Storm Image Gallery
Storm Image Gallery

The earliest recorded tornado in history was described by Irish villagers as a "steeple of fire." See more ­storm pictures.

Richard Olsenius/National Geographic/Getty Images

Being a natural phenomenon, tornadoes have likely plagued humankind for as long as we've dwelt on the planet. But it wasn't until the 11th century that the earliest acco­unt of a tornado was recorded. On April 30, 1054, a twister struck the village of Rosdalla, Ireland [source: TORRO]. That twister was later described by one observer as a "steeple of fire" in the sky [source: Hare and Hamlin]. The debris field circling this "steeple" looked to the villagers like a flock of birds, with one particularly giant dark bird -- likely a distinct funnel cloud. One can imagine the villagers' surprise when this giant bird uprooted an oak tree and "carried it off in its talons" [source: Joyce].

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Over time, scientists took the burden of understanding tornadoes from the backs of villagers and onto their own. We know more about tornadoes than before; we know now they're not steeples of fire, for example. But science still has a great many questions about how and why tornadoes form. Tornadoes are known to form from supercells -- thunderstorms that possess mesocyclones (rotating updrafts). It's these updrafts that can birth tornadoes. Exactly how this happens, and why only some supercells produce tornadoes remains a mystery.

 This less-than-full understanding isn't from a lack of trying. The problem is, to truly understand a tornado, you have to see inside of it. Only two people are known to have witnessed the inside of a tornado and lived to tell about it. Neither, unfortunately, owned any measuring equipment.

Putting a person laden with weather-sensing instruments in the path of a tornado is unethical, even if it does produce results: Humans are fragile. Fifty-five gallon drums, on the other hand, are much sturdier. It was just this kind of reasoning that gave birth to TOTO, the Totable Tornado Observatory.

In this article, you'll find out how TOTO worked, why it didn't work ultimately and some of the technology it gave rise to. Find out on the next page about TOTO's creation.