Cloud Studies

Clouds are important indicators of weather since they make visible the conditions of the atmosphere, and they featured as an object of study throughout nineteenth- and twentieth-century meteorology. In 1802, Luke Howard (1772-1864), a chemist and amateur meteorologist, proposed a nomenclature of clouds to the Askesian Society.

Mirror Nephoscope
Image 1 Wh. 6065. Fineman's Mirror Nephoscope, by Pellin, French, c. 1900. Image © the Whipple Museum.
cloud camera
Image 2 Wh.4416. Robin Hill cloud camera, by R. & J. Beck, English, c. 1922. Image © the Whipple Museum.
cloud chamber
Image 3 Wh.4459. The cloud chamber was first manufactured by the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company in 1913. Image © the Whipple Museum.

In his system, Howard outlined three principle categories of cloud - cumulus, stratus and cirrus - from which all formations were based. Intermediary cloud types could be expressed as combinations of the basic three formations: cirrostratus and stratocumulus are two such examples.

Howard was not the first individual to attempt a cloud nomenclature. In 1801, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) proposed a system of cloud nomenclature, but it never gained traction amongst meteorologists.

The nephoscope

The nephoscope was invented in the nineteenth-century to measure the altitude, direction and velocity of clouds. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century methods of determining cloud height required triangulation from the ends of two baselines. Other techniques involved using a map to trace the passage of cloud-shadows over the countryside, or a camera obscura to measure a cloud's angular height and bearing from 0º north, (known in astronomy as 'azimuth').

Early nineteenth-century mirror nephoscopes used a shallow tank of inky water to reflect the sky and employed the same triangulating technique as the camera obscura, in which the angle of reflection was used to calculate the height of a cloud. Unfortunately, the image produced using the reflecting pool was rather restricted and wind easily disrupted its surface.

In 1846, the French meteorologist G. Aimé incorporated a horizontal mirror into nephoscope design, which significantly improved the instrument. Fineman's nephoscope, first manufactured in 1886, employed darkened glass and was fitted with a compass needle (Image 1). A vertical pointer rotated around the glass edge to be aligned with a cloud observed in the glass reflection. Engraved on the surface of the glass, concentric circles functioned as a measurement guide.

This example of a Fineman's Mirror Nephoscope was produced by the French firm Pellin, which Philibért Pellin (1847-1923) acquired from Jules Duboscq (1817-1886) after several years of collaboration and partnership. Maintaining Duboscq's excellent reputation, Pellin and his son Félix produced optical and meteorological instruments of the highest calibre.

Cloud cameras

Photography also developed into another technology used for studying clouds and became an essential tool for training young meteorologists during the twentieth century.

By 1924, Robert Hill (1899-1991) had developed a fish-eye lens that produced a horizon-to-horizon image of the sky (Image 2). The resulting photograph is distorted according to orthographic and equidistant projection so that the fish-eye image appears to bulge out at the viewer; however, it is possible to produce a 'normal' viewing vantage using the negative of Hill's fish-eye image.

If the camera apparatus is set up like a magic lantern, in which light travels through the negative and fish-eye lens to be projected onto a flat surface, a portion of the image appears in 'normal' perspective. In this way, photographs of many different views of the same cloud conditions can be printed from a single fish-eye negative.

Cloud Chambers

In addition to studying clouds in the field, late nineteenth-century scientists created artificial clouds for research in the laboratory. In 1895, C. T. R. Wilson (1869-1959) constructed a cloud chamber that produced a supersaturated water-vapour environment from which he studied the physical and optical properties of clouds (Image 3).

Early experiments with the cloud chamber enabled Wilson to determine the process of droplet formation. In his experiments, water vapour condensed around ions, which were produced from exposing the chamber to high-energy particles, such as x-rays.

In 1911, Wilson successfully photographed condensation from ionized radiation. High-energy particles, interacting with the water vapours, ionize and leave a visible and distinctive cloud trail. For instance, an electron produces thin and straight lines.

Wilson's cloud chamber experiments and the subsequent ray-track photography significantly contributed to physicists' understanding of particle behaviour and enabled scientists to establish different categories of particle 'type'. While physicists adopted the cloud chamber for their own research pursuits, Wilson remained dedicated to investigations of meteorological optics until his death.

Allison Ksiazkiewicz

Allison Ksiazkiewicz, 'Cloud Studies', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, [, accessed 25 November 2017]

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