Howard, Luke

views updated May 11 2018


(b. Cripplegate, London, United Kingdom, 28 November 1772; d. Tottenham, London, United Kingdom, 21 March 1864),

meteorology, pharmacy.

Howard was a pharmacist by profession, but a meteorologist by inclination, whose amateur (and very British) fascination with the weather led him to devise the classification and nomenclature of clouds that remains in international use today. He also became a pioneer in the study of urban climate, and his twenty-year statistical record of London’s weather formed the heart of his landmark publication The Climate of London (1818–1820), for which he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1821.

The son of a devout and commercially successful Quaker tinsmith, Robert Howard (1738–1812) and his wife Elizabeth Leatham (1742–1816), Luke Howard was dispatched at the age of eight to a strict Quaker boarding school in Burford, Oxfordshire, where the rote learning of Latin grammar dominated the curriculum to the exclusion of science and mathematics. “My pretensions as a man of science are consequently but slender,” as he wrote in an autobiographical essay in 1822, but his lifelong habit of keeping daily weather notes was already in place by the time he left school in 1787 to begin a seven-year apprenticeship with a Quaker pharmacist in Stockport, Lancashire (Scott, 1976, p. 2).

It was during this formative period that Howard began to spend his evenings studying French, chemistry, and the natural sciences, describing the impact of the works of Antoine Lavoisier as “like the Sun’s rising after a night of moonshine” (Scott, 1976, p. 2). Upon his return to London in 1794 Howard intensified his autodidactic regime, attending regular lectures and evening classes, as well as joining a small scientific debating club, the Aske-sian Society, which was founded in 1796 by William Allen, a fellow Quaker pharmacist with whom Howard had gone into business. In 1797 Howard, now married to Mariabella Eliot (1769–1852), took charge of Allen & Howard’s research and manufacturing laboratories at Plaistow, Essex, 8 miles east of the City.

At Plaistow, Howard began to work up some of his meteorological notes, framing them in the light of recent atmospheric theories, particularly those advanced by John Dalton in his Meteorological Observations (1793). Dalton’s contention that cloud droplets do not “float,” but fall continually under the influence of gravity, was instrumental in shaping Howard’s conviction that clouds, far from being “airy nothings,” were subject to “the same fixed Laws which pervade every other department of Nature” (Howard, 1854, p. 85).

At a meeting of the Askesian Society in December 1802 Howard delivered a paper, “On the Modifications of Clouds,” in which he proposed that every cloud belonged to one of three principal families, to which he had given the Latin names: cirrus (meaning “fiber” or “hair”), cumulus (“heap” or “pile”), and stratus (“layer” or “sheet”). In recognition of the essential instability of clouds, Howard also introduced a sequence of intermediate and compound modifications, such as cirrostratus and stratocumulus, in order to accommodate the regular transitions occurring between the cloud types.

Howard was not the first to attempt a classification of clouds—only the previous year Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had 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 adopting Linnaean principles of natural history classification—in which objects are grouped into families according to shared external characteristics—and applying them to phenomena as short-lived and changeable as clouds, Howard had arrived at an elegant solution to the problem of naming transitional forms in nature.

Once published, the cloud classification was soon in use around the world, and in 1896 it was officially adopted (with minor amendments) by the World Meteorological Organization. Howard’s scientific reputation was secured, and although he remained a full-time pharmacist, establishing his own firm, Howard & Co., in 1807, he continued his meteorological activities, contributing weather columns to a variety of journals, while continuing to keep a daily meteorological register. In 1818, Howard published the first volume of The Climate of London, a pioneering work of urban climatology (the second volume appeared in 1820), for which he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In this work, the first to suggest that built environments have a noticeable impact on weather and climate, Howard made the first identification of a now familiar effect—the Urban Heat Island, in which a city’s nighttime temperature remains higher than that of the surrounding areas, a phenomenon that he ascribed to the burning of fossil fuels. In 1822, a German translation of his essay on clouds led to a brief correspondence with the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote a series of cloud poems in Howard’s honor, and at whose request Howard wrote the autobiographical essay cited above. In 1823 he became a founding member of the Meteorological Society of London, but the following year Howard and his wife moved to Ackworth, Yorkshire, leaving the flourishing pharmaceutical business in the hands of their two eldest sons, one of whom, John Eliot Howard, (1807– 1883) went on to become a celebrated expert on quinine.

