Essay On The Modification Of Clouds Luke Howard

Luke Howard, FRS (28 November 1772 – 21 March 1864) was a British manufacturing chemist and an amateurmeteorologist with broad interests in science.[1] His lasting contribution to science is a nomenclature system for clouds, which he proposed in an 1802 presentation to the Askesian Society.[2]


He was born in London, the son of Robert Howard, a lamp manufacturer, and educated at the Quaker school in Burford, Oxfordshire. He was a Quaker, later converting to the Plymouth Brethren, and became a pharmacist by profession. After serving an apprenticeship with a pharmacist in Stockport, Cheshire he set up his own pharmacy in Fleet Street in 1793. In approximately the year 1797 he then went into partnership with William Allen to form the pharmaceutical company of Allen and Howard in London. A factory was opened on the marshes at Plaistow, to the east of London. The partnership was dissolved in 1807 and the company eventually (1856) became Howards and Sons.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1821.[3] He spent the years 1824 to 1852 in Ackworth, Yorkshire.

He died in Tottenham, London. He had married Mariabella Eliott (1769–1852); they had several children including John Eliot Howard, FRS, chemist and botanist.

Scientific work[edit]

Luke Howard has been called "the father of meteorology" because of his comprehensive recordings of weather in the London area from 1801 to 1841 and his writings, which transformed the science of meteorology.[4] Howard had an earlier interest in botany, presenting a paper 'Account of a Microscopical Investigation of several Species of Pollen, ...' that was published in the Linnean Society's Transactions for 1802,[5] but wrote to Goethe that his passion was for meteorology.[6] In his late twenties, he wrote the Essay on the Modification of Clouds, which was published in 1803.[7] He named the three principal categories of clouds – cumulus, stratus, and cirrus, as well as a series of intermediate and compound modifications, such as cirrostratus and cirrocumulus, in order to accommodate the transitions occurring between the forms. He identified the importance of clouds in meteorology:

Clouds are subject to certain distinct modifications, produced by the general causes which affect all the variations of the atmosphere; they are commonly as good visible indicators of the operation of these causes, as is the countenance of the state of a person's mind or body.[8]

Howard was not the first to attempt a classification of clouds—Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) had earlier proposed a list of descriptive terms in French—but the success of Howard's system was due to his use of universal Latin, as well as to his emphasis on the mutability of clouds. By applying Linnean principles of natural history classification to phenomena as short-lived as clouds, Howard arrived at an elegant solution to the problem of naming transitional forms in nature.

In addition to his seminal work on clouds, Howard contributed numerous papers on other meteorological topics, although with less success. He was also a pioneer in urban climate studies, publishing The Climate of London in 1818–20, which contained continuous daily observations of wind direction, atmospheric pressure, maximum temperature, and rainfall;[9] it also demolished James Hutton's theory of rain, though without suggesting a definitive alternative.[10] In it, he was first to note the heat island effect, showing that temperatures in London, compared to those simultaneously measured in the surrounding countryside, were 3.7° warmer at night, and cooler during the day, and to attribute the concentration of smog (which he called 'city fog') to this phenomenon.[11] For Rees's Cyclopædia he contributed articles on Meteorology, but the titles are not known.


Howard's cloud classification had a major influence on the arts as well as on science. His classification of clouds was later adopted by Ralph Abercromby and Hugo Hildebrand Hildebrandsson, who developed and popularised the system laid out by Howard.[12] Abercromby noted in a paper on the naming of clouds that to the Quaker Howard "any name connected with heathen mythology was specially distasteful".[13] Howard corresponded with Goethe, who wrote a series of poems in gratitude to him, including the lines:

But Howard gives us with his clear mind
The gain of lessons new to all mankind;
That which no hand can reach, no hand can clasp
He first has gained, first held with mental grasp.[10]

Howard also inspired Shelley's poem "The Cloud" and informed John Constable's paintings and studies of skies[14] and the writings and art of John Ruskin, who used Howard's cloud classification in his criticisms of landscape paintings in Modern Painters.[15]

Howard appears in a novel by French writer Stéphane Audeguy titled, La théorie des nuages, winner of the 2005 Prix de l'Académie. Published in the US by Harcourt in 2007 as The Theory of Clouds.[16]

There is an English Heritageblue plaque[17] to Howard at 7 Bruce Grove, Tottenham (the house in which he died, aged 91), on which he is described simply as "Namer of Clouds". The church in Tottenham that he had much involvement with (alongside his son, John Eliot Howard), Brooks Street Meeting House (now Brook Street Chapel) can still be found close to the house, on Tottenham High Road.

His daughter Rachel founded a school in Ackworth, which also contains a Plymouth Brethren burial ground.


