Fact Sheet - A Rose by any other Number
Glen Conner
State Climatologist Emeritus for Kentucky
 
Giving a name is an act of power by the giver and a badge of significance to the receiver. Both of these attributes appear in a Genesis story that has Adam naming all the animals as they were paraded by. Selection of a name for a new baby must be much more difficult. That naming process occupies many hours of the parents to be because the name is presumed to be permanent. Place names have similar permanence and, like people, those given to geographical places establish that they are significant (at least, in the eye of the name giver).

Kentucky has many interesting place names. Climate data have been collected from 497 separately identified locations. Some of those places have names that are human sounding, such as Buford, Charley, Maud, and Inez. Some seem to honor far away places of origin, like Glasgow, Heidelberg, London, and Paris (somewhat like adding Jr. after a man's name). Some were named with a lyrical feel and conjure an image of what the place may be: Falls of Rough, Golden Pond, Pippapass, and Summer Shade. Others evoke a perhaps unintended smile when a stranger hears the name Farmers, Hicksville, Mousie, or Needmore. No matter how you may react, each place name carries a unique history and significance to the residents of that place.

Adam likely would not have used names if he had access to a computer system. Driven by the convenience of the computer, he would have assigned index numbers to the animals as they appeared. Perhaps when Adam and Eve became parents, instead of names, they would have fretted over what social security numbers to give to their children ( .5 could have been added for a Jr.). Instead of Eden, they would have lived in a place known only by its zip code. When the children left home for their first day of school, they would have been identified by the bar code over their breast pocket.
 
The Origin of Climate Station Index Numbers
 
In 1947, the Climatological and Hydrologic Services Division of the Weather Bureau had begun what they called their "mechanization program." The effort was the result of the punch card technology that was at the cutting edge at that time. Data were keyed causing holes to be punched in a card. A punch card reader could then decipher the holes in the cards, the data used for calculations, and summaries printed on special typewriters. The Division Chief, Merrill Bernard, issued the first status report of the program on 11 September 1947. The status reports were to advise on developments and progress in mechanization.

In Bernard's October 1947 report, several problems were discussed. Prominent among them was how to identify climate stations. Earlier, he had requested a list of stations, their latitude, longitude, and climatic division. Names presented a problem because of their length and their duplications among states. The Weather Bureau Tabulation Unit at New Orleans was given the authority to assign "punched card numbers" for all substations. The original intent was to assign numbers to all substations without regard to whether their data were published. Specific mention was made of storm warning stations, crop reporting stations, fruit frost stations, cranberry stations, and river and rainfall stations.

By November 1947, the processing of the submitted lists of stations had begun. Station numbers, latitude, longitude, and elevation were added. A request was made for additional information for this station history file. The request included the time zone, county, river basin, type station, time of observation, length of the temperature record in years, length of the precipitation record in years, and the observer's name. The information collected was very much like our current station history files.

The resolution of the name issue began in December 1947. The rules for cities that had more than one station were to use a locally accepted name for each, or add a post script number to the name, or add distance and direction from the post office.

By the following March, all stations had been assigned station numbers except that a decision had been made to allow the WBAN committee to continue to assign Weather Bureau and Civil Aeronautics Administration. The first rules already needed to be refined. Primary names were to be those used in Rand-McNally's atlas. The Weather Bureau stations were to add either "WB city" or "WB Airport" after their name. The uses of secondary names as post scripts (e.g., university or 4th Street Bridge) were authorized. The new rules decreed that distance from the post office would be in whole miles (after some decimals and fractions had been added by some). New rules were provided for determining when to change a station number. A change was authorized when the station moved five miles or more, or its elevation changed by 100 feet or more, or the post office or community name changed.
 
The Basic Pattern of Station Numbers
Status Report No. 12, dated 10 May 1948 appears to have been a recapitulation of existing rules and an explanation of the basis for the numbering. More than three of the ten pages of the report pertained to the name and number issue. It contained, inter alia, the rationale for the station numbers that had been assigned.

The assigned numbers had six digits, the first two of which identified the state (01 for Alabama, 48 for Wyoming, and 49 for the District of Columbia). In September 1948, two digit numbers were assigned to "extra continental" (sic) stations (50 for Alaska and 51 for Hawaii). At the same time, two digit identifiers were assigned for other North American and Caribbean countries. They were anticipating that a more global role would evolve, as we know has happened.

The last four numbers of the station number identified the station. The original numbers were assigned according to the station's relative position on the "Index of Cities and Towns" published in the 65th edition of the Rand-McNally Atlas. The example used was that station number 1734 was about 1734/9900 of the distance between the first and last names in the state's index. A minimum of five numbers separated stations within the same city and a minimum of eight numbers separated stations adjacent of the index. If a station moved significantly, a new station number would be used and the old number would not be reused for any other location. The old number was used if the old site was reestablished.
 
Method for Choosing a New Number
To assure that the station number list could be sustained, very specific instructions were prescribed in the Status Report No. 12. It was a four-step method. First, after locating the new name on the current list, they calculated the numerical difference between the two names on either side of the new name. Second, using the Atlas, they counted the number of town names on the city-town list between the two old names. Third, they divided the answer from step one by the answer in step two. Fourth, using the Atlas, they counted the number of towns between the first old town and the new name. They then multiplied the answer by the value found in step three and added the answer to the number of the old name to determine the new name's number.

This interesting, but precise, procedure allowed the subsequent assignment of new stations numbers over the past fifty years without exhausting the numbering system. That is a remarkable result. Consider our current anticipation of the year 2000's impact on computer programs in use for much less than half that long.

The Station Index in each state's Annual Summary 1948 of the Climatological Data contained a list of stations under their still relatively new station numbers and their station names. Uniquely, it contained an additional column headed "Former Station Names." Of the 161 Kentucky stations on that list, there were 54 stations listed with former names. Of these, 31 had changed in June 1948 when the new rules were established. Those new rules were reflected in those changes. For example, Frenchburg (NR) changed to Frenchburg 1SW, Lexington's name converted to Lexington WB Aprt, and Mammoth Cave became Mammoth Cave Park.
 
Current Policy
The assignment or reassignment of station numbers is an important function of the National Climatic Data Center. By a single agency making the determination, the integrity of the numbering system has been preserved with room reserved for expansion in the future. To continue that preservation, the State Climatologists must request a number assignment from NCDC when the need arises rather than assigning one independently.
 
Conclusion
It is clear that the numbering system has been successful. So, if numbers do a better job than names, why do names persist? I think it is because numbers are lifeless. Occasionally, someone requests climatological data for Kentucky's station number 150804. It grates my senses! On the other hand, requests for Blue Lick Springs is both satisfying to say and pleasing to hear. Without a name, it just isn't a place and a 347732* would not smell as sweet.