Our Cloud Names Come From a 1700s Amateur Meteorologist

Luke Howard’s nomenclature inspired writers as well as scientists

A cumulonimbus cloud formation, AKA a thunderstorm. Flickr/NOAA

The wispy, white ones like pulled cotton candy are called “cirrus.” The thundery ones that look like piled scoops of dark ice cream  are “cumulonimbus.” Clouds come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and Luke Howard, born in London on this day in 1772, named them all.

Howard was the eldest child of a successful businessman, according to the Royal Meteorological Society. He trained as a chemist before opening his own business selling pharmaceuticals. “His real interest, though, was in the budding field of meteorology.”

People have been studying the weather for thousands of years. “Around 340 B.C., the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote Meteorologica, a philosophical treatise that included theories about the formation of rain, clouds, hail, wind, thunder, lightning, and hurricanes,” writes NASA. The modern study of meteorology dates back to the 1400s and by the time Howard came along, evaluating and even predicting the weather had become fairly run-of-the-mill. However, there was no single accepted vocabulary for talking about cloud types.

Howard’s work, “Essay on the modifications of clouds” started the project of creating that vocabulary. Published in 1803, its suggested nomenclatures were “universally adopted by scientific men, and, indeed, by all writers,” according to the introduction to its third edition, published in 1865.

In that essay, Howard wrote that it was observation of “the countenance of the sky, and of its connexion [sic] with the present and ensuing phenomena, that constitutes the ancient and popular Meteorology.” Clouds were obviously an important part of that, he wrote, before proposing a naming system and describing each type of cloud.

Although this was far from his only meteorological writing, it probably had the most far-reaching effects, for literature as well as for meteorology. Writers, after all, are known for having their heads in the clouds.  As Maria Popova writes for Brain Pickings, literary writings on the clouds date as far back as Meteorologica, which was a work of art as well as science. And Howard’s classification system was “equal parts poetic and practical,” she writes: It caught the eyes of the naturalistic writers of the early 1800s.

With his earnest enthusiasm for organizing the skies and imposing human order upon their ancient mystery, Howard rather unexpectedly captured the popular imagination — half a century before the telegraph became the first widespread medium of instant communication and long before contemporary social media, his essay, so to speak, went viral: Ardently discussed and passed hand to hand across the scientific and Quaker communities at a speed unprecedented in that era, it soon found its way to the prestigious journal Annual Review.

The German poet Goethe was among those captivated by the new cloud names and went on to write “a series of short musical poems, one for each of the major classes of clouds,” she writes. And he wasn’t the only one: Writers and scientists ever since have been inspired by Howard’s systemic approach to the skies.

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