The Curiosity Corner

As we have read and learned about events surrounding the thousands of tornadoes that have taken place in the United States, we have come across dozens of funny, touching or interesting things that we can share. Many more interesting tidbits and stories can be found in the book Significant Tornadoes

Things that have been deliberately placed in the path of an oncoming tornado(either successfully or not)


TOTO, the TOtable Tornado Observatory In 1979, Dr. Al Bedard and his colleague Carl Ramzy built a device called TOTO, after the little dog in the Wizard of Oz movie and book. TOTO stands for TOtable Tornado Observatory. Bedard, a scientist with NOAA, suggested to Dr. Howard Bluestein at the University of Oklahoma that the device he and his colleagues had built could be placed in the path of a tornado. It would record pressure, relative humidity, temperature, wind speed, wind direction, and electrical field, all on tape inside the 55 gallon drum shell. The 400 pound TOTO could be mounted on the back of a pickup truck. By rolling it down a ramp, it could be deployed in only 30 seconds. The plan was to drive into the potential path of a tornado, position the device, switch it on, and then leave the area as quickly as possible. The hope was that the tornado would pass over the device but not destroy it. If it worked, they would be able to determine a profile of the wind speed, wind direction, pressure, and temperature across the vortex. They first began to use TOTO in the spring of 1981, but were unable to place it in the path of a tornado. Attempts were made in 1982, 1983, and 1984, but without success. Finally, on April 30th, 1985, Lou Wicker almost succeeded during the Ardmore, OK tornado. The tornado was just forming when it passed nearby, so the wind speeds were not particularly strong. TOTO was finally decommissioned in 1986. The odds of positioning it successfully were simply too low.


a turtle from the VORTEX caravan the underside of the turtle, showing instrumentation

Turtles were designed to be a new improved TOTO. University of Oklahoma meteorologist Fred Brock designed a smaller, lighter, portable unit in which data would be recorded digitally rather than with paper strip charts like the TOTO in the 1980s. A number of turtles could be set out in an area, increasing the possibility that a tornado would pass over them. They were first deployed in 1986. Jim LaDue, Mark Shafer, and Glenn Lesins did much of the development and experimental work with the turtles.

A turtle was successfully placed near a tornado on May 2, 1988, in Reagan, OK. Unfortunately, before the students were able to pick it up, the device had been tampered with, possibly by a local resident curious about its purpose. But on May 26, 1991, 4 turtles were placed in the vicinity of the Mooreland, OK storm. One of the turtles, about a mile from the tornado, recorded a pressure drop of 4 millibars . In 1994 and 1995, meteorologist Jerry Straka, Mike Magsig, and Frank Gallagher deployed turtles during VORTEX. However, there were no direct hits.

The Dillocam

The Dillocam consisted of a video camera encased in a fiberglass case, and weighted down with about 70 pounds of lead. It was developed by Charles Edwards and Casey Crosbie, meteorology students at the University of Oklahoma It was called a Dillocam because the shape was very much like that of an armadillo.

Their purpose was to get video of an oncoming tornado. It was successfully deployed in 1997, during a Cloud Nine tour. While Charles stayed with the tour group, Casey positioned the device in front of a tornado near Perth, Kansas, then got out of its way. The Perth tornado moved over the device, but in the process of doing so the glass on the front of a case was broken by the tremendous amount and force of debris striking it. Mud coated the lens of the video camera, so the video is less impressive than the incredible sound of the tornado passing right over the Dillocam.

Dillocam IIThe instrumented Dillocam II has now been built. It has a cup anemometer, wet bulb and dry bulb thermometers, and a barometer, all hooked up to an old 286 laptop that records the data at 6 readings per second. It weighs 100 pounds, is 22 inches in diameter, and also contains two video cameras, one to film the advance of the tornado towards it, and one to film the tornado as it moves away. The shell is steel covered with fiberglass, and lined with lead. The anemometer should be able to withstand winds of 260 mph unless and until it is struck by debris and broken.
The original Dillocam and the video it took can be seen on Secrets of the Tornado.


Bob Davies-Jones holding early version of a snailPeople who have experienced tornadoes have occasionally mentioned that they felt "the ground shake" as the tornado moved towards them. That is one of the reasons why Frank Tatom of Engineering Analysis, Inc undertook a project to determine if, indeed, the ground did shake, in hopes of being able to develop a warning system based on that vibration. He created the "snail." The "snail" is a portable package designed to measure three components of a short period seismic signal, plus atmospheric pressure fluctuations in the vicinity of a tornado.
The physical appearance and weight of the device was patterned after NSSL’s "turtles". However, to carry out the task that it was designed for, it must have the geophone component, attached by a cable to the shell containing the electronics package. The pressure transducer to measure atmospheric pressure fluctuations is housed within the shell.
A number of storm chasers, some of which were associated with VORTEX, were chosen to deploy the snails if the opportunity presented itself. Tim Samaras, a chaser from Colorado, deployed his in 1997, and can be seen doing so in Secrets of the Tornado. Tragically, Tim, his 24-year-old son Paul, and his chase partner Carl Young were killed on June 14, 2013 while tracking an EF5 tornado in El Reno, Oklahoma. The powerful and wide tornado made an unexpected sharp turn and caught their vehicle in its winds. The whole meteorological community mourns the loss of this brilliant scientist.

