At six o’clock one evening in December 1802 clouds ceased to be the exclusive domain of poets and lovers.
As a young man named Luke Howard untied his bundle of notes in the basement of Plough Court, London, and began to speak, the skies were never to appear the same again. The speaker, a Quaker, was a retail chemist. It provided his income, but meteorology was his life.
Until that lecture, clouds had been the domain of words but not measurement. They were vapour that died as you watched it. When it was gone, without a trace, how could it be registered as anything but a brief sign in the sky?
Most people in the room would have understood that clouds were staging posts in the rise and fall of water. Howard went way beyond that. Not only did clouds have fixed properties of their own, he said, but their form and their action could be described in a few types ‘as distinguishable from each other as a tree from a hill, or the latter from a lake.’ They could be understood as families and species.
Clouds, he said, came in three basic types: cirrus (from the Latin for fibre or hair), cumulus (from the Latin for heap or pile) and stratus (from the Latin for layer or sheet). A fourth form, nimbus (from the Latin for cloud) was a rainy combination of all three types. He described their creation, their action, their transformation and dissolution.
He had reduced the ever-changing vaporous masses overhead to just four, easily identifiable types. It was so simple and self-evident – as path-breaking ideas often are – that many must have wondered why it had taken so long for someone to understand the form of clouds.
When the lecture ended, the place was in uproar. The excited audience could suddenly see clouds for what they were: the visible signs of the otherwise hidden movements of the atmosphere. Howard had, scientifically speaking, invented clouds.
Luke Howard died in Tottenham at eleven o’clock in the evening of 21 March 1864. There were high, feathery cirrus clouds in the sky.
About the Author:
Dr Don Pinnock is an investigative journalist and photographer who, some time back, realised he knew little about the natural world. So he set out to discover it. This took him to five continents – including Antarctica – and resulted in five books on natural history and hundreds of articles. The Last Elephants, published this year with Colin Bell, is his 18th book.
His other books include:
Gang Town, which won the City Press Tafelberg Non-Fiction award,
Writing Left, a biography of the journalist Ruth First.
Voices of liberation
Gangs, Rituals & Rites of passage
Rainmaker, a novel shortlisted for the 2009 European Union Literary Award.
Just add dust,
Loveletters to Africa,
Blue Ice: Travels in Antarctica,
The Woman who Lived in a Tree and Other Perfect Strangers.
Wild as it Gets,
He has degrees in criminology, political science and African history and is a former editor of Getaway travel magazine.
He was one of the primary drafters of the White Paper that became the Child Justice Act, a trustee of the Chrysalis Academy for high-risk youths, a board member of Widerness Foundation Africa, a member of the Conservation Action Trust and was the facilitator of the Western Cape Government’s gang strategy roadmap.
His day job is as environmental investigative journalist.