Luke Howard 1772 – 1864 – The Namer of Clouds

If you are driving from Enfield towards Stoke Newington down the A10, a little to the south of White Hart Lane, you find yourself on Bruce Grove. It’s all fairly run-down now, but on the right-hand side there is a small terrace of late Georgian houses which includes No. 7. which  was one half of a pair of symmetrical villas, built in the late 18th or early 19th century and part of a consecutive group (1-16). It became the Tottenham Trades Hall in 1919.  Currently it is derelict. On the front wall facing the street is Tottenham’s only blue plaque. The house also has a great view south, and east, across the Lee river valley, and the City, and East End. It must have been a great place to watch clouds, although Luke Howard was only there for the last twelve years of his life.luke_howard-plaque

This is almost my most favourite English Heritage plaque in London; it is certainly one of the most thought-provoking, and probably one of the coolest, possibly only rivalled by this pair in Brook Street. georg-frideric-handel-plaque jimi-henrix-plaque






It’s a staggering thought that one man classified all the main cloud types in 1803, and more to the point what did people use before – fluffy? straight? round? 

Luke Howard 1772-1864

Luke Howard was born in London on 28 November 1772, the eldest son of Robert Howard and his wife Elizabeth, Robert Howard was a lamp manufacturer. Luke was a Quaker, later converting to the Plymouth Brethren. He was educated at a Quaker school at Burford, in Oxfordshire and was then apprenticed to a retail chemist in Stockport, just outside Manchester. He set up his own pharmacy in Fleet Street in 1793. In approximately 1797, he 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 became Howards and Sons in 1856. He spent the years 1824 to 1852 in Ackworth, Yorkshire, and died in Tottenham in 1864.

He made a number of significant contributions to the subject of meteorology besides his cloud classification, and published “The Climate of London” (first edition 1818, second edition 1830), “Seven lectures on meteorology” (1837), “A cycle of eighteen years in the seasons of Britain” (1842) and “Barometrographia” (1847). But the most important was “On the modification of clouds”  in December 1802.

The success of Howard’s system was his application of Linnean principles of natural history classification [i.e. using Latin, and that species were grouped into genera (singular: genus), genera were grouped into orders (higher level groupings), and orders into classes. Classes in turn were parts of “kingdoms”, of which he, along with his contemporaries and predecessors, recognised three: mineral, plant, and animal. Species bore a double (or “binomial” name) — the first term of which gave their genus, and the second their species.] and his emphasis on the mutability of clouds. 

But he named clouds, and I’d be really, really proud if I’d done that.

“On the modification of clouds” 1802  introduced three basic cloud types:

  • Cirrus (Latin for a curl of hair), which he described as “parallel, flexuous, or diverging fibres, extensible in any or all directions”.
  • Cumulus (meaning heap), which he described as “convex or conical heaps, increasing upward from a horizontal base”.
  • Stratus (meaning something spread), which he described as “a widely extended, continuous, horizontal sheet, increasing from below”. 

He combined these names to form four more cloud types:

  • Cirro-cumulus, which he described as “small, well-defined roundish masses, in close horizontal arrangement”.
  • Cirro-stratus, which he described as “horizontal or slightly inclined masses, attenuated towards a part or the whole of their circumference, bent downward, or undulated, separate, or in groups consisting of small clouds having these characters”.
  • Cumulostratus, which he described as “the cirrostratus blended with the cumulus, and either appearing intermixed with the heaps of the latter, or super-adding a widespread structure to its base”.
  • Cumulo-cirro-stratus or Nimbus, which he called the rain cloud, “a cloud or system of clouds from which rain is falling”. He described it as “a horizontal sheet, above which the cirrus spreads, while the cumulus enters it laterally and from beneath”.

Luke Howard is almost family as well; his son-in-law, John Hodgkin junior (1800-1875) is a first cousin, five times removed.