How the Totable Tornado Observatory Worked

Why TOTO Didn't Work

The danger posed by putting humans in front of tornadoes (like this one in Dimmit, Texas, in 1992) to deploy TOTO is one reason the device was eventually retired.
The danger posed by putting humans in front of tornadoes (like this one in Dimmit, Texas, in 1992) to deploy TOTO is one reason the device was eventually retired.
Harald Richter/AFP/Getty Images

Today, people who chase and study storms professionally or for fun use the Internet and laptop computers to track them. Before the advent of on-demand, real-time information, storm chasing was much more of a guessing game. Anyone who wanted to put, say, a 55-gallon drum filled with highly sensitive meteorological equipment in the path of a tornado was forced to use minutes-old information broadcast by weather stations and the local media on the radio. A storm chaser also had to use a little intuition and his or her experience of seeing storms firsthand to predict which storm cell might produce a tornado and which might not.

This was one of two main problems inherent in TOTO that became evident in the field. Putting TOTO directly in the path of an oncoming tornado required an astronomical amount of luck; the probability of perfect placement was decidedly low. The other problem TOTO presented was the danger it posed. Unloading and setting up TOTO may have taken a mere 30 seconds, but that can be a long time when a twister is bearing down on you -- that's 30 seconds less the researchers had to escape. And despite TOTO's 400 pounds (181 k), a tornado could conceivably take the device along for a ride, transforming TOTO from a benign tool of science into a flying barrel of death. (Larger things have been swept up by twisters. In May 1949 in Oklahoma, 13 head of cattle were carried off by a tornado [source: Tornado Project].)

­All of these concerns were theoretical until TOTO was deployed into service across the Central Plains in the spring of 1981. Then concerns were confirmed. TOTO's engineers, Bedard and Ramzy, handed their creation over to Dr. Howard Bluestein, a professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. From April to June of each year from 1981 to 1983, Bluestein and some of his students chased storms and placed TOTO where they thought a tornado was likeliest to pass [source: PBS].

Bluestein confirmed both the danger posed by and improbability of the success of TOTO. He never successfully placed it in a spot close enough to gather data from a tornado. And he saw firsthand how dangerous TOTO could be. During one storm chase in 1982, Bluestein and his team had a close brush with a tornado they were attempting to get in front of to place the device in its path [source: PBS]. After 1983, he turned TOTO over to the National Severe Storm Laboratory, a research laboratory affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NSSL was the only group to ever successfully place TOTO in the path of an oncoming twister.

On April 29, 1985, NSSL researchers Steve Smith and Lou Wicker picked the right place to situate TOTO, outside of Ardmore, Ark. A feeble tornado brushed past the device, revealing another defect of TOTO's concept and design: It had a high center of gravity. As the tornado passed, TOTO was knocked onto its side, damaging the instruments. After its closest brush with fulfilling its original purpose, TOTO was deployed unsuccessfully for two more years.

­TOTO was retired from service in 1987. It's on display in the lobby of the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla., greeting visitors [source: NOAA]. But TOTO left behind an unfulfilled need to gather valuable data about tornadoes by taking them head-on. In that regard, TOTO left a legacy. Read the next page to learn about TOTO's descendants.