  1. ^"Luke Howard, English chemist and meteoroligist, early 19th century". Retrieved 23 September 2008. 
  2. ^Hamblyn, Richard (February 28, 2011). The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies. Pan Macmillan. p. 62. ISBN 9780330537308. 
  3. ^"Library and Archive Catalogue". Royal Society. Retrieved 18 October 2010. [permanent dead link]
  4. ^Thornes, John. E., John Constable's Skies, The University of Birmingham Press, 1999, ISBN 1-902459-02-4, page 189.
  5. ^"Account of a microscopical investigation of several species of pollen, with remarks and questions on the structure and use of that part of vegetables" Transactions of the Linnean Society of London. Volume 6
  6. ^ Hodgkin, Thomas (1891). "Howard, Luke (1772-1864)". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography. 28. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 
  7. ^Thornes 1999: 189.
  8. ^Thornes 1999: 36.
  9. ^Thornes 1999: 203.
  10. ^ abThornes 1999: 190.
  11. ^Landsberg, Helmut Erich (1981). The urban climate. Academic Press, New York, p.3.
  12. ^telegraphic codes and message practice, 1870–1945: telegraphy in meteorologyciting Richard Hamblyn's The Invention of Clouds : How an amateur meteorologist forged the language of the skies (New York 2001)
  13. ^Abercromby, Ralph (1888). Cloud-Land in Folk-Lore and in Science. 6. The Folk-Lore Journal. p. 96. 
  14. ^Thornes 1999: 52.
  15. ^Thornes 1999: 187.
  16. ^Adudeguy, S, The Theory of Clouds, Harcourt Books 2007, "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 4 July 2008. Retrieved 4 July 2008. 
  17. ^Plaque #190 on Open Plaques.


  • Hamblyn, Richard, The Invention of Clouds, London, Picador, 2001, ISBN 978-0-330-39195-5
  • Thornes, John.E., John Constable's Skies, The University of Birmingham Press, 1999, ISBN 1-902459-02-4.
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

External links[edit]

English Heritage Blue plaque – 7 Bruce Grove, Tottenham, London

The clouds in many 19th-century European paintings look drastically different than those in the 18th century. There are layers to their texture, with whisps of cirrus clouds flying over billowing cumulus, and stratus hovering low. Clouds weren’t classified by type until 1802, and their subsequent study influenced artists from John Constable to J. M. W. Turner.

Luke Howard, a pharmacist by profession and an amateur cloud enthusiast, was born in London in 1772. By 1802, when he presented his Essay on the Modification of Clouds to the Askesian Society, he’d spent years monitoring the skies over his home city, and sketching their changing shapes to record their patterns. The entire essay is available at the Internet Archive, and Howard introduces the necessity of categorizing the clouds directly:

In order to enable the Meteorologist to apply the key of Analysis to the experience of others, as well as to record his own with brevity and precision, it may perhaps be allowable to introduce a Methodical nomenclature, applicable to the various forms of suspended water, or, in other words, to the Modifications of Cloud.

Others had attempted cloud classification prior to Howard, but their systems didn’t catch on. It seems hard to believe with most areas of natural study being thoroughly examined before 1802, and clouds always visible ahead, that no one had instituted a system for their forms. However clouds were mostly treated as individuals, wild and untamed by pattern.

Howard named them in three Latin terms: cirrus (“a curl of hair”); cumulus (“a heap”); and stratus (“layer”). Now 150 years after Howard’s death in 1864, the Science Museum in London exhibits some of his research tools and art in a small display. Some of his watercolors were created in collaboration with artist Edward Kennion, who likely refined the self-taught Howard’s sketches and paintings. Rachel Boon writes in a post for the Science Museum blog that it’s “been argued by historians of art and science that Howard’s contemporary John Constable was influenced by this new meteorological theory and it is visible in his powerful landscapes. Not only did Howard’s images inspire great art but so did his published essays which stimulated the imaginations of the poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Percy Shelly.”

In another post for the Science Museum, Victoria Carroll notes that not all artists were enthused by these boundaries. Caspar David Friedrich, who certainly appreciated an ominous cloudscape, “was concerned that ‘to force the free and airy clouds into a rigid order and classification’ would damage their expressive potential and even ‘undermine the whole foundation of landscape painting.'”

Friedrich mostly stuck to ethereal suggestions of clouds, not that different from the century before, but Constable, who did his own studies, and others like J.M.W. Turner, instilled their landscapes with dynamic texture and warring shapes that responded to this new science. Clouds were no longer just fluffy afterthoughts, they were temperamental and majestic, with all the the complexity of nature.

Howard’s former home at Number 7 Bruce Grove in Tottenham, London, where he died at the age of 91, has unfortunately fallen in to disrepair, with a grassroots effort underway to protect it through the Tottenham Clouds group and Tottenham Civic Society. Yet on its brick façade a prominent blue plaque still proudly announces: “Namer of Clouds, lived and died here.”

The Science Museum in London is on Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London.

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