Born a few months after the Titanic sank, meteorologist Robert Simpson has seen firsthand some of the worst weather disasters in the nation's history.
After all, his several decades of service included seven years as director of the National Hurricane Center, where he stood watch over killer storms like Hurricane Camille in 1969 and Hurricane Agnes in 1972.
But now as he nears 100, it's clear that his biggest contribution may have been the hurricane wind scale that bears his name.
First released in the early 1970s, the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale - with its categories from 1 to 5 based on wind speed - has become a mainstay for the news media and the public whenever hurricanes threaten the coasts, and will again throughout this year's hurricane season.
"I was amazed at how well it was received," Simpson recalls when reached by phone at his apartment in Washington, D.C. Simpson co-created the scale with Herbert Saffir, a wind engineer colleague who died in 2007.
"I knew something of its kind was needed," he says, especially after the savage ferocity of Hurricane Camille, which hammered the Gulf Coast with 190-mph winds in 1969, killing hundreds.
"Camille caused so much damage and led to widespread concern over the whole nation," Simpson says.
He notes that meteorologists were then swamped for specific information during approaching hurricanes.
"It's hard to imagine modern hurricane warnings without a Saffir-Simpson ranking," says meteorologist Robert Henson, author of Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology. "There's something very powerful about a 1-to-5 rating system. It's intriguing that both tornadoes and hurricanes are ranked in this way, using scales developed around the same time."
The Fujita tornado intensity scale, developed by University of Chicago meteorologist Ted Fujita, ranks tornadoes from EF-1 to EF-5.
"I once heard the financial meltdown of 2008 described as a Category 5 storm," Henson says. "That tells you something about how deeply the Saffir-Simpson Scale has penetrated the consciousness of the American public."
Simpson, who will turn 100 years old this November, is still consulted occasionally about the scale. "I'm retired, except I attend meetings as I can," he says.
In April, Simpson presented a paper at the American Meteorology Society's Tropical Meteorology Meeting in Florida about the history of the scale.
"The brilliance of the Saffir-Simpson Scale is its simplicity," says senior scientist Greg Holland of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, adding that "it communicates information in a way that immediately involves the real level of risk."
At one time, the scale also included storm surge and barometric pressure values in addition to wind speed, but those have since been removed from the scale, says hurricane specialist James Franklin of the National Hurricane Center. Storm surge, he says, is tremendously variable and cannot be tied into wind speed.
"The Saffir-Simpson Scale has had enormous impact on communicating the hurricane threat over the years," Franklin says. "It is an incredibly efficient way to convey the danger from a hurricane's strongest winds."
Simpson first got interested in hurricanes at the age of 7, when one hit his hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1919.
As a young meteorologist with the U.S. Weather Bureau (the precursor to the National Weather Service), he flew his first flight into a hurricane in July 1945, only two years after the very first deliberate flight into a hurricane.
A long career in meteorology followed, with stops as director of the National Hurricane Research Project in the late 1950s and as director of the hurricane center from 1967 to 1974.
Simpson retired from the government in 1974 and established a private weather consulting firm with his wife, Joanne Simpson, who was the first woman to receive a doctorate in meteorology. Joanne died in 2010.
Holland marvels at Simpson's longevity and career: "It is quite simple," Holland says. "There is no living person who has had the same level of impact on meteorology, be it scientific, forecasting or communicating information."