We are quite familiar with how a tropical cyclone looks like from space, through the images that weather satellites send down. Television news channels often present animated sequences of the images that clearly show the cloud bands swirling around the centre or the eye of the cyclone, anticlockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere.

In the early nineteenth century, little was known about these violent tropical storms, except that they wrecked ships on the high seas and caused untold destruction and loss of life while crossing the coastline. But there was one man who had unravelled their structure and visualized their rotating nature. He was Henry Piddington, first a British