Luke Howard (1772-1864)

Luke Howard was born November 28th, 1772 in London. Howard was never a trained meteorologist or scientist, but he was a real weather enthusiast with a lifelong interest in meteorology. For more than 30 years he maintained a record of accurate thermometer and barometer readings and visual observations. Howard was an amateur meteorologist and the man whom we must credit with nothing less than being the father of our modern cloud classification system.

The beginning of the Nineteenth Century was characterised, by significant scientific milestones and it was the time when scientists started to sort and classify their findings and observations. The Swedish taxonomist Carl von Linne (Linneaus) published his classification scheme for plants and animals, inspiring other scientists and naturalists to develop similar classifications for other fields.

Clouds were simply described by their colour or form, often as the farmers or sailors saw them, such as dark, white, woolly, buttermilk or mackerel skies. They were believed to be too changeable and short-lived to be classified. Then in 1802 there were even two cloud classification schemes independently developed. Jean Baptiste Lamarck of France was the first one to publish his scheme, proposing five main types of clouds. However, his scheme was not really accepted by the international scientific community, maybe because it was a little bit too vague in general and/or for using French names rather than Latin, the language of science.

Howard published his classification only a little later using Latin names (as Linneaus had done) and based on three simple categories (cirrus, cumulus and stratus), which we still use today. This paper was presented to the Askesian society, under the title 'On the Modifications of Clouds'. In his later work 'The Climate of London' he also introduced the term nimbus and terms for intermediate or altered clouds, such as cumulo-stratus (stratocumulus) or cirrocumulus.

Howards cloud classification system quickly gained wide acceptance among European scientists and influenced many painters, poets and philosophers of the Romantic Era, notably Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Joseph M. W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich. In fact, Howard sketched many cloud forms in watercolours himself.

Luke Howard was also the first to publish on the city climate, discovering the effects of the urban heat island and city fog (better known as smog). Howard's 'Seven Lectures in Meteorology' (1837) were published as the first meteorological textbook. Luke Howard died on March 21, 1864 in London.

Related features:
Mackerel sky
Cloud types
Cloud Classification.