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150 Years of NOAA Tide Tables

history of NOAA tide tables

NOAA and its predecessor agencies have published annual tide tables since the 1860s. These tables are used around the world for safe navigation. In October 2015, NOAA issued its 150th edition of Tide Tables. The information presented above is based on "Understanding Tides," by Steacy Dopp Hicks. | Download

NOAA Tide Tables: Explore how this product has evolved over the last 150 years.

Tide predictions are a major part of life for coastal communities in the United States. Commercial and recreational boaters who live, work, and recreate on the coast use tide predictions to safely navigate through high and low tides of the ocean every day. Many coastal newspapers, fishing guides, and tourist publications contain tide and current predictions that originate from NOAA’s data.

Tide tables in the United States have evolved and grown over the past century and a half. The U.S. Coast Survey first published tide tables for locations on the East Coast in 1853 in its Appendix of the Annual Report of the Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey, which noted they were "not only laborious observations to collect, but still greater labor to compute...the results are not yet in condition to present as scientific data, but the rapid progress made in bringing them into that shape warrants the belief that they may soon be thus prepared, and in the meantime the tables presented...have a practical value which induces their publication."

It was not until December 1866 that Coast Survey began printing the tables as an independent publication. The first edition, for the year 1867, separated the predictions for the Atlantic coast and Pacific coast of the United States into two publications and gave only the daily high tides. Low tides were added in later years, as were tidal current predictions. By 1896, the tables included tide data for ports around the world through data exchanges with other countries.

Tide table printing continued for 100 years, but with the advent of the Internet in the mid-1990s, the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS) moved toward providing tide predictions exclusively online and on CDs. CO-OPS continued generating annual tide tables and tidal current predictions, but private publishers began printing and distributing hard-copies each year, as they still do to this day. Many third-party internet applications also use this data.

Through the Years: Changes in Computing Tide Tables

For the first generations of tide predictions and tide tables, oceanographers computed all of the tide predictions by auxiliary tables and curves constructed from the results of tide observations at the different ports. In 1882, computing became simpler with the advent of a mechanical tide predicting machine by American meteorologist William Ferrel and mathematician Rollin Harris of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.

From 1885 to 1965, Coast Survey and its successor agency, Coast and Geodetic Survey, used the Ferrel machine and a second generation Tide Prediction Machine No. 2 to compute tide data. The second machine, nicknamed "Old Brass Brains" — still rests in NOAA Headquarters today. Digital calculations of tide predictions began in 1966, once computers came along.

What began as a "laborious," but necessary task for NOAA’s predecessors more than 150 years ago led to a rich history of scientific discovery and ingenuity. Today, tide tables are published in four volumes: East Coast of North and South America (including Greenland); Central and Western Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean; West Coast of North and South America (including Hawaiian Islands); and Europe and West Coast of Africa (including the Mediterranean Sea). Instructions for obtaining printed copies of 2016 tide tables can be found online.