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Storm Kings: The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers Hardcover – Deckle Edge, March 5, 2013

4.6 out of 5 stars 81 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Long before a tornado whisked Dorothy off to the magical Land of Oz, Americans have been both terrified and fascinated by these furious black whirlwinds. Sandlin, whose Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild (2010) profiled another unruly natural phenomenon, will keep readers thoroughly engrossed in this account of America’s first tornado chasers. Not surprisingly, Sandlin begins with that famous colonial kite-and-key-wielding amateur electrician, Ben Franklin, who, before entering politics, often pondered the mystery of wilderness windroads and a landspout he witnessed one blustery Maryland day. A generation later, during the mid-1800s, the nation’s foremost meteorologists were James Espy and William Redfield, whose conflicting theories of tornado formation fueled a decades-long bitter rivalry. Along with describing how these early weather enthusiasts painstakingly probed twister secrets, Sandlin also gives chilling accounts of several infamous tornado catastrophes, including the 1871 fire tornado in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, that killed 1,500 people. Fans of Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers and anyone who secretly venerates tornadoes will find Sandlin’s history captivating. --Carl Hays


“Even before the horrific events in Oklahoma last week, Lee Sandlin’s Storm Kings banished any notion I may have had that it would be a lot of fun to see a tornado up close.  Mr. Sandlin knows how to tell a story, and his gripping narrative, often lyrical and often horrifying, conveys the awesome destructive power of tornadoes as well as their bewildering randomness. . . . Much of the book is devoted to biographies of the often cantankerous figures who advanced and occasionally retarded efforts to record, explain and predict tornadoes. . . . But the stars of the book are the fearsome clouds themselves. . . . Mr. Sandlin debunks many common misconceptions. Don’t waste time opening windows to equalize pressure, he says, because tornadoes don’t explode houses in a vacuum; the winds do the damage. Find a windowless room; bathrooms are good, since the pipes add support. There is no best corner. For emergency shelter outside, a ditch is better than a highway overpass. . . .  [Storm Kings] reads like a police procedural, a 300-year journey of wrong turns and sometimes agonizingly slow progress toward the era of Doppler radar, the enhanced Fujita scale and the funnel chasers bouncing through Tornado Alley in gadgeted vehicles. . . . Scientists should not scoff at the absence of technical detail in Storm Kings. They are likely to learn a lot about the backgrounds and obsessions of their predecessors, who made real science in the fashion of a tornado itself: twisting and meandering, with great energy and much warm air rising.”
—Michael Pollack, The New York Times 

“Thrilling. . . . Sandlin's triumph is turning a historical survey of generations of American tornado scholars, victims and obsessives into something that reads like a brisk novel. It offers an epic scope reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez; vivid, eccentric characters that could inhabit a Jonathan Lethem book; rivalries as intense as anything in Dostoevsky or Archie comics; and wonders as grand as any described by L. Frank Baum (but with better tornado descriptions). . . . But Sandlin's attempt to turn history into entertainment is not alchemy: As he documents magnificently, science and showbiz were intimately intertwined in America's early years. Ben Franklin's fascination with electricity (his famed kite and key experiment unintentionally establishing him as a storm expert) came from watching "Electricians," traveling magicians who did sideshow tricks with static electricity. The lyceum circuit of the early 19th century saw semi-professional scientists give lectures and debates before an everyman audience, the validity of theories determined by audience applause. Even the scientific papers published in the 19th century, at least the ones that proved useful to Sandlin, so valued dramatic, anecdotal accounts that a seaman who witnessed a storm was as welcome as his professor to submit his paper, making academic journals as action packed as an episode of "Deadliest Catch" or "Man vs. Wild." With source material this narrative-friendly, it's no surprise Sandlin's work is as an engaging as any trashy page-turner. . . . Which brings to mind another literary precedent for "Storm Kings." Despite Noah encountering a weather emergency with much more narrative focus, the Old Testament provides a fine example of a book where despite numerous fascinating characters, the least-developed protagonist has proven the most important and influential over the centuries. That's not to imply that Sandlin will sell the billions of copies that that other good book has. But there's a good chance that this exciting study may become a bible of sorts to a generation of tornado aficionados, storm chasers and Weather Channel addicts.”
Chicago Tribune

