Texas Tech University

World-Famous Tornado Researcher Launched Career in Hiroshima, Nagasaki

Glenys Young

August 6, 2020

Texas Tech University has enduring connections to the work and legacy of Ted Fujita.

An 18-year-old Japanese man, nearing his high school graduation, had applied to two different universities, the Hiroshima College of High School Teachers and the Meiji College of Technology.

But before he received the results of his entrance examinations, his father, Tomojiro Fujita, died. On his deathbed, he told his son, "Tetsuya, I want you to enter Meiji College even if you are admitted to the Hiroshima College for Teachers."

This is the mushroom cloud after the atomic bomb that exploded over Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945.

That was January 1939, and, as Tetsuya Fujita later wrote in his autobiography, "His inspired final instruction may have saved my life because, had I attended the Hiroshima College, I could have been in Hiroshima when the first atom bomb exploded over the city on Aug. 6, 1945."

Had he been killed in Hiroshima 75 years ago today, it would have been a terrible loss to the scientific world and, particularly, Texas Tech University. Why? Tetsuya Theodore "Ted" Fujita was one of the earliest scientists to study the blast zones at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bombed Aug. 9, 1945, and he would later use these findings to interpret tornadoes, including the one that struck Texas Tech's home city of Lubbock on May 11, 1970.

From these tornado studies, he created the world-famous Fujita Scale. Texas Tech faculty and students worked closely to refine and extend Fujita's concepts, eventually introducing the Enhanced Fujita Scale. And after Fujita's death in 1998, his unique research materials were donated to Texas Tech's Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library.

"It is one of the most important, academically significant archival collections that we hold at the Southwest Collection," said Monte Monroe, Texas State Historian and archivist for the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library.

"Literally, we get requests for information from the Fujita papers, on a weekly, if not daily, basis from people all over the world – his reach has been that far, and he was that unique of a scientist. We are extremely proud to be the archive of record for the Tetsuya Ted Fujita Collection, because it will inform researchers for many, many years to come."

Meiji College of Technology

Although Fujita was accepted to both universities, he followed his late father's wishes and began at Meiji College of Technology, located in the city of Tobata, on April 10, 1939, as a mechanical engineering student. In addition to taking out a loan, he worked part time as a geology professor's assistant to pay for his education. He became increasingly interested in geology, but his mother's failing health kept him from changing his major – the necessity of staying close to home ruled out any extended geological field trips.

But one project the geology professor gave him – translating topographic maps into bird's eye views of four volcanic craters – would turn out to be excellent training for the maps he would later create by examining tornado damage paths.

In mechanical engineering, Fujita completed a thesis on the measurement of impact forces – specifically, the time-dependent force of impact induced by free-falling steel balls. By changing the size of the balls and the height from which they were dropped, he measured their impact forces. This would turn out to be excellent training for determining the forces within tornadoes based on their debris paths.

Japan had entered World War II in September 1940 but, by early 1943, it was pulling back its military forces across the Pacific. In response to a shortage of troops, the military draft age was lowered to 19, students were no longer exempted from military service and the Japanese Department of Education shortened the college school year by six months. Because of that, Fujita's scheduled March 1944 graduation instead happened on Sept. 26, 1943.

On Sept. 27, he was appointed as a research assistant in the physics department. On Oct. 23, he was promoted to assistant professor.

Hiroshima after being bombed on Aug. 6, 1945.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

On the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, an American B-29 bomber dropped the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima, 136 miles from Tobata. Between 70,000 and 80,000 people, around 30% of the population of Hiroshima at the time, were killed by the blast and resultant firestorm, and another 70,000 were injured.

Three days later, on Aug. 9, the air-raid sirens wailed in Tobata. Escorting his students to the bomb shelter beside the physics building, Fujita glanced at the skies. He couldn't see the aircraft through a thick layer of stratus clouds, but it was there. Its target was the Kokura Arsenal, less than three miles away from the college.

Fortunately for Fujita and his students, the clouds were there, too. The pilot couldn't see his target and ultimately switched to the backup target: the city of Nagasaki, 134 miles away. Although the bomb was more powerful than the one used on Hiroshima, its effects were confined by hillsides to the narrow Urakami Valley, where at least 35,000-40,000 people were killed and 60,000 were injured.

World War II ended six days later, on Aug. 15, 1945, with the Japanese surrender.

Nagasaki following its bombing on Aug. 9, 1945.

Tobata, exactly halfway between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was ideally located to research the bombings. So, in September, the college president sent a group of faculty and volunteer students on an observational mission to both sites, and Fujita went along.

Although Fujita advised his students to avoid touching or sitting on anything in the bombed areas, because they were still radioactive, some members of the group fell ill with headaches and stomach maladies. Fortunately, Fujita, himself, suffered no ill effects.


In Nagasaki, their first site, Fujita attempted to determine the position of the atomic bomb when it exploded by triangulating the radiation beams from the position of various objects and their burn marks. Against his expectation, the beams did not converge into a small volume. Realizing the shockwave that followed the bomb's initial flash altered the locations of both the objects and their burn marks, he switched to examining objects that could not move – the headstones and monuments in the various cemeteries dotting the hillsides around the blast's ground zero.

