1772 – 1864
Born into the Quaker family of Robert and Elizabeth Howard in London, he was educated at the Quaker school in Burford, Oxfordshire. The headmaster Thomas Huntley was severe with those pupils that he felt were not learning quickly enough and would beat them. Luke said that consequently he learnt more Latin than he could forget, but not much mathematics and science. This may be the reason that he was tentative in putting forward science-based ideas. Nevertheless from an early age he showed a talent for observation.
When he left school he served a seven year apprenticeship in pharmacy. He tried to set up an independent business which failed. In 1798 he went into partnership with fellow Quaker and pharmacist William Allen who owned the Plough Court Pharmacy in Lombard Street, London. Howard was made responsible for the laboratory in Plaistow, Essex. After seven years the partnership was dissolved and he moved the laboratory to Stratford, London. The business thrived and supplied chemicals to industry and also pharmaceuticals to the retail trade. He was responsible for supplying ether to Quaker John Dalton, famous for his pioneering development work on modern atomic theory and research on colour blindness.
In 1796 Howard married Mariabella daughter of Quakers John and Mary Eliot. They had eight children. She wrote a number of books including ‘Hints on the improvement of day schools’. The family lived first at Plaistow, moving to Tottenham in 1812, and spent time at their country home near Ackworth, Yorkshire. Their sons Robert Howard and John Eliot Howard took over the family firm in 1830.
Although he studied both botany and geology Howard’s main interest was in meteorology. Both Howard and Allen were members of the Askesian Society, a philosophical group that met fortnightly. During the Askesian’s Society’s 1802-3 session Howard presented a paper on the classification of clouds which was later published as ‘On the modification of clouds, and on the principles of their production, suspension and destruction’. Lamarck had produced a classification system in 1802 but Howard’s was preferred and forms the basis of the international classification used today.
Using the Latin terminology stratus, cumulus, cirrus, and nimbus, Howard defined three groups: simple modifications (cirrus, cumulus, stratus); intermediate modifications (cirro-cumulus, cirro-stratus); and compound modifications (cumulo-stratus, cumulo-cirro-stratus vel nimbus). Although his knowledge of the mode of formation of clouds was rudimentary his system showed his keen observational powers. Howard also wrote the first book on English urban climatology entitled ‘The Climate of London’ that introduced new thinking on atmospheric electricity and the cause of rain. He also investigated the possibility of lunar influence on weather.
The German poet Goethe saw a translation of Howard’s 1803 paper on clouds and responded with a lyrical poem ‘Howard's Ehrengedächtnis’. He remained fascinated by Howard and obtained through his friend, Johann Huttner, an autobiography of Howard. It is said that he also influenced the English artists John Constable and J.M.W. Turner
Howard was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1821.
He was a deeply religious person and produced tracts upholding the Quaker way of life. He became a minister in 1815. He was also involved with campaigns to improve society. He and William Allen were involved in the anti-slavery movement. Howard later joined the campaign to raise support for the relief of distress in Germany following the fighting across Europe and the defeat of Napoleon at Leipzig. Howard became joint secretary (with Robert Humphrey Marten) of the organizing London committee and by 1814 £300,000 had been raised. In recognition of this he and Marten were awarded gold rings and Meissen vases by the kings of Prussia and Saxony, and received the freedom of the city of Magdeburg.
In 1835 Isaac Crewdson, an influential member of Hardshaw East Quaker Meeting,in Manchester published ‘A Beacon to the Society of Friends’. In it he argued strongly that many Quakers placed too much emphasis on following the inner light and too little on the authority of the Bible. This challenge to Quaker thinking caused considerable controversy amongst English Quakers. In 1836 Howard resigned his membership of the Religious Society of Friends and joined Crewdson in the Plymouth Brethren.Luke Howard died in 1864 and is buried at Wynchmore Hill Quaker Burial Ground with his wife.