Jesse Ferrell

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Lightning Seminar Part 4: History of Vaisala

August 4, 2008; 2:36 PM ET

In the final part of my notes from the Lightning Seminar, I'd like to give some history on the Vaisala company, of which amazingly lightning is only a tiny portion. In fact, on their 2-hour DVD showcasing the company's history (which I got at the Lightning Seminar), it wasn't even mentioned. The company is huge and concentrates mainly on meteorological instrumentation - today it has over 1,000 employees, with customers in 100 countries, the U.S. being the largest. If you'd like to read more, they have an online version of a book written about their history.

READ THE COMPLETE SERIES:

· Lightning Seminar Part 1: Lightning 101, Lightning Lingo

· Lightning Seminar Part 2: Oddities and Questions 1/2

· Lightning Seminar Part 3: Oddities and Questions 2/2

· Lightning Seminar Part 4: History of Vaisala

Their Founder, Vilho Väisälä came from a family in Finland with a large concentration in mathematics and meteorology. He worked for the national weather service in Finland. In the early 1900's, scientists were beginning to believe that the upper-atmosphere controlled the weather, but the only way to measure it was with kites that only went up a couple of kilometers. Väisälä experimented with balloons, but he had to wait up to 4 months to get them back via postal mail, if he got them back at all. This made interpreting weather data in real-time impossible.

With the advent of radio, they started broadcasting real-time weather reports. This made them think - hey, we could use a radio transmitter to send the data back to the ground as the balloon rose into the air. A Russian scientist launched one of these devices, and it ended up in Finland! Väisälä rebuilt the device to be leaner, cheaper, and more accurate. In 1931, he launched the first one (it took 3 balloons to carry the weight.

After failing to be named the chief of the weather office, he started refining the radiosonde in his free time. Three years later, it was ready to sell. The first buyer? The U.S. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Because most manufacturing in Finland centered around timber at the time, he had to form his own company to produce them. The instruments become important as World War II broke out.

Much like AccuWeather's history, the company was run by Väisälä and his brothers. In the 1950's, it was mentioned that the company could not survive with the radiosonde alone, so new avenues of meteorological instrument research were opened up. As the cold war takes over, Vaisala moves operations into other developing countries such as South Africa and Argentina (where they run lightning networks today).

Vilho was fluent in 11 foreign languages and spread the word of their radiosondes across the world in the 1960's. Like Sam Walton here in the U.S., he had a tendency to drop in on his production companies to make sure things are ship-shape. Three weeks after the Moon Landing, Vilho passed away. The owners were tempted to sell, but persevered. Product development continues in the 1970's, putting out a new type of humidity sensor which had applications from agriculture to hospitals. Clients turned from developing countries to the West under direction of a Mr. Toivola. Their international presence in the 1980's began to cause financial issues for the company and it is unable to maintain a presence in the U.S.

By the mid-1990's the company had regrouped and bought Artais in the U.S. which gave them access to the aviation weather business and they started supplying instruments to the U.S. military and NWS, and even Departments of Transportation and TV stations. The lightning division was formed, and research and development continues today.

P.S.: If you ever doubt Vaisala's dedication to the weather instrument industry, check this out - they introduced what was probably the first consumer-oriented electronic weather station that could connect to a computer - a Commodore 64 - in the early 1980's.

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Jesse Ferrell
Jesse Ferrell's WeatherMatrix blog covers extreme weather worldwide with a concentration on weather photos and Social Media.