Thinking Outside the Cold Box:
How a Nobel Prize Winner and Kurt Vonnegut’s Brother Made the Clouds Snow at GE in the 1940s
Bing Crosby was famously dreaming of a white Christmas, and so were many Americans this snowless holiday season. But a review of historical documents, archival photographs and press clippings shows that GE scientists led by Nobel Prize winner Irving Langmuir mastered the technology of coaxing snow out of clouds half a century ago. Langmuir’s feat was even recorded in a 1950 Time magazine cover story titled “Can man learn to control the atmosphere he lives in?”
Named Project Cirrus, Langmuir’s weather research was an outgrowth of a war time study to prevent aircraft icing and improve radio communication inside winter storms. Langmuir, a polymath scientist who won his Nobel for work in chemistry that led to GE’s early coronary artery imaging technology, teamed up with his protégés Vincent Schaefer and Bernard Vonnegut to figure out the science of snow. “Why was it that sometimes snow forms so easily, with no apparent lack of nuclei on which crystals can grow, and at other times there seemed to be none?” asked the G-E Review magazine in November 1952.
(Bernard Vonnegut’s brother, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr., worked in GE’s advertising and publicity department in the early 1950s. He famously fictionalized his brother’s cool science in his classic Cat’s Cradle, where a substance called Ice-Nine freezes the seas.)