A guest post by London Historians Member, Laurence Scales
It is said that J.M.W. Turner’s painting was influenced by the work of meteorologist Luke Howard (1772-1864) who, by classifying the clouds into species such as cirrus (fibrous) and cumulus (heaped), drew public attention to their forms.
The formative experience in Howard’s life was perhaps the Laki haze of 1783, result of a substantially greater Icelandic eruption than Eyjafjallajökull which recently grounded Europe’s aircraft. It blanketed much of the northern hemisphere and perturbed the weather for many months, bringing famine and remarkable electrical storms. Being a Quaker was for him no escape route from the dire schooling of the time which consisted mainly of Latin and flogging. He became a pharmacist. At least the Latin would come in useful for naming clouds.
Perhaps to make up for an appalling education, he became a member of a philosophical society, the Askesian, which met in the City at Plough Court. It was here that he read his influential paper ‘On the Modifications of Clouds’ in 1802. Modification meant identifying different modes or states. (He had no delusion of changing the weather.) He was not the first to attempt a classification, but his was the system that stuck. He included in his observations the atmospheric conditions when each type was likely to appear, and how they were likely to transform.
He maintained his interest in meteorology and for years he kept readings of pressure, temperature, rainfall, evaporation and wind direction. At the end of the Frost Fair of 1814 on the Thames he noted rather delightfully that:
‘We are happy to see the lately perturbed bosom of Father Thames resume its former serenity. The busy oar is now plied with its wonted alacrity, and the sons of Commerce are pursuing their avocations with re doubled energy.’
He died at Bruce Grove, Tottenham, in a house which now stands with a blue plaque, but derelict.
Unlike the great art galleries and sculptural collections it can sometimes seem that the Science Museum is lacking in humanity. But to me the objects in its collection are heavily invested with humanity. One such is Luke Howard’s own recording barometer which can be seen there beside the George III collection.
The text of ‘On the Modifications of Clouds’ is here.
By Laurence Scales, www.laurenceswalks.co.uk @LWalksLondon