The man who named the sky

The Invention of Clouds
January 18, 2002

The use of the terms cumulus, cirrus and stratus has become so widespread that it is easy to think that they have always been there, as immutable as the clouds themselves are prone to change. But as Richard Hamblyn shows, the history of these terms is surprisingly short, going back less than 200 years. In 1802, Luke Howard, a young British pharmacist and amateur scientist, presented the cloud classification system he had developed to a lecture audience in London. His system was popular from the start and proved to be more viable than any rival schemes, but it would still take almost a century, until 1896, for his terms to become recognised as the international standard in the field.

These days, the terms Howard introduced are omnipresent while their inventor has fallen into obscurity. Hamblyn's accessible account of Howard's career, which calls attention to the achievement of a man "who transformed the relationship between the world and its overarching sky", should help to remedy this situation. Hamblyn writes engagingly about Howard's life, from the early meteorological observations he made in his parents' garden, through his struggle to make a living as a pharmacist with a shop on London's Fleet Street, to his later life as an acclaimed meteorologist.

However, The Invention of Clouds impresses just as much with its vivid portrayal of the intellectual and scientific life of the period. A number of topics - other schemes to name the clouds, including that of Howard's main rival Jean-Baptiste Lamarck; attempts to classify the winds, culminating in Francis Beaufort's scale of wind force; science lectures attracting huge audiences; and early efforts to gain acceptance for meteorology as a branch of science - are treated at length, providing a rounded portrait of the cultural climate out of which Howard's system emerged.

Hamblyn moves at ease between the sciences and the arts; he is at home with fine art and literature as well as with the early history of meteorology. He writes well, for example, about Constable's cloud paintings and tells the story of how the new terminology came to inspire Goethe. The latter went out of his way to contact Howard and wrote poetry in praise of the man who "Defin'd the doubtful, fix'd its limit-line,/And named it fitly". One of Hamblyn's main points is that Howard's classification was more than just a step forwards for science, as it opened up the imaginative possibilities of the skies by giving us a language with which to grasp them. It is a nice thought, but Hamblyn pushes it a bit too far, for no matter how much room Howard's evocative terms leave for the imagination or how readily they can be combined to describe cloud formations that are in constant flux, they remain primarily a way of ordering nature, in line with Enlightenment ideals.

This book follows in the footsteps of Dava Sobel's bestseller Longitude (1995), which also spins a captivating tale out of a life devoted to science (in Sobel's case, that of the clockmaker John Harrison). Hamblyn's book is slightly less polished, betraying some signs of its author's academic background in its tendency to labour points. But it would be hard to find a book that makes a more eloquent case for the dreamy pleasure to be had from watching clouds, which are there for us all to "fall a little in love with".

Madeleine Minson is tutor in English, University College London.

The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies

Author - Richard Hamblyn
ISBN - 0 330 39194 1
Publisher - Picador
Price - £14.99
Pages - 292

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