When we look at a cloudy sky today, we take for granted the common cloud names: stratus, cirrus, and cumulus. These names, and the concept of devising a unique cloud classification nomenclature, however, are only about two centuries old. We owe much of our current system of cloud classification to the insight of one man, a British businessman and amateur meteorologist Luke Howard.
The story of Luke Howard and his pioneering work in meteorology has not been well known until recently. When I first researched my article on Howard for The Weather Doctor website, only John Day's Cloudman site held more than a paragraph on Howard's accomplishments. But today, on the eve of the bicentennial of Howard's historic paper The Modification of Clouds, Richard Hamblyn has written the definitive Howard biography: The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies.
The Invention of Clouds is, however, more than a basic biography of Howard, the man. It is a work that easily could have been subtitled: "The Life and Times of Luke Howard," for it places Howard and his conception of a cloud classification scheme within the context of an era ripe with emerging scientific concepts.
Hamblyn deftly weaves the details of Howard's personal life into the context of his work on cloud classification. He grounds the threads on the cataclysmic weather patterns and eye- catching skies produced by major volcanic eruptions that had captured Howard's attention two decades earlier. He then connects them to the relevant concepts floating through the scientific, intellectual and social firmament of the period. Along the way, threads of influence on Howard and his system connect with men more well-known than Howard, particularly Seneca and Aristotle, Franklin and Napoleon, Goethe and Constable, Beaufort and Shelley, Dalton and Hooke.
Hamblyn tells the story well, seasoning the narrative with well-turned verses from contemporary poets such as Goethe, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley. And Hamblyn pens a few memorable phrases of his own to spice the prose. For example:
"Weather writes, erases, and rewrites itself upon the sky with the endless fluidity of language..."and
"Clouds themselves, by their very nature, are self-ruining and fragmentary. They flee in haste over the visible horizons to their quickly forgotten denouements. Every cloud is a small catastrophe, a world of vapour that dies before our eyes."
The Invention of Clouds is printed in a pleasing landscape orientation that keeps the reader subconsciously reminded of the skies and cloudscapes that Howard studied. When I first saw the format, I had hoped that many of Howard's watercolours of cloudscapes would be included in the book. That few were and that those presented were reproduced only in grayscale are my major disappointments with the book. I would also have liked more discussion of Howard's other meteorological achievements, particularly his groundbreaking role in urban climatology.
In The Invention of Clouds, Richard Hamblyn has produced a well-written history of Luke Howard and his times, broad in scope and yet richly detailed. I hope the book brings the name of Luke Howard fully into the light warranted by his accomplishments that we take so for granted today. I give The Invention of Clouds by Richard Hamblyn my high recommendation as a must read to understand how the science of meteorology evolved.
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD
THE WEATHER DOCTOR
September 25, 2001