Luke Howard: namer of the clouds


Luke Howard

Luke Howard (1772–1864) was the British pharmaceutical chemist who in 1802 proposed the Latin names for clouds used throughout the world today. His father, Robert, was a London tinsmith who prospered as a reputable mass-producer of the then newly invented Argand oil lamp. The Howards were Quakers,1 and the family fortune from lamp sales was used to support the work of the British and Foreign Bible Society,2 of which Robert was one of the founding Committee Members.3

Learning Latin, observing clouds

From age 8, Luke attended a Quaker boarding school in which the curriculum involved long hours of rote-learning Latin grammar.4 This was relieved for Luke by his spending long hours gazing out of the windows of his lodgings at the constantly changing cloud formations, which fascinated his young mind.

After a teenage apprenticeship with a pharmacist, Luke briefly ran his own pharmacy business in London, and then became manager of fellow-Quaker William Allen’s laboratory that manufactured pharmaceutical chemicals in Plaistow, Essex. He married Mariabella Eliot in 1796, and once again had time to enjoy observing the movement of clouds, now from the unimpeded vantage point of the upper storey windows of his home in Essex.

At that time, people thought that clouds were too transient to be analysed, although their colours were used in a weather proverb:

Red sky at night, shepherds’ delight;
Red sky in the morning, shepherds’ warning.

Sages have been aware of this for at least 2,000 years. The Bible records that Jesus said to the Pharisees and Sadducees who did not believe in Him:

“When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.’
And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:2–3).5

Using Latin to name the clouds

In 1796, William Allen, a fellow Quaker, founded a discussion club for scientific thinkers called the Askesian Society (from the Greek askesis meaning ‘exercise’ or ‘training’).6 In December 1802, 30-year-old Luke Howard presented a paper to this group titled “On the Modifications of Clouds” (‘modifications’ meaning ‘classification’).

Howard proposed that there were three basic or generic families of clouds into which every cloud could be categorized. To these he gave the Latin names cirrus (meaning ‘fibre’ or ‘hair’), cumulus (meaning ‘heap’ or ‘pile’), and stratus (meaning ‘layer’ or ‘sheet’). These names could be combined to describe intermediate and compound modifications, such as cirrostratus and stratocumulus, in order to accommodate the regular transitions occurring between the cloud types.

He was not the first to attempt a classification of clouds—earlier that same year French naturalist and evolutionist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) had proposed that clouds could be graded by their altitude. However, this failed to gain universal popularity, probably because he used French words not readily embraced or understood by researchers in other countries.

Clouds of course are a worldwide phenomenon, and one of the great benefits of Howard’s scheme, and reason for its worldwide adoption, was that he used the then universal language of science, Latin. He also adapted the binomial classification principle of Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) and applied it to the naming of clouds. This gave names to the main cloud phenomena, and also supplied the intermediate form names for the transitions between clouds. See Carl Linnaeus.

One of those present at Howard’s Askesian Society lecture was Alexander Tilloch, founder in 1798 of the general scientific monthly Philosophical Magazine. Its stated purpose was to “diffuse Philosophical Knowledge among every Class of Society, and to give the Public as early an Account as possible of every thing new or curious in the scientific World,” and was then “the best-known scientific publication in Britain”.7 Tilloch grasped Howard’s hand and boomed at him: “Well done; why don’t you come and see me tomorrow? I think the Magazine can find some room for your clouds in a coming edition.”8

Following Tilloch’s instructions to expand and rearrange the sections, and have the drawings clarified and engraved, Howard enlarged his original few pages of handwritten notes into nearly 15,000 words of scientific essay. Serialized over three editions of the Philosophical Magazine in July, September, and October 1803,9 it then became a widely circulated 32-page pamphlet, as well as being translated into French and German.

Howard’s seven cloud classifications

Here is Howard’s cloud classification summary, as it appeared in the Philosophical magazine.10

  1. Cirrus. Def. Nubes cirrata, tenuissima, quae undique crescat.
    Parallel, flexuous, or diverging fibres, extensible in any or in all directions.

  2. Cumulus. Def. Nubes cumulata, densa, sursum crescens.  
    Convex or conical heaps, increasing upward from a horizontal base.

  3. Stratus. Def. nubes strata, aquae modo expansa, deorsum crescens.
    A widely extended continuous, horizontal sheet, increasing from below upward.

  4. The intermediate Modifications which require to be noticed are:

  5. Cirro-cumulus. Def. Nubeculae densiores subrotundae et quasi in agmine appositae.
    Small, well defined roundish masses, in close horizontal arrangement or contact.

