Cirrus, cumulus, and stratus clouds, <i>Philosophical Magazine</i>, 1803 (Linda Hall Library)

Cirrus, cumulus, and stratus clouds, Philosophical Magazine, 1803 (Linda Hall Library)

Luke Howard

NOVEMBER 28, 2018

Scientist of the Day - Luke Howard

Luke Howard, an English chemist and amateur meteorologist, was born Nov. 28, 1772. In 1796, he and a pharmacist friend in London founded the Askesian Society, a philosophical club where members could present papers for discussion and critique.  In December of 1802, Howard presented his own paper to the Society, "On the Modifications of Clouds, and on the Principles of their Production, Suspension, and Destruction".  In his presentation, Howard identified seven different cloud formations and discussed how one could use cloud types to forecast the weather.

He identified three basic types, arranged as fibers, heaps, or sheets, and named them: cirrus, cumulus, and stratus.  These forms often combined to form intermediate structures, which he called: cirro-stratus, cirro-cumulus, cumulo-stratus, and cumulo-cirro-stratus, or nimbus.  If they sound familiar, it is because at one stroke Howard distinguished and coined the names for cloud formations that we still use today.

In 1803, Howard published his paper in two parts in the Philosophical Magazine; the second part consisted of plates illustrating the cloud types with explanatory text.  Since these engravings are seldom reproduced, we do so here.  The cloud types are in the order in which we presented them: the three basic forms on the first plate, the three binary forms on the second plate, and the nimbus all by itself on the third plate.

Howard lived long enough (he died in 1864, age 91) to see his cloud terminology come into general use, and he was one of the founding members of the British Meteorological Society (later to become the Royal Meteorological Society) when it was formed in 1850.  Two hundred years after he delivered his paper, a blue plaque for Howard was unveiled in 2002 in Bruce Grove, Tottenham, where he spent his final years (fourth image).  His portrait is in the Royal Meteorological Society (fifth image).

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to