You know about cirrus, stratus, and cumulus clouds, but do you know about the man who gave them those names? The names are the result of one guy—a weather (and Latin) nerd named Luke Howard.

Before the 1800s, people used any old words to describe the wind, rain, and clouds. This led to some surprisingly poetic ship’s logs, but it didn’t give people a good system of classification. Luke Howard, a professional chemist and amateur meteorologist, decided to change that.


Howard had spent his teenage years constructing, setting up, and checking weather instruments in his garden. He only had a barometer, a rain gauge, and a thermometer, but he was diligent when it came to checking them, and always recorded his results. Although he studied chemistry for his profession, he also learned Latin, and he learned of the classification system of Carl Linnaeus. Howard wanted the same sort of branching structure, so he started out with three basic clouds. Cumulus, which comes from the Latin word for “pile,” stratus, which comes from the Latin word for “heap,” and cirrus, which comes from the Latin word for “hair.”

Other meteorologists found this system helpful, but weather science advanced slowly. Howard had the satisfaction of seeing his work gain popularity. He didn’t die until 1864. He was 91-year-old, which is exactly the age you’d expect a guy who’d spent his wild teen years checking barometers to reach. Sadly, he didn’t get to see his cloud system get put into the official International Cloud Atlas in 1896.


[Source: Rain, by Cynthia Barnett]

Top Image: John Fowler