“Even readers who live far from Tornado Alley will appreciate Mr. Sandlin's amiable style, his wide-ranging, infectious curiosity and the light he sheds on these most American of all storms.”
The Wall Street Journal

“A lively and entertaining account with, as befits its subject, dark undertones. . . . [Sandlin] follows the [tornado] from Franklin and his kite across two centuries of spotters and chasers to the Japanese-born scientist Tetsuya Fujita, who, schooled on the ruins of Nagasaki, invented the rough calibration system evoked by every TV weather forecaster: the Fujita Scale. . . . All this Sandlin spices — if any spice were needed — with hair-raising accounts of famous disasters: the hellish 1879 double tornado of Irving, Kan.; the Tri-State tornado that in 1925 plowed a 219-mile furrow across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, leaving almost 700 dead; the April 1974 upper Midwestern super-outbreak, the worst single tornado event in American history. But the bureaucratic and the political here out-storm the meteorological, at times making our dispute over global warming seem like a polite conversation. The lesson is as clear as one of those still spring mornings when the air is charged with humidity, and as menacing: When science and politics mix it up, invariably the loser is science. And the rest of us.”
Dallas Morning News

“The awe and terror that American weather inspired in early settlers is one of the most compelling motifs of Lee Sandlin’s compulsively readable Storm Kings. . . . Like much of the history of science, the story of this quest is rich with controversy. . . . Sandlin’s book is not simply a historical text about a problem that has been solved by technology; rather, it is a cautionary tale about the frequently unpredictable role that weather continues to play in our lives.”
Christian Science Monitor  

“A fascinating look at all things tornado. . . . Sandlin delves into intense detail giving us wonderful accounts of the history of the National Weather Service, the 18th and early 19th century scientists. . . . an enjoyable book that will change the way we look at these extreme funnel clouds in the future.”
Northwest Indiana Times
Storm Kings is not merely a theoretical or data-driven history of tornados and meteorology. Using his skills as a brilliant storyteller, Lee Sandlin places the reader in the middle of a storm, where he becomes an eyewitness to the helplessness, fear, destruction, and psychological aftermath of tornados. . . . Lee Sandlin uses the old song about “ghost riders in the sky” as a metaphor for today’s amateur storm chasers who continue in the tradition of James Espy and John Park Finley. Professionals and amateurs alike continue their quest—thundering onward across the endless skies. . . . The author takes us along for the ride. Readers will definitely feel its gale force.”
New York Journal of Books

“I have been a meteorologist interested in tornadoes for my entire career. . . . I found Storm Kings a compelling history.”
—Chuck Doswell, Nature
“[Storm Kings] examines not only the science behind the mysterious twisters but also takes readers through some extremely compelling stories of rival scientists in the new field of meteorology. . . . The real stars of the book are the storms themselves. To read of them is harrowing: entire towns destroyed, bridges torn apart and raised into the sky, wakes of destruction hundreds of yards wide and hundreds of miles long.”
The Chicago Reader

“Sandlin deftly synthesizes and illuminates the duality of his title—both the tornado itself, which early settlers in America referred to as “the Storm King”; and the individuals who made it their life’s work to document, predict, and better understand those despots of the plains. Legendary storms roil throughout the text, from the funnel of fire—or as one eyewitness (whose eyeballs were consequently seared) described it, “the finger of God”—that destroyed Peshtigo, Wis., in 1871, scorching over a million acres and killing 1,500 people, to the Tristate Tornado of 1925, which rampaged for 219 miles across parts of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. . . . Sandlin makes talking about the weather much more than a conversational nicety—he makes it come brilliantly to life.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Sandlin offers a lively account of early investigators who, through both “grinding stupidity and unaccountable insights,”  eventually came to understand and learned to coexist with—but never tame—the furious force of tornadoes. . . . [A] well-constructed history of the politics and personalities of weather.”

“If the vast majority of climate scientists are right, the weather is going to become an increasingly important, and threatening, feature of our daily lives. Lee Sandlin's new book is a riveting history of our relationship with the funnel clouds of the Midwest. This is a story we need to know, and Sandlin tells it with uncommon grace and style.”
—Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Founding Brothers and the upcoming Revolutionary Summer

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; First Edition edition (March 5, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307378527
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307378521
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (81 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #917,967 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jeri VINE VOICE on February 18, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"Storm Kings" ranges from the pilgrim era to the present, showing the growth in knowledge about tornadoes from the observations and squabbles of the early observers to the hard science of Ted Fujita and finally to modern scientific storm chasing.

