Book Review: The Invention of Clouds

Editor’s Note: I’m excited to welcome my sister, whose arm I twisted to convince her to guest post here. A big warm welcome to Kieu!

I had an epiphany about a year ago, which made me see the inadequacy of the words passion and passionate. I adopted obsession and obsessive instead. My art, my knitting, my relationships with language and books – these are not things I simply feel strongly about. In fact, I can’t imagine life without them. It would be like asking me to stop breathing. Impossible.

It was a bit scary at first, to claim these words and proudly use them. Being obsessed equals crazy, right? I probably do have one too many obsessions for my own good, but I had realized something. Being passionate is one thing, but it’s the crazy people who accomplish great things. Put a man on the moon? Crazy idea, right? Well, some crazy people managed to do just that. They were not going to give up. You could call them obsessed.

The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forges the Language of the Clouds by Richard Hamblyn is about such an obsession.  Since childhood, Luke Howard was an ardent observer of the sky and the clouds. Due to his father’s influence, however, Howard became an entrepreneur, his passion for the clouds relegated to the back burner for many years – but not forgotten or relinquished. After establishing a successful career, he once again turned his thoughts to the clouds.

Although mankind has been fascinated with the ever-changing clouds since the beginning of time, Luke Howard was the first person to successfully name the clouds and establish an identification system that was eventually adopted internationally. This was in the early 1800s, a mere two centuries ago. Thanks to him, we have the words cirrus, cumulus, and stratus. He may have begun as an amateur meteorologist, but Howard’s obsession has left a permanent mark on the fabric of history.

For a history book, Richard Hamblyn’s The Invention of Clouds is highly readable. Despite the numerous characters that make an appearance, all the tangential but relevant details, and the breadth of the subject, Hamblyn is able to present a coherent and fascinating narrative. Because historical events cannot happen in isolation, by focusing on how the clouds came to be named, Hamblyn has painted a portrait of scientific culture in the early 19th century, the birth of modern meteorology, and the obsessions of the individuals who made it possible.