June 28, 2004
The poetry of cloud classification

I continue to enjoy this book by the great Bill Bryson. Here is another snatch from it, about one of the key figures in the history of an activity I greatly admire:


The person most frequently identified as the father of modern meteorology was an English pharmacist named Luke Howard, who came to prominence at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Howard is chiefly remembered now for giving cloud types their names in 1803. …

Howard divided clouds into three groups: stratus for the layered clouds, cumulus for the fluffy ones (the word means heaped in Latin) and cirrus (meaning curled) for the high, thin feathery formations that generally presage colder weather. To these he subsequently added a fourth term, nimbus (from the Latin for cloud), for a rain cloud. The beauty of Howard's system was that the basic components could be freely recombined to describe every shape and size of passing cloud - stratocumulus, cirrostratus, cumulo-nimbus, and so on. It was an immediate hit, and not just in England. Goethe was so taken with the system that he dedicated four poems to Howard.

And how about this?

Howards system has been much added to over the years, so much so that the encyclopedic if little-read International Cloud Atlas runs to two volumes, but interestingly virtually all the post-Howard cloud types - mammatus, pileus, nebulosis, spissatus, floccus and mediocris are a sampling - have never caught on with anyone outside meteorology and not terribly much within it, I'm told. Incidentally, the first, much thinner edition of that atlas, produced in 1896, divided clouds into ten basic types, of which the plumpest and most cushiony-looking was number nine, cumulo-nimbus. That seems to have been the source of the expression 'to be on cloud nine'.

Howard is not forgotten.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:36 PM
Category: HistoryScience