After calculating the height at which the bombs went off, Fujita examined the force of the shockwaves emanating out from them. At ground zero, most trees were blackened by radiation but still standing upright. In contrast, the 300- to 600-meter range was sheer devastation. Buildings, like the landmark Uragami Tenshudo cathedral, were in ruins. Trees were broken horizontally away from ground zero. If seen from above, it would have looked like a giant starburst pattern.

"After coming to the United States," Fujita later wrote in his autobiography, "I photographed from low-flying Cessnas a large number of damage areas in the wake of tornadoes. Unexpectedly, I came across these starburst patterns of uprooted trees."

The connection allowed him to translate his knowledge gained at Hiroshima and Nagaski to disaster sites on the other side of the planet.

Coming to America

Fujita continued to teach at the Meiji College of Technology, which in 1949 was reorganized into the Kyushu Institute of Technology. Along the way, he became fascinated with wind, specifically wind that acted in ways he couldn't yet explain, and he wanted to get inside a storm to understand it better.


On Aug. 24, 1947, his chance came. Ahead of a building thunderstorm, Fujita hiked to the Seburi-yama mountaintop weather observation station. As soon as he was inside, the storm hit, giving him the exact measurements he wanted: wind, temperature and pressure.

"We were very lucky to have had the opportunity to be in the heart of a severe thunderstorm at the mountaintop," Fujita later wrote.

Using data from 30 weather stations across western Japan, Fujita visually recreated the storm using hour-by-hour maps. While completing his analysis, Fujita gave a presentation about the work to the Fukoka District Weather Service. At the end of his talk, a weather service employee gave him a related book that had been found in a trash can inside the Seburi-yama station: "Nonfrontal Thunderstorms" by Horace R. Byers, chairman of the Department of Meteorology at the University of Chicago.

After Fujita finished his analysis in 1949, proposing the existence of a downward burst of air inside storms, he felt a strange urge to translate it into English and send Byers a copy in 1950. Unbeknownst to Fujita, Byers had by then become head of the U.S. Thunderstorm Project, which was doing the same kind of analysis in the U.S. that he was doing in Japan – and their results matched.


Impressed by Fujita's work, Byers recruited him to the University of Chicago to perform severe storms research. Fujita came for five years as a visiting research associate. A year later, in 1956, he returned, this time bringing his family along.

'Mr. Tornado'

It was fortunate Fujita came to the U.S. when he did. The U.S. Weather Bureau, as it was then known, had finally decided to attempt to forecast tornadoes – a sharp about-face from its previous stance that even saying the word "tornado" would cause public panic. With the newly realized need to verify and track tornadoes, reports of them began to increase rapidly in the 1950s. It was the perfect arrival for Fujita who, in his own words, "was fascinated by the power and the behavior of the tornado."

So much so, reporters dubbed him "Mr. Tornado." The weather phenomena were such a significant part of his legacy that he titled his autobiography, "Memoirs of an Effort to Unlock The Mystery of Severe Storms." The book, of course, is full of his analyses of various tornadoes.

Among these are the Palm Sunday tornadoes. On April 11, 1965, an outbreak of 36 tornadoes swept across the Midwest, killing 253 people in six states. Because one of the most effective ways for Fujita to study tornadoes after the fact was through their debris, he needed to get in and survey the damage before cleanup began. With such a wide area to study, Fujita decided to use a Cessna aircraft for an aerial survey.

What he found from the air was a series of spiral swirls along the tornadoes' paths. These marks had been noted after tornadoes for more than a decade but were widely believed to be scratches in the ground made by the tornado dragging heavy objects. With what he knew about wind, Fujita believed the swirls were actually the debris left behind where the wind had blown it.


He was right. Over the course of his career, high-quality aerial photos taken from low-flying aircraft over the damage swaths of more than 300 tornadoes revealed the existence of ground marks generated by swirling winds. The large swirls, like small hurricanes, blew objects around, he realized. The small swirls lifted objects off the ground, essentially sucking them up in the air. He named the phenomenon a "suction vortex."

As it turned out, Fujita introduced to the scientific world a number of new concepts, giving them names that are still widely used in meterology – among them, mesocyclones, wall clouds and collar clouds. The strong downward currents of air he identified during the Seburi-yama station analysis, the same phenomena that caused the starburst patterns of trees at Hiroshima, Nagasaki and in tornado damage zones, he termed "downbursts."


Richard Peterson, now a professor emeritus of atmospheric science at Texas Tech, earned his master's degree at the University of Chicago, where he learned from Fujita.

"He had the ability to conceptualize and name aspects of these phenomena that others overlooked," Peterson said. "His penchant for coining new terms was almost exasperating."

Fujita Scale

On May 11, 1970, two tornadoes hit Lubbock, ultimately killing 26 people. In the aftermath, Fujita traveled from Chicago to study the damage as he had with dozens of other storms. Flying over the city, Fujita took hundreds of images, from which he created his signature hand-drawn maps, plotting out the tornado's path of death and destruction.

