Brits at their Best Sharing the Inheritance

INGENIOUS INVENTORS, INNOVATIVE THINKERS

Luke Howard
The Language of Clouds

Constable's seascape with clouds

Painter John Constable's search for truth in painting nature led him to Luke Howard's work on clouds.

Harwich Light-house, 1820, Tate Britain

According to the Telegraph, 'the most notable previous example of Icelandic volcanic activity causing problems for Britain was in 1783, when an eruption at Laki sent a huge toxic cloud of sulphur across Western Europe, killing an estimated 23,000 Britons'. It seriously depressed subsequent winter and summer temperatures, and it inspired a boy.

Eleven years old in 1783, Luke Howard was fascinated when violent volcanic eruptions in Iceland cast a pall across Britain. Sunsets blazed through the clouds, and a fiery meteor flashed through the dust-laden atmosphere.

Lower-level gases, and the aerosols generated from them, moved eastwards towards Europe, bringing tremendous 'dry fogs' which affected the continent for months. Along-lasting acid aerosol cloud moved around the globe for three years after the eruption. Overcast skies led to Britain's record-breaking cold winters of 1783-1785, and the cold summer of 1784. The boy had just received dramatic inspiration for his life's work.

A number of British scientists were amateurs – they studied science as a pastime. When he became a man, Luke Howard made his living as a chemist. He dedicated time and money to the abolition of the slave trade. He also spent his spare time studying clouds, which continued to fascinate him. At the time clouds had no names, and no one understood their relationship to atmospheric changes.

A language of clouds

After years of study, Howard suggested in a published paper that there is a cause and effect relationship operating in the atmosphere. Certain atmospheric changes produce certain clouds. You might think this idea old hat - everyone knows that, don't they? - but before Howard Luke, no one had understood how or why the idea worked.

Observing and naming cloud forms, Howard created the Latin names for cloud types – a language that points to weather changes. Weather prediction is a challenging, important (and problematic) enterprise since weather changes very fast. Howard founded the science of weather prediction.

English bulldog puppy

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass