The Fascinating Predictions of Louis D. Rubin Sr., the Weather Wizard
For the Youngest Weather-Watchers
Louis D. Rubin Days: Weather Predictions
From the early 1950s to the year 1970, the city of Richmond, Virginia, the entire state of Virginia, and other states along the Eastern Seaboard found information and entertainment in little boxes of dates that were published twice a year in Richmond newspapers. The boxes contained lists of dates known as “Rubin Days,” named for the amateur meteorologist who researched and came up with them.
One of my first encounters with this information was a blustery day out on the school playground, when it occurred to me that many of my classmates seemed to be warmer than I was. “Didn’t your mother tell you to bring a jacket? Today’s a Rubin Day,” I heard; and I promptly went home to ask what a Rubin Day was. We were the newcomers to the area. We had moved to Richmond when I was eleven, and so we did not have the lifelong background of sticking the newspaper list on the refrigerator door, as most of my peers’ families did.
Rubin Days were predicted months in advance of their arrival; it was claimed that on those days the weather would turn unseasonably cold. In summer it might be a sudden drop in temperature; in winter, the day might host a blizzard. My mother’s interpretation, once she began following the predictions, was that the day would be uncharacteristic of its season, meaning (according to her) it might even be a warm day during the winter. That is not the explanation given by Rubin’s daughter or by the Richmond newspaper in a recent follow-up article. But a Rubin Day definitely was supposed to be noticeably different from the surrounding days.
Louis Rubin (Sr.) had had a longtime interest in meteorology, intensified during periods he spent in the hospital. He had to undergo seven operations (one of them, botched) during a two-year period in the 1930s, after an ear infection developed into a brain abscess. With little to do during recuperation other than lie on his bed and look out the window, he spent a great deal of time watching clouds, cloud patterns, and cloud movement. His interest developed into a near obsession.
During those periods of hospitalization his thriving business, the number one electrical business in the South, failed under the inadequate management he had entrusted it to. Much of the rest of his life (from his mid-30s on) was spent in a sort of retirement, enjoying gardening and the outdoors, becoming the self-taught meteorologist known as the Wythe Avenue Weather Wizard.
During the 1940s, he organized his collection of cloud photographs, garnered from ads and magazines, into a little booklet – more like a pamphlet, really – which he sold to local merchants to be used as promotion for their businesses. It was Rubin’s way of sharing his enjoyment of the weather with a wider audience, and he used the platform to teach the very simple idea that anyone can predict the weather. In the foreword to his posthumously published book on weather forecasting, his daughter Joan Schoenes wrote, “Since changes in the weather developed in regular procession, heralded always by certain sequences of clouds, anybody could match what was occurring in the sky with the photographs, determine the direction in which the cloud formations were moving, and be able to forecast what would happen next.”
Eventually he wanted a better quality of pictures (color pictures, to boot!), and so he began taking his own. He took such great photographs of clouds in their many varieties and patterns, that weather bureaus, aeronautics institutions, encyclopedias and textbooks used them. A series of cloud charts which he published was translated into several languages and distributed worldwide. Many of these are still in print and available for education, the military, marinas, and weather enthusiasts from Cloud Chart Incorporated.
As he continued to read all he could about the weather, weather influences and weather predictions, he became convinced that volcanic activity has a very major influence on the weather, since volcanic ash in the troposphere would refract or filter the sun’s rays, thereby reducing the heat that reaches the surface of the earth. The idea of the influence of volcanoes has become much better accepted since that time, and he was not the originator of the idea. But that idea became the basis of his Rubin Days predictions, starting in the early 1950s.
He kept up with news reports of volcanic activity and used information about the estimated quantity of volcanic ash and rates of travel to predict when an eruption would influence weather on the East Coast of the US. He also paid attention to how long the weather influence would last, and when it would recur (as the ash would travel around the globe and return). Over the years he developed a formula using all of that information, and from it he plotted on a calendar when the sudden and unseasonable change in weather would occur, usually predicting the days many months in advance.
Long-Term Weather Diary
Besides his belief in the influence of volcano eruptions on the weather, he also had an interesting theory relating to the eruptions themselves. His idea was that volcanic eruptions arise as a result of sunspots, which have geomagnetic properties; supposedly these properties irritate the earth’s interior until the volcano erupts or an earthquake occurs. This theory has never gained scientific support. But even so, it is interesting to note that Rubin predicted two enormous earthquakes of the 1960s: the Chile earthquake of 1960 (9.5 magnitude) and the Alaska earthquake of 1964 (9.2 magnitude). (Ed. Note: The US Geological Survey clearly discounts the theory that earthquakes are related to sun activity. But on March 10, 2011, I read that there had been a strong solar flare the previous day, and I wondered what Louis Rubin would have predicted. On March 11, the 9.0 Honshu earthquake occurred.)
A great deal of anecdotal evidence – besides my schoolmates’ superior wisdom – supported the veracity of his weather predictions. On one occasion, for example, Rubin recommended that a service station owner put in a supply of antifreeze ahead of a major snowstorm in November – much earlier than snow usually arrives in Richmond – that he was predicting for the next day. The business owner had confidence in Rubin and followed his suggestion – and so he was well prepared for the high demand that did arrive with the snow the next day, when other businesses were caught off guard.
Brides would contact him about the suitability of dates for outdoor weddings; the local newspaper owner checked in with him about returning to Richmond from Florida at a time when a major storm was predicted. Nearly everyone in Richmond could come up with some story of an amazing weather prediction attributed to Louis Rubin.
More Tools for Predicting the Weather
In some reports, his success rate was claimed to be as high as 90%, although he himself set it at 80%. However, a newspaper article printed in the early 1990s stated that other people had calculated the success rate as low as just under 40%, and some just barely above 10%. So, who was right? It might be difficult to determine that, although someone surely could compare the predicted Rubin Days with the actual weather that materialized on those dates. But again, my mother would be extra generous in her confidence in Rubin’s ability. She always claimed that the predicted day listed in the newspaper was intended to represent a window when uncharacteristic weather would hit; it might actually arrive a day earlier or later than the prediction. (She actually read the newspaper, and I did not.) Perhaps that concept of a window of opportunity accounts for the huge discrepancy between reported success rates. It could very well be a concept that Rubin himself developed throughout his years of observation, noting that predictions of events based on movement of ash-containing air masses in the troposphere might not follow the same precision as predictions based on the current clouds in the sky and the current wind direction. Or the extension of Rubin Days to mean “Rubin Windows” could simply have been someone's method of hedging bets for the showman-like Rubin.
After his death in 1970, his children helped continue the process of editing, rewriting, and revising the manuscript of a book he had written explaining the method of predicting immediate weather by observing clouds and wind direction. In the foreword we can read his daughter’s description of his scientific attitude: “He had the basic equipment that the good scientist needs: the ability to look steadily and patiently at nature, to reason from cause to effect, and not to let automatic assumptions and prejudgments interfere with his observation of what was actually happening before his eyes.” It is a tribute to him that his little book is still in print today; one reviewer for the book on Amazon.com (recommending it as a “superb book”) wrote that he had purchased the book in preparation for “an advanced mariner's meteorology course.”
Whether Rubin's theory about sunspots was correct or not and whether or not his Rubin Days were as accurate as he claimed, his cloud photographs and his book on reading the weather have been used for years to educate future meteorologists, both amateur and professional, and likely will continue to be used thus for years to come.
All in all, not too bad for a man whose formal education never went past seventh grade.