STEM History:

Ted Fujita  


Japanese American Meteorologist whose research primarily focused on severe weather.

Birth/Death Dates

October 23, 1920 – November 19, 1998


Ted Fujita’s research on severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, and typhoons at the University of Chicago was revolutionary. He is best known for creating the Fujita scale of tornado intensity and damage, but he also discovered downbursts and microbursts and was an instrumental figure in advancing modern understanding of many severe weather phenomena and how they affect people and communities, primarily through his work exploring the relationship between wind speed and damage.

Educational Background

  • B.S., Kyushu Institute of Technology, 1943
  • D.Sc., University of Tokyo, 1950

Struggles this Innovator Overcame

In 1975, Fujita was asked to investigate the cause of a plane crash at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport that killed 122 people. After a thorough investigation, Fujita suspected the possibility that a phenomenon called a downburst — a sudden gust of wind out of a storm that could take the lift right out of a plane’s wings — occurred in this case and others. Fujita speculated that if the gust was small enough, what he termed a “microburst,” it might not be picked up by weather monitors at the airport.

His fellow meteorologists were skeptical and openly disputed this idea at conferences and in articles. Undeterred, Fujita set out on a years-long quest to catch a microburst on radar and eventually collected indisputable evidence of the phenomenon. This led to mandatory preflight checks for wind shear.

Problems this Innovator Solved

Fujita proved the meteorological phenomenon of the downburst, which can pose a severe danger to aircraft.

How this inventor changed the world (or at least their corner of it)

Fujita is recognized as the discoverer of downbursts and microbursts. He developed the Fujita scale, which differentiates tornado intensity and links tornado damage with wind speed. In addition to creating the Fujita scale, Fujita pioneered the development of tornado overflight and damage survey techniques, which he used to study and map the paths of the tornado that hit Lubbock, Texas, on May 11, 1970.

Fujita was also instrumental in developing the concept of multiple vortex tornadoes, which feature numerous small funnels (suction vortices) rotating within a larger parent cloud. His work established that, far from being rare events as was previously believed, most powerful tornadoes were composed of multiple vortices. He also advanced the concept of mini-swirls in intensifying tropical cyclones.

Lasting changes from this inventor’s work or how they trailblazed

Fujita’s best-known contributions were in tornado research. He was often called “Mr. Tornado” by his associates and the media. Fujita’s research eventually led to a tornado classification scale that bears his name to this day. The Fujita scale categorizes the strength of tornadoes on a scale of F0 to F5 based on wind speeds and ensuing damage. The work he accomplished half a century ago saved thousands of lives and shaped the field of meteorology.