This bank ad explains the Weatherball’s color-coded system.
This bank ad explains the Weatherball’s color-coded system.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Getting the weather from a metal ball in the sky

Northwestern National Bank installed a 157-foot-tall Weatherball atop its building in downtown Minneapolis in 1949, making it the largest bank sign between Chicago and the West Coast.

January 5, 2018
Alyssa Bentz

Alyssa Bentz is a Wells Fargo historian.

If you’re trying to get a quick weather update today, you might look down at your phone. But if you were in Minneapolis between 1949 and 1984, you may have looked up — to the Northwestern National Bank Weatherball. The Weatherball was a metal ball affixed to a tower that rose above the Northwestern National Bank building in downtown Minneapolis. Covered in 1.25 miles of neon lights and standing 367 feet above street level, the Weatherball was the largest sign between Chicago and California. People could see it from 15 miles away.

Northwestern National Bank building with the Weatherball atop the 127-foot tall tower in 1949.
Northwestern National Bank building with the Weatherball atop the 127-foot tall tower in 1949.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

The Weatherball did more than light up the Minneapolis skyline; its lights would change color to match the U.S. Weather Bureau’s report for the day. It was the first in a series of weather reporting balls and beacons that dotted the skylines of cities across the U.S.

Every day a bank employee would call the U.S. Weather Bureau and use that information to set the color of the Weatherball; Walker Bank and Trust Company, today Wells Fargo, turned an abandoned radio tower into a weather beacon.
A bank employee called the U.S. Weather Bureau each day to determine the color to set the Weatherball, using this rotary phone to light the replica Weatherballs at the bank’s branches; Walker Bank and Trust Company, today Wells Fargo, was one of many banks to copy the Weatherball fad started by Northwestern National Bank. It turned an abandoned radio tower into a weather beacon and local Salt Lake City landmark in the 1950s. 
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

‘The first of its kind in the U.S.’

In the 1940s, animation, interactives, and countless miles of neon tubes created a competitive space for businesses looking to catch customers’ attention. Advertisers developed increasingly creative billboards and signs using the new, eye-catching art form. Northwestern National Bank, which merged with Wells Fargo in 1998, turned to designer Douglas Leigh to increase its visibility to customers.

The Weatherball sign outside the Northwestern National Bank branch in Rochester, Minnesota.
The Weatherball sign outside the Northwestern National Bank branch in Rochester, Minnesota.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Leigh is perhaps best known for creating some of the largest and most remembered advertisements in New York City’s Times Square. In 1941, he had the idea of placing a color-changing weather beacon on the Empire State Building, but plans fell through with energy conservation efforts during World War II. He designed some billboard ads that displayed weather reports during the 1940s, but his design of Northwestern National Bank’s Weatherball is reportedly the first of its kind in the U.S.

Northwestern National Bank’s Weatherball became part of people’s daily routines. As one man reported to the local newspaper in 1949, “While I can always turn to the paper or the radio to check what the weather is going to be, it is so much easier to look out the window and see the bank’s huge sign emblazoned in the sky.”

Mr. Weatherball takes a vacation in 1951 with a customer who used a Northwestern National Bank account to save for a trip to Jamaica; a coin saver booklet featuring “Mr. Weatherball.”
"Mr. Weatherball" takes a vacation in 1951 with a customer who used a Northwestern National Bank account to save for a trip to Jamaica; a coin saver booklet featuring Mr. Weatherball.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives.

It quickly became the symbol of Northwestern National Bank. It appeared on ads, commercials, and coin banks. Northwestern National Bank produced catchy jingles and ads to help customers remember the color-coded system. In 1950, the bank introduced its mascot, a miniaturized version of the tower and ball with a smile, named “Mr. Weatherball.” Smaller replicas of the Weatherball were established at the bank’s branches, bringing the weather and Northwestern National Bank name to more customers.

Commercials, like this one from 1969/1970, used catchy jingles to help popularize the Weatherball’s color‑coded weather report. (:34)

In 1982, a fire broke out next to the Northwestern National Bank building and quickly engulfed the building. The Weatherball survived but was turned off following the fire. It was removed in 1984, after the bank moved operations out of the building and changed its name and image. Today the legacy of the Weatherball continues, thanks to those who still hum the Weatherball jingle and share its story.

Weatherball featured on “Thanksgiving Day Fire” T-shirts; a coin bank in the shape of the Weatherball.
“Thanksgiving Day Fire” T-shirts featuring the Weatherball; a coin bank in the shape of the Weatherball.
Photo Credit: Rob Prideaux and Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
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