The story is told in a fashion guaranteed to grip the reader - through a focus on key individuals and their adventures, ideas and careers.

Early in the book we follow Benjamin Franklin, following the surprising path that led him to study lightning. We read about his correct deduction that lightning is a manifestation of static electricity - a critical scientific insight. We also learn that Franklin studied tornadoes, and that he founded a scientific institute which coincidentally later was active in tornado research.

Shocking descriptions of tornadoes provide a glimpse into the phenomenon from the viewpoint of horrified settlers of the frontier. Readers may be surprised to learn that even the existence of tornadoes was doubted by scientists into the 19th century. Natural philosophers (scientists) disputed the reports from the west as wildly exaggerated, and doubted that such a violent phenomenon existed. All of that changed when New Brunswick was struck by a devastating tornado in 1835 - an event described vividly.

Once tornadoes became a legitimate subject of study, scientists and laymen (there often was little difference) rushed to study them. The author introduces us to James Espy, who had already correctly deduced that heat from condensing moisture in rising air fuels thunderstorms. Espy is followed through his life, as are several other scientists. He becomes a major figure in tornado research from his observations and conclusions about the New Brunswick event.
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Format: Hardcover
Tornados... powerful, fearful, unpredictable... and a source of controversy over the years as people tried to figure out what they are (or if they even existed). Lee Sandlin tells the story of those who first tried to solve the puzzle in his book Storm Kings: The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers. I didn't enjoy this book as much as I thought I would, but it could well be due to incorrect expectations rather than the fault of the content or quality of the writing. I'll be the first to admit that in this case, your mileage may vary...

Introduction - Ghost Riders; Prologue - The Pillar in the Storm
Part I - The Thunder House: The Electricians; A Little More of the Marvelous; To Treat Master Franklin
Part II - The Storm War: The So-Called Tornado; The Philosophy of Storms; Under the Map; One Dead, One Exhausted; One Converted; The Finger of God
Part III - Red Wind and Tornado Green: The Great American Desert; The Night Watch; Premonitory Symptoms; Violent Local Storms; How to Escape; The Desert Is No More; The Book of Failure; An Awful Commotion
Part IV - The Mystery of Severe Storms: Canvas and Cellophane; The Unfriendly Sky; Visible Effects of the Invisible; Epilogue - The Wild Hunt
A Note on Sources; Acknowledgments

When I think of tornado chasers, I conjure up the images of people outfitted with computers and vehicles that look like apocalyptic Road Warrior battle carriages. But Sandlin goes back further in time... to the mid-1700's, when the scientists of the day were trying to figure out what these destructive storms might be. With primitive technology and unreliable eyewitness reports, theories abounded as to whether tornados were just strong storms or something that transcended clouds and wind.
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Most people would not believe that the National Weather Service was a secret government agency serving only the military ~ and that weather, forecasts etc. were considered national secrets until around 1950. Most people would laugh if they discovered that as recently as the early 20th century there were Americans who didn't believe in tornadoes.

Most people will be shocked when they learn the repression of the telling of history of weather forecasters and meteorologists. Well, all this is here in this wonderful, groundbreaking book.

STORM KINGS: THE UNTOLD HISTORY OF AMERICA'S FIRST TORNADO CHASERS by Mr. Lee Sandlin (2013, 266 pages with dozens of great black and white photos) is a fun, comprehensive study of the history of meteorology and the men who created the field. Naturally its birth was in America, and there's a reason for that. The author (a fellow Chicagoan and Santa Claus-lookalike) takes us on an adventure-filled ride alongside the first men to study tornadoes and try to figure out American weather.

The tornado left a path of destruction which the locals called "windroads". The tornado itself came to be called "The Storm King", yet few people from the 1600s to the late 1800s believed in tornadoes at all. This book was my reward after a yearlong search for a good weather folklore/history combination. Until I found this great book, there was no history to be had at all.

Everyone I know is a weather "geek" (I hate that word) like me, yet few people know its history, which this book does an excellent job of conveying. From the earliest tornado-watchers of the late 1600s to the explorers of electricity (led by Ben Franklin), meteorology was built on the backs of tornado-spotters and eyewitnesses.
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