  6. Cirro-stratus. Def. Nubes extenuata sub-concava vel undulata. Nubeculae hujus modi appositae.
    Horizontal or slightly inclined masses attenuated towards a part or the whole of their circumference, bent downward, or undulated, separate, or in groups consisting of small clouds having these characters.

  7. The compound Modifications are:

  8. Cumulo-stratus. Def. Nubes densa, basim planam undique supercrescens, vel cujus moles longinqua videtur partim plana partim cumulata.
    The Cirro-stratus blended with the Cumulus, and either appearing intermixed with the heaps of the latter or superadding a wide-spread structure to its base.

  9. Cumulo-cirro-stratus vel [or] Nimbus.11 Def. Nubes vel nubium congeries [superné cirrata] pluviam effundens.
    A cloud or system of clouds from which rain is pouring. It is a horizontal sheet, above which the Cirrus spreads, while the Cumulus enters it laterally and from beneath.

Effect on German writer Goethe

The German translation of Howard’s essay so impressed famous German poet and scientist Johann von Goethe that he wrote four stanzas on Howard’s cloud types, titled Cirrus, Cumulus, Stratus, and Nimbus. These he printed in Germany in 1817, and then again with added introductory verses, as Howards Ehrengedächtnis (In Honour of Howard) in 1821. Here is the verse that refers to Howard, with English linguist John Bowring’s translation.12

Er aber, Howard, gibt mit reinem Sinn
Uns neuer Lehre herrlichsten Gewinn.
Was sich nicht halten, nicht erreichen läßt,
Er faßt es an, er hält zuerst es fest;
Bestimmt das Unbestimmte, schränkt es ein,
Benennt es treffend!—Sei die Ehre dein! —
Wie Streife steigt, sich ballt, zerflattert, fällt,
Erinnre dankbar deiner sich die Welt.

But Howard gives us with his clearer mind
The gain of lessons new to all mankind;
That which no hand can reach, no hand can clasp,
He first has gain’d, first held with mental grasp.
Defin’d the doubtful, fix’d its limit-line,
And named it fitly.—Be the honour thine!
As clouds ascend, are folded, scatter, fall,
Let the world think of thee who taught it all.

Effect on English painter Constable

John Constable’s paintings are famous for the realism of his clouds, as in his The Lock (1824). It was auctioned for £22,441,250 at Christie’s in London on 3 July 2012. Click to enlarge.

The English landscape painter John Constable (1776–1837) was undoubtedly aware of Howard’s treatise on clouds. He regarded his own profession to be ‘scientific as well as poetic,’ and sought to apply ‘the new science of meteorology’ to his paintings. He did this so effectively that Swiss painter and writer on art Henry Fuesli (1741–1825) once complained that “the landscapes of Constable made him want to call for his overcoat and his umbrella.”13

Other Howard publications included the first book on English urban climatology, his 700-page The Climate of London (1818 & 1820), for which he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In this he was the first to suggest that built environments affect weather and climate, and to identify the now familiar Urban Heat Island effect—that a city’s night-time temperature remains higher than the surrounding areas.4

Luke Howard died on 21 March 1864, aged 91, as his son read from Genesis 9:12–15,

“And God said, ‘This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant.’”14

Meteorology terminology today

The ten major cloud formations at their relevant altitudes, as per the Met office, London. © British Crown copyright, Met Office. Used with permission. Click to enlarge.

In the years that followed Howard’s death, other terminologies began to be used in various countries, causing confusion. Meteorologists Prof. Hugo Hildebrand Hildebrandsson (1838–1925) of the University Observatory of Uppsala, Sweden, and Ralph Abercromby (1842–1897) of the Royal Meteorological Society, England, built on Howard’s system. They set out to “umpire the entire range of claimed classifications, whether new or established, and then pronounce, once and for all, on behalf of the world meteorological community, the final word on the permanent language of clouds.”15

They drew up a list of ten cloud types that updated Howard’s original classification (while keeping his long-familiar Latin names) that was published in the International Cloud Atlas of 1896.16 The 2017 edition is a website version for electronic access with “high resolution, colour, digital images contributed by cloud enthusiasts from all over the world.”17 Click here to access a chart to find what cloud you are looking at, from the new edition.

This edition maintains the ten basic cloud genera (primary cloud types) according to their altitude. “The ten genera are subdivided into ‘species’ which describe shape and internal structure, and ‘varieties’ which describe the transparency and arrangement of the clouds. In total there are about 100 combinations.”18 Additions for 2017 include five new special clouds that form from their own distinctive sources:

cataractagenitus from the spray of large waterfalls,
flammagenitus from the localized heat of wildfires,
silvagenitus from moisture in the air above forests,
homogenitus from human activity, e.g. condensation trails from aircraft exhausts,
homomutatus from homogenitus clouds which persist long enough to change into a different form.