Although Howard continued with his meteorological research, his life in Yorkshire became increasingly devoted to charitable and educational work as well as to a series of doctrinal controversies within the Quaker movement, which culminated in his defection to the Plymouth Brethren in 1836. In 1842 he published an unconvincing treatise identifying an eighteen-year cycle in British weather, comprised of a seven-year rise followed by a ten-year fall in average temperature and rainfall; this was followed by his Barometrographia (1847), a visually impressive folio volume in which annual fluctuations of the weather were plotted against the phases of the Moon, using large circular diagrams traced by a self-recording barograph, in an attempt to determine the extent of lunar influence on climate.

Following the death of his wife Mariabella in 1852, Howard returned to London to live with his eldest son Robert, at 7 Bruce Grove, Tottenham, where he died, aged ninety-one, in 1864. He was buried in the grounds of the Quaker meetinghouse at nearby Winchmore Hill, the earlier disputes apparently resolved.

Howard lived just long enough to see the advent of the professionalization of modern meteorology, while being one of the last of the amateur observers to make a major contribution to the field. “Never, probably, was Science wooed more entirely for her own sake,” as his obituary in the Friend (1864) concluded, “never was there a more thorough ‘labour of love’ than that which he bestowed.”


Luke Howard manuscript collections can be found at: London Metropolitan Archives (business/family papers); Library of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain (family papers); Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine (personal/scientific letters); and Science Museum, London (personal letters). A collection of Howard’s cloud watercolors can be found at the Science Museum, London.


On the Modifications of Clouds. London: J. Taylor, 1804.

“The Natural History of Clouds.” Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, and the Arts 30 (1812): 35–62.

The Climate of London, Deduced from Meteorological Observations, Made at Different Places in the Neighbourhood of the Metropolis. 2 vols. London: W. Phillips, 1818–1820. Rev. ed., 1833.

Seven Lectures on Meteorology. Pontefract, U.K.: James Lucas, 1837.

“Luke Howard’s Autobiography; with His Own Additions and Corrections down to an Unascertained Date. Probably circ. 1840.” MS. Box 5.2. Unpublished manuscript in The Library of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain, Friends House, Euston Road, London.

A Cycle of Eighteen Years in the Seasons of Britain; Deduced from Meteorological Observations Made at Ackworth, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, from 1824 to 1841. London: J. Ridgway, 1842.

Barometrographia: Twenty Years’ Variation of the Barometer in the Climate of Britain, Exhibited in Autographic Curves, with the Attendant Winds and Weather. London: R. and J. Taylor, 1847.

Papers on Meteorology, Relating Especially to the Climate of Britain, and to the Variations of the Barometer. London: Taylor and Francis, 1854.

My Ledger; or, A Compromise with Prudence. Written in 1808. London: Taylor and Francis, 1856.


Dalton, John. Meteorological Observations and Essays. London: J. Phillips, 1793.

Day, John A., and Frank H. Ludlam. “Luke Howard and His Clouds: A Contribution to the Early History of Cloud Physics.” Weather 27 (1972): 448–461.

Hamblyn, Richard. The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies. London: Picador, 2001.

Howard, Bernard. “A Luke Howard Miscellany: Compiled by his Great Grandson.” Unpublished typescript. 1959. The Library of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain, Friends House, Euston Road, London.

Kington, J. A. “A Century of Cloud Classification.” Weather 24 (1969): 84–89.

Obituary in The Friend: A Religious, Literary and Miscellaneous Journal 4 (1864): 100.

