It is odd to think among the great classifiers of nature, including even the lofty-namer Aristotle, that clouds were not scientifically classified until the early 19th century. Here they are, just about the biggest thing we have as earthlings that are gigantic and close to us, and nobody offered a good classifications scheme until 200-odd years ago—a pretty slim margin of time in the terms of recorded human history.
Clouds are of course problematic, what with floating around and all—but if you didn’t already know the relative newness of their recognizable names isn’t it shocking to learn this bit of history? For the most part I think clouds must have been thought as being too transient, changeable, whimsical, wispy, to be given proper names. The great scientist and classifier Lamarck tried to do so in his Annuaire Méteorologique of 1802, and really is the first to try this, but his ideas weren’t terribly good (especially compared to the rest of his work), and it seems as though he left his best thinking effort on clouds at home. For example, he gave us Hazy, dappled, massed, broom-like and grouped clouds as classifications (in French, respectively, en forme de voile, pommelés, attroupés, en balayeurs and groupés). They seem quite “French” to me, but largely outside the scope of being useful.
It was the English pharmacist and chemist Luke Howard who in 1803 gave a greater bit of thought to structuring cloud names, classifying them according to size and shape and giving them Latin names—and this forms the basis of our naming clouds to this day. Howard was perhaps the first, greatest, meteorologist, producing On the Modification of Clouds, (in which he describes his naming system, the “modification” part actually meaning classifying rather than changing), The Climate of London, and the first textbook on weather, Seven Lectures on Meteorology. Howard’s system was expanded in 1887 by Abercromby and Hildebrandsson, who further classified clouds by height above ground as well as by appearance (and utilizing Howard’s naming system).
Howard began his system by identifying three basic shapes to clouds: heaps, layers, and curls. Heaps of separated cloud masses with flat bottoms and bulbous, splayed, tops, which he called cumulus, which is Latin for heap; the Latin stratus was applied to clouds in layers which were much wider than they were thick; and again to Latin for cirrus, which called out the wispy curls of clouds. (Rain clouds were given the Latin nimbus, for rain, and so on.)
It is interesting and romantic to think of Howard being moved in his love of clouds as many Brits and Europeans were in the Volcanic Year of 1783 by the enormous eruptions of the Eldeyjar (Iceland) and Asama Yama (Japan) volcanoes—the force of their eruptions caused enormous changes in the skies (especially in Europe), creating vast sky-borne tapestries (the “Great Fogg” in England) and for such extended periods of time that it would have been impossible for the scientifically-minded Howard not to see them.
Similar, in a way, to clouds is the snow crystal (snowflake)—they change forms in their lives from sky to ground, and may well disappear on contact with a warm surface. Of course unlike clouds they may fall and be captured, kept even, though the ability to actually perform some sort of scientific something with them didn’t occur until 400 years ago, which means that snowflakes passed in and out of human existence being very simply named (in most languages) as a mass group, and not classified at all.
Johannes Kepler thought very deeply in In 1611 publishing a short treatise called On the Six-Cornered Snowflake, thinking that perhaps their (mistaken) six-cornered symmetry revealed something much deeper about the basis of nature and the universe. The 26-year-old Robert Hooke seems to be recognized as the first to throw the snowflake under a microscope, publishing drawings of them and just about everything else that he saw in his monumental (and tall, being 13-inches tall) Micrographia (1665)--the first truly scientific book of modern times. The largest of the large images was saved for the flea, showing the unsuspecting public the great and beautiful nature of what seemed like a fantastical beast (under magnification). Snowflakes appeared in the book, revealed in their intricate and seemingly-symmetrical nature. Fantastic, unimagined images. This aside, he seems to have, um, borrowed these images from an earlier work, Thomas Bartholin's De Nivus usu Medico Observationes Varieae, 1661. But so it goes.
The Galileo of the snowflake was Wilson Bentley (1865-1931), an autodidact Vermont farmer, seen by fellow hamlet-dwellers as odd and off, who figured out how to photographically and beautifully record the intricacies of the snow crystal world—no one had ever done this so dramatically, with such gorgeous results. It really was as though he was able to record the heights of the mountains of the moon with a slender telescope in Pisa, 350 years earlier. The results of his decades of experience were published in 1931 his book Snow Crystals, containing more than 2400 snow crystal images. On the heals of Bentley’s accomplishments came the classically trained nuclear physicist Ukichiro Nakaya, who was truly the first person to apply a scientific classification to snowflakes, and who published his intrepidly-beautiful work in a 1954 book entitled Snow Crystals: Natural and Artificial. His classification system of the various types of snowflakes would prove vastly more useful, interesting and appealing than that published by the 1951 the International Commission on Snow and Ice, and forms the basis of the discussion of snow crystals today—a classification system of a massively-occurring phenomenon that is younger than me.