to be crossing the Atlantic. This is how in the summer of 1922 it was reported that Hatfield was in Naples, invited by the Italian government to break a five-month drought. He was anxious, according to the press, to explain his fortunes and misadventures to Pope Pius XI and, if the pontiff agreed, to call down a little rain on the Vatican gardens. Tradition has it that when he settled near Naples, «all southern Italy was flooded», farmers went «wild with joy» and Doctor Hatfield, as the local papers called him, became «a bigger hero than Mussolini». But it would be Paul, one of Hatfield's brothers, who would end up debunking the legend and discovering the reality by confirming that «we were never in Italy.»

With a few exceptions, Hatfield preferred to work close to home. One such exception occurred in 1929, when the brothers traveled to Honduras to try to save 700,000 acres of drought-stricken banana land for the Standard Steamship and Fruit Company of New Orleans. Hatfield insisted that the task was successfully completed in ten days, though later, during his divorce proceedings, he denied his wife's claim that he received $10,000 for the work.

Over 500 Demonstrations. No Failures

Hatfield would quietly retire to Glendale to live off past glories until he died in 1958, still an elusive and controversial figure. Even so, in 1956, Passing Parade Films Inc. produced Hatfield, The Rainmaker for television, focusing on the Morena Dam episode. Eight years later, San Diego engineer Gerald Clarke expressed that, even in the light of modern meteorological engineering, it was time for Hatfield «to receive deserved acclaim.» Paul Hatfield was keen to take the baton from his brother Charles, and so in the 1960s he said he was ready to carry on the tradition if the California legislature would waive its law of the previous decade requiring rainmakers to be licensed and to divulge the ingredients they used. Even in 1972, Paul Hatfield used special stationery, the envelopes of which had an image with three evaporating towers and the inscription: Hatfield Brothers Rain Inducing Plant. Over 500 Demonstrations. No Failures.

Los Angeles Sunday Times probably summed up public attitudes towards Hatfield very well in March 1924: «Some think Hatfield is merely a great showman; others (...) think him a man ahead of his time, who can do what the United States Weather Bureau and all modern science say is impossible».

Hatfield and his brothers not only demonstrated their skills in generating rain, but also in the use of marketing and communication when promoting and disseminating them.

Hatfield, The Rainmaker, from the TV Series As It Happened (1966).


Clark C. Spence (1980). The Rainmakers. American «Puvliculture« to World War Second, USA: University of Nebraska Press]