The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies by Richard Hamblyn (2001)
I recently read The Invention of Clouds by Richard Hamblyn, who also wrote Terra (which I reviewed some years ago). The present volume focuses on the Quaker pharmacist Luke Howard, who produced a taxonomy of clouds in 1802. Essentially the same classification is still used today (but not, as Hamblyn points out, without considerable debate during the 1800s):
The main types of cloud (image: Christopher M. Klaus, Argonne National Laboratory)
Although the focus is on Howard’s work and life, Hamblyn in fact provides a brief history of meteorology (or at least of the study of clouds), and there is a chapter on the Beaufort scale. Contemporary literature referred to includes:
- Luke Howard, Essay on the Modifications of Clouds, 1803 (much of this is quoted by Hamblyn)
- Luke Howard, The Climate of London, 2nd edition, Volume 1, 1833 (these detailed observations by Howard are still of modern interest, and the hyperlink points to a modern edition from the International Association for Urban Climate)
- Abraham Rees, The Cyclopædia; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, Volume 8, 1819 (the article on clouds was written by Howard)
- John Dalton, Meteorological Observations and Essays, 1793
- Societas Meteorologica Palatina, Ephemerides, 1789
- Bram Stoker, Dracula, 1897 (an early use of the Beaufort scale: “The wind was then blowing from the south-west in the mild degree which in barometrical language is ranked ‘No. 2: light breeze.’”)
- Hugo Hildebrand Hildebrandsson, Albert Riggenbach, and Léon Teisserenc de Bort, International cloud-atlas, 1896 (illustrated in colour)
- World Meteorological Organization, International Cloud Atlas, 2017 (the latest version, online, containing a nice identification flowchart)
Google Ngrams plot for three of the cloud types (with and without hyphens). The words “cirrostratus” and “cirrocumulus” first appear in reprintings of Howard’s pioneering essay, while the word “cumulonimbus” is introduced around 1887. There is a renewed spike of interest in cloud types beginning in the early 1940’s.
The Invention of Clouds also has some interesting comments on clouds in art and on how to get an education at a time when the two English universities banned non-Anglicans from attending. However, the book does have a few small errors. For example, cloud droplets are not “a mere millionth of a millimetre across,” but in the range 0.005 to 0.05 mm. However, that does not stop the book from being both enjoyable and informative (although I did wish for colour images). See also this review from the NY Times.