Homogenitus clouds

Aircraft contrails (condensation trails) seen here behind an A340 Airbus, are formed when water vapour condenses and freezes around small particles (aerosols) that exist in engine exhaust. They may last for only a few seconds or minutes, or may persist for hours and spread widely to resemble natural cirrus or altocumulus clouds.

Clouds—God’s method of providing us with drinkable water

Water is essential for life. Hence the critical search by evolutionists for water on moons in our solar system and on planets beyond it. As recorded in Genesis chapter 1, God created our Earth originally totally covered by water, and then on Day 3 of Creation Week He caused the land to appear. Now, about 96.5% of Earth’s water is contained in the oceans, which cover 71% of Earth’s surface. Ocean water contains about 3.5% salt (mostly sodium chloride), and as such is unsuitable for humans or land animals to drink.

Fresh water gets to the land from the sea by a process that begins with the evaporation of water vapour from the sea into the air by the sun. As this rises, it condenses to form clouds made up of liquid water droplets or ice crystals depending on their height and the temperature of the surrounding air. Winds blow these clouds over the land. These water droplets finally coalesce to become heavy enough to overcome air resistance and to descend to Earth as drinkable rainwater.

Of all the life-sustaining properties of water, the most amazing is the fact that it expands as it freezes. Cooled water contracts normally until it reaches 4°C (39.2°F); after that, it expands slightly until it reaches the freezing point, and then when it freezes it expands by approximately 9%. Ice is thus less dense than liquid water, so it floats and the warmer water stays below it. This prevents the oceans from freezing solid and is crucial for the survival of fish and other sea-life in polar regions because they can live in the warmer water underneath the ice.


Published: 5 September 2017

References and notes

  1. Quakers are a Protestant church group formed in England in the mid-17th century, stressing the need for every person to have a direct relationship with God through Jesus Christ, acquired through prayer, reading, and studying the Bible, without the need for an ordained priesthood, based on the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9). Their name comes from Isaiah 66:2. Quakers founded financial institutions including Barclays, Lloyds, and Friends Provident; confectionary companies such as Cadbury’s, Rowntree’s, and Fry’s; and were involved in the abolition of slavery, pacifist movements, prison reform, and social justice projects. Return to text.
  2. Hamblyn, R., The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies, p. 44, Picador, London, 2001. Return to text.
  3. Canton W., A History of the British and Foreign Bible Society, John Murray, London, p. 16, Vol. 1, p. 16, 1904. Return to text.
  4. Howard Luke, Encyclopedia.com. Return to text.
  5. For the scientific explanation for why this works, see Oard, M., The New Weather Book, p. 28, Master Books, 2015. Return to text.
  6. Under the 17th century English Corporation and Test Acts, Quakers, being Dissenters (i.e. separated from the established Church of England), were barred from attending English grammar schools and Oxford or Cambridge Universities, so they formed their own schools and science clubs throughout England. The Askesian Society was one of many such responses to this restriction. (See Hamlyn, R., ref. 2, p. 72.) Return to text.
  7. Ref. 2, pp. 115, 117. Return to text.
  8. Ref. 2, p. 37. Return to text.
  9. Ref. 2, pp. 118, 119, 142. Return to text.
  10. Now titled: “On the Modifications of Clouds, and on the Principles of their Production, Suspension, and Destruction; Being the Substance of an Essay read before the Askesian Society in the Session 1802–3. By Luke Howard, Esq.” (Ref. 2, pp. 124–126.) Return to text.
  11. Note Howard’s addition of the Latin word ‘nimbus’ meaning ‘rainstorm’. Cumulonimbus clouds can grow up to 10 km high, at which height they may have a flat anvil-like top caused by high winds (wind-shear). They are associated with heavy rain, snow, and hail, and can produce lightning and tornadoes. Return to text.
  12. Ref. 2, pp. 210–214; both German and English versions were published in the July 1821 issue of London Magazine. Return to text.
  13. Ref. 2, pp. 229, 230. Return to text.
  14. Ref. 2, p. 239. Return to text.
  15. Ref. 2, pp. 241–42. Return to text.
  16. By the International Meteorological Committee, predecessor to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which became the specialized agency of the United Nations for meteorology and related sciences in 1950, and has 191 Member States and Territories. Return to text.
  17. Preface to the 2017 edition, International Cloud Atlas, World Meteorological Organization. Return to text.
  18. New International Cloud Atlas: 19th century tradition, 21st century technology, World Meteorological Organization, 22 March 2017. Return to text.