Scott, D. F. S. Luke Howard (1772–1864): His Correspondence with Goethe and His Continental Journey of 1816. York, U.K.: William Sessions, 1976.

Slater, A. W. “Luke Howard, F.R.S. (1772–1864) and His Relations with Goethe.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society 27 (1972): 119–140.

Webb, Nicholas. “Representations of the Seasons in Early-Nineteenth-Century England.” PhD diss., University of York, 1998.

Richard Hamblyn

Howard, Luke (1772-1864)

views updated May 18 2018

Howard, Luke (1772-1864)

English pharmacist and meteorologist

Luke Howard classified and named cloud formations. He understood that even though clouds have a countless variety of shapes, they have only three basic forms, which he termed cirrus (hair curl), cumulus (heap), and stratus (layer). There can be combinations of any of these three, such as cumulostratus or cirrocumulus. Any of them can also be a "nimbus" (rain) cloud, such as cumulonimbus. High clouds are designated by the prefix "alto-," such as altostratus.

Howard was born in London, England, on November 28, 1772, the eldest son of a prosperous businessman, Robert Howard, and his wife Elizabeth, née Leatham. As devout Quakers, the family enrolled Luke in a prominent Quaker institution, Thomas Huntly's School in Burford, near Oxford, from 1780 to 1787. That was the extent of his formal education. Although not trained as a scientist, he learned enough chemistry and pharmacy on his own to become a successful manufacturer, wholesaler, and retailer of pharmaceutical preparations. He began his business in London in 1793, partnered with William Allen in London and Plaistow, Essex, from 1796 until Allen's death in 1803, moved the business to Stratford while continuing to live in Plaistow, and eventually became head of the firm Howards and Sons. Throughout his life he supported himself with this trade.

Howard was fully dedicated to four main concerns: his business, his religion, his family, and his hobby, meteorology . On December 7, 1796, he married Mariabella Eliot, who shared his amateur interest in meteorology, helped him to gather data, and encouraged him to disseminate his findings. From an early age he loved clouds, and would spend hours watching them or painting watercolors of them. Gradually his observations and experiments, mostly conducted at home in his garden, became more precise and systematic.

Before Howard's time there was no useful classification of clouds. They were described haphazardly in terms of their color, size, shape, density, persistence, altitude, and moisture content. The eighteenth-century enthusiasm for classifying everything imaginable had not succeeded with clouds, even though scientists as reputable as Jean Baptiste Lamarck (17441829) had worked on the problem. Howard solved it with a simple threefold schema, which he presented in a famous lecture to the Askesian Society in London in 1802. This talk was published as "On the Modifications of Clouds" in 1803. Overnight Howard was a sensation. Within a decade, his classification was in general use throughout Western Europe . Not only scientists, but also poets such as Percy Bysshe Shelley (17921822) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (17491832) and painters such as Joseph Mallord William Turner (17751851) and John Constable (17761837) praised him for his meteorological breakthrough and its contribution to their professions.

Besides his work on clouds, Howard published articles and essays on pollen, atmospheric pressure , meteorological instrumentation, the seasons , precipitation , electricity , and evaporation , plus a three-volume book called The Climate of London, as well as anti-slavery pamphlets and several apologies for Quakerism. For his contributions to meteorology and climatology, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1821.

Howard moved from Plaistow to Tottenham, near London, in 1812 and to Ackworth, Yorkshire, in the mid-1820s. After Mariabella died in 1852, he moved in with his son, Robert, at Bruce Grove, Tottenham, where he died on March 21, 1864.

See also Clouds and cloud types; Meteorology

Howard, Luke

views updated May 08 2018

Howard, Luke (1772–1864) An English meteorologist who was the first person to devise a successful classification system for clouds, which he published in 1803 as a paper, ‘On the Modifications of Clouds’. He defined four main and several secondary cloud types, calling the main types ‘stratus’, ‘cumulus’, ‘cirrus’, and ‘nimbus’. He became very well known and his classification system forms the basis of the one used today. Howard was trained and earned his living as an apothecary. He lived in London.

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