Luke Howard -- "The Godfather of Clouds"

Cumulus with Cirro-Stratus, by Luke Howard
From Luke Howard's Sketch Book

Essay #2 1783 -- A Year to Remember

Luke Howard was born in London November 28, 1772, the first child of Robert and Elizabeth Howard. Robert was a successful businessman and a staunch Quaker. When it came time to begin school, his father sent him to a large Friends' grammar school at Burford, near Oxford. The school was run by a scholarly Friend, Mr. Huntley, and it was here that Luke spent the next seven years. Mr. Huntley was fatherly, kind and of the Old School, which was to flog those who could not learn fast enough and leave the others much to themselves. Luke commented many years later that he acquired more Latin than he had been able to forget. Little did he know that in 20 years that knowledge of Latin would stand him in good stead in a way he could not have imagined?

We know relatively little about this portion of his life. Presumably he returned home only once a year, at summer holidays. But whether he was at home or at school it is quite clear that he was raised in an atmosphere of Christian love as interpreted in the Quaker tradition.

What follows is the reconstructed, but not fictionalized, story of events in Nature that shaped a life:

An eleven-year-old boy stands alone on a hill overlooking the Windrush River in Oxfordshire. Only by straining his eyes can he make out the hills on the other side of the valley. The day has been hazy, as indeed, it had been week after week during the early summer. The sun, hanging low in the sky, continues to show the same eerie, coppery cast it had even at midday. And now it is late in the day.

As the sun sinks lower and lower into the thick haze, the disc reddens even more, darkens and disappears below the horizon. Then, instead of the twilight darkness, the western sky starts to brighten showing a remarkable array of colors. Directly above the point where the sun disappeared, the haze starts to take on a green opalescent hue, topped by a region that is nearly white. On either side there is a greenish yellow glow. Still higher in the sky, extending midway to the zenith, is a most delicately colored open fan of pink, surrounded on either side by the deepest of blue.

The boy stands entranced, scarcely breathing, as this panorama develops to full splendor before his gaze. Slowly brighter hues give way to those less bright, and finally to the dusk. At long last he rouses from the magic of the spectacle and slowly makes his way back to his lodgings.

1783 was a year in which Nature was in a state of extreme agitation and turmoil. Late in May, early in June and still again in mid June violent volcanic eruptions took place in Iceland. As the activity continued during the remainder of the year, the greatest lava flow in historic times spewed forth. Great volumes of volcanic dust from the Eldeyjar eruption fell over Iceland and, carried by the westerly windstreams, spread over Scotland, destroying crops. The dust cloud moved onward over Europe spreading a dirty blanket from which there was no escape. First reported in Copenhagen on 29 May, and in France on 6 June, the cloud moved forward. By July 1st it stretched to North Africa covering all of Great Britain and continental Europe!

Before the effects of the Icelandic eruptions had time to disappear, another violent eruption took place; this time on the other side of the world in Japan. Early in August, volcano Asama Yama produced what has been described as "the most frightful eruption on record to date" hurling out rocks as large as houses, burying towns and villages, and spewing great quantities of dust into the upper atmosphere, where westerly winds carried the dust around the whole Northern Hemisphere, adding to the general pall of haze. All the weather diaries of that period, and even some of the great literary works of the day, contain vivid references to the extended period of the Great Fogg (which was not fog in the usual sense but referred to the cloud of volcanic dust), and to the unusual appearances of the sky, including the fantastic array of colors at sunset and the rayless sun. The sense of underlying uneasiness was heightened by major earth shakings in Calabria and Sicily. It was stimulated by an amazingly bright and fiery meteor that flashed across the skies of western Europe in the early evening hours of 18 August, and was seen by tens of thousands, including our eleven year old boy. And the shimmerings of the aurora borealis added to the "general mysterium".

Yes, 1783 was a most remarkable year!

38 years later this same Luke Howard received the highest award of the young scientific community for his services to the infant science of meteorology. We believe that there is a causal line of connection between receipt of this honor and the Year to Remember. Luke remembered This Year and was deeply impressed by the events that occurred therein. Because of what took place in 1783 and the way in which Luke reacted to it, some indefinable chord in his inner being was set into resonance; some initial momentum was established that led directly to the 1821 honor.

The capture of Luke Howard's boyhood imagination was so complete that meteorology continued as his primary avocation, even though his vocation took other turns. His interest in weather never waned during his long lifetime. This lifetime devotion and his many contributions to the science of meteorology make him one of its real pioneers.

Luke Howard -- "The Godfather of Clouds"

Luke Howard -- Cloudman Foreword
| Essay #1 Background Setting

Essay #2 1783 -- A Year to Remember | Essay #3 1802 -- Year of Significance

Cloud History Topics

Luke Howard -- "The Godfather of Clouds | Wilson A. Bentley -- "The Snowflake Man"

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