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The Invention of Clouds How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies by Richard Hamblyn

The Invention of Clouds How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies

RRP £12.99


The Invention of Clouds How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies by Richard Hamblyn

An extraordinary yet little-known scientific advance occurred in the opening years of the nineteenth century when a young amateur meteorologist, Luke Howard, gave the clouds the names by which they are known to this day. By creating a language to define structures that had, up to then, been considered random and unknowable, Howard revolutionized the science of meteorology and earned the admiration of his leading contemporaries in art, literature and science. Richard Hamblyn charts Howard's life from obscurity to international fame, and back to obscurity once more. He recreates the period's intoxicating atmosphere of scientific discovery, and shows how this provided inspiration for figures such as Goethe, Shelley and Constable. Offering rich insights into the nature of celebrity, the close relationship between the sciences and the arts, and the excitement generated by new ideas, The Invention of Clouds is an enthralling work of social and scientific history.


'Elegantly written and richly diverting'

The early 19th century was the heyday of the amateur scientist. The scientific revolution, which began in the mid-17th century, spawned a huge public interest in science as a way of explaining the way the world worked. Young men, largely self-taught, pursued their own lines of scientific inquiry and presented them at large public meetings. It was a time when many natural phenomena remained unexplored and unexamined: the opportunities for making new discoveries were endless. Luke Howard was one such young man. Born in 1772, the son of a self-employed manufacturer and Quaker, he developed an early interest in meteorology, specifically cloud formations. Although it seems odd now, no-one at that time had developed either a completely successful explanation of how clouds were formed or a plausible system for classifying the different kinds of clouds. Hamblyn's biography tells the story of how Howard, who became a full-time pharmacist, developed his early interest in clouds to the point where he was able to deliver a public lecture in 1802 giving the first coherent account of how clouds worked or, as Hamblyn puts it, the 'penetrating... insight that clouds have many individual shapes but few basic forms'. The three basic types that Howard identified cirrus, cumulus and stratus are still used today. Howard's achievement was instantly and widely recognized: his admirers included both Constable and Goethe, who wrote a poem about him. Hamblyn does an excellent job of showing why Howard's work excited so much interest and admiration. He gives a clear explanation of Howard's theories and provides a detailed contextual picture, both of the history of meteorology and the 19th century's fascination with classification and measurement. The biographical detail is thin, but that doesn't matter: the story is of the scientist, rather than the man, and Hamblyn conveys beautifully the excitement and importance of Howard's scientific discovery. (Kirkus UK)

About the Author

Richard Hamblyn was born in 1965 and is a graduate of the universities of Essex and of Cambridge, where he wrote a doctoral dissertation on the early history of geology in Britain. The Invention of Clouds, his first book, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize; his second book, Terra: Tales of the Earth explores the human consequences of natural disasters. Hamblyn lives and works in London.

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Book Info

Publication date

6th September 2002


Richard Hamblyn

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Picador an imprint of Pan Macmillan


304 pages


Popular science
History of science
Biography: historical, political & military



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