Bringing together his knowledge of winds and tornado debris, Fujita in 1971 announced the Fujita Tornado Scale. The scale divided tornadoes into six categories of increasing severity, with accordingly higher wind speeds, based upon the damage they caused. The worse of the two Lubbock tornadoes, he ruled an F-5 – the most destructive possible.

The second of two tornadoes on the night of May 11, 1970, killed 26 people in Lubbock.

"Fujita set up the F-Scale, and the Lubbock tornado was one of the first, if not the first, test case for him," said Kishor Mehta, a Horn Professor of civil engineering who had arrived at Texas Tech in 1964.

Fujita's scale represented a breakthrough in understanding the devastating winds that accompany tornadoes, but faculty members in the Texas Tech College of Engineering disagreed with the wind speeds Fujita assigned to his categories.

Mehta and his colleagues – including James "Jim" McDonald, Joe Minor and Ernst Kiesling, the recently named the chairman of civil engineering department – began their own investigation.


"Fujita had a wind speed range for an F-5 that indicated the wind speed could be close to 300 miles per hour," Mehta said. "We worked on it, particularly myself, for almost a year and a half, on some of the specific structures from which I would be able to determine what wind speed it would take to cause that damage.

"We came to the conclusion that the maximum wind speed in the tornado was probably 250 miles per hour, rather than 320. So, that was one of the major conclusions from our study. The second item, which Joe Minor actually pursued, concluded that a lot of window glass damage to First National Bank at that time was due to roof gravel debris and not the wind."

Work goes on

Over the next two decades, Fujita continued to research wind phenomena and analyze severe storms, the most extensive being the Super Outbreak in April 1974. Within about 18 hours, 148 tornadoes killed 319 people across 13 states and one Canadian province – and Fujita meticulously mapped it out.


In its aftermath, the University of Chicago hosted a workshop, which Texas Tech's researchers attended.

"Some of us from Texas Tech stayed over after the workshop and had discussions with Dr. Fujita on the damages from the tornadoes of the Super Outbreak," Mehta said. "Dr. Fujita was a scientist as well as an artist; he produced sketches and maps that conveyed his ideas and results quickly. He and his team had developed maps of many significant tornadoes showing the direction of winds in tornadoes based on damages."

Texas Tech then held its own event, the Symposium on Tornadoes, in June 1976, and Fujita took an active role.

Fujita finally saw his first tornado in 1982.

"We had a panel session on wind speeds in tornadoes where Dr. Fujita and I had discussion with some agreement and some disagreement," Mehta said. "My observation and recollection of Dr. Fujita was that he listened to opposing views and was amenable to revise his thinking if he thought it appropriate."

After an unexplained airplane crash in 1975, Fujita hypothesized – and later proved – the existence of short-lived, highly localized downdrafts he called "microbursts." This finding led to the adoption of Doppler radar, which has significantly improved aviation safety in the decades since.

But for all his hours studying tornadoes in meticulous detail, Fujita never saw one with his own eyes until June 12, 1982 – when there were three. A photo taken immediately after shows him ecstatic.

Fujita's legacy

In 2000, 30 years after the Lubbock tornado, the faculty in the College of Engineering used the data they had collected to push for an update to the Fujita Scale. They hosted a forum with a committee of meteorologists and fellow engineers and, after a long process, presented the Enhanced Fujita Scale to the National Weather Service in 2004. After vetting, the National Weather Service implemented the new EF-scale in 2007.


The post-tornado investigations of the engineering faculty became the basis upon which Texas Tech's internationally renowned wind science program was founded. First called the Institute for Disaster Research, it later was renamed the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center (WiSE) and, eventually, the National Wind Institute.

Fujita remained at the University of Chicago until his retirement in 1990. His health then declined steadily until his death on Nov. 19, 1998.

Fujita remained at the University of Chicago, still studying severe weather, until his retirement in 1990.

"The legacy of Ted Fujita in the history of meteorology is secure," Peterson said. "In part this follows from the fact that there is a concept that bears his name, the Fujita scale – notwithstanding the subsequent refinement. Fujita also will be remembered for his contributions to the understanding of the nature of severe thunderstorms, microbursts and tornadoes."

In addition to losing Fujita, the world almost lost the treasure trove that was his collection of photographs, maps and writings from a nearly 50-year career.

"The University of Chicago apparently had no interest in preserving the materials," Peterson said. "Had it not been for Fujita's son knowing of his father's research association with Texas Tech, everything may have ended up in Japan or – at worst – trashed."

Kazuya Fujita donated the copious materials accumulated over the course of his father's career to the Texas Tech Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library. The Fujita collection now comprises 109 boxes of published and unpublished manuscripts, charts, graphs, maps, photographs and negatives, slides and more.

Accompanied by April MacDowell from WiSE, Peterson personally traveled to Chicago to gather the materials and bring them to Lubbock.

"The presence of the Fujita archives at Texas Tech will not only attract future researchers in the history of meteorology but will incline others to contribute their papers to the site," he said. "This will not only contribute to the preservation of materials in a centralized location but will enhance the standing of Texas Tech and the Southwest Collection."