A newer snail has been modified to allow for the measurement of two components of the long-period seismic signal by means of a tiltmeter assembly. This newer, improved version has been dubbed the Supersnail!

Things that have been "carried" by a tornado

When a tornado passes over the ground, it entrains things in its circulation and then centrifuges them out again, kind of like a discus thrower at the Olympics. If the item is very heavy, it may not go very far, but if the item is lightweight, it may be caught in the updraft for a longer time, rising higher and higher until it is spun out. High winds may keep it aloft for many miles, allowing it to fall far from its point of origin. Even if an item is heavy, strong winds may roll and tumble it until it is hundreds of feet from its original location. Here are some accounts of items that have been "carried" by tornadoes. All these and more can be found in Significant Tornadoes. The Tornado Debris Project. is no longer active, but you can still read about carried debris at Dr. John Snow's research paper on the subject.
  • July 26, 1895 from Readlyn to Dunkerton, Iowa
    A 150 pound hog from "an unknown farm" was dropped into another cellar." Two colts were reportedly carried to a height of 1000 feet, appearing as "specks in the sky," then were dropped to their death.

  • May 18, 1898 in Osseo and Augusta, Wisconsin
    A feather bed was carried two miles.

  • July 16, 1904 in the Chappaqua area of New York
    A marriage certificate was carried for three miles. Piano keys were found on a barn roof a mile from the home of origin. A pair of pants was carried for two miles.

  • June 28, 1906 in Cando, North Dakota
    A reaper was carried for a half mile in the Cando area.

  • April 1, 1912 in Dickson, Tennessee
    A box with a hen was carried 200 yards without harming the occupant.

  • March 21, 1913 from Scyrene to Lower Peach Tree, Alabama
    A pillow was carried 20 miles.

  • June 1, 1917 in Coalgate Oklahoma
    A book from Coalgate was dropped inside the walls of the McAlester State Prison, 40 miles to the northeast.

  • April, 1922 near Orestes to Wheeling, Indiana
    A postcard was carried from near Orestes to Mt. Cory, Ohio, 124 miles away, with only a torn corner.

  • August 7, 1924 near New Auburn, Wisconsin
    A coat was found 13 miles from the house where it originated. Shingles were carried 20 miles.

  • April 29, 1909 1930 Horn Lake, Mississippi to Scotts Hill, Tennessee
    Meat from smoke houses was found two miles away.

  • March, 1932, in Alabama and Tennessee
    A check from a Paint Rock, Alabama home was carried to Athens, Tennessee, a distance of about 105 miles.

  • March 15, 1938 in Belleville, Illinois
    A piece of plate glass from a gas station was carried north for 25 miles.

  • May 20, 1949 in the Hammon, Butler, and Thomas areas of Oklahoma
    In a feedlot near Thomas, 13 of 14 cattle were reportedly carried a quarter of a mile from the lot and set down unharmed. "The bawling of cattle could be heard in mid-air and tracks could only be seen leading outward from the spot where they landed."

  • April 28, 1950 near Clyde, Texas
    A small refrigerator was carried for a half mile and lodged at the top of a telephone pole.

  • June 9, 1953 from Worcester, Massachusetts
    At the Blue Hill Observatory, 35 miles east of Worcester, the director recovered a French music box, a three-foot-square aluminum trap door, a two-pound piece of roof, and a couch cover that was frozen solid. A piece of frozen mattress was recovered from Massachusetts Bay, near Weymouth.

  • August 15, 1954 in New Richmond, Wisconsin
    A dog was observed being "carried aloft and away." The dog returned four hours later.

  • April, 1956 in Wisconsin
    A "package of knitted products" from a knitting mill was carried north 35 miles. A "package of papers" was found 75 miles to the NNE. A "carton of deer hides" was reportedly found 6 miles to the northeast.

  • April 22, 1963 in Illiopolis, Illinois
    Cows were carried aloft, set down unharmed, and "acted strangely" for several days.

  • April, 1963 From Paradise Point, southwest of Moon Lake and southeast of Lula, Mississippi
    A social security card was carried 75 miles to Hickory Flat.

  • May 4, 1965 in Borge, Texas
    The second story commode was carried 100 yards.

  • June 1, 1968 near Watts, Oklahoma to Siloam Springs, Arkansas
    A 14-foot boat was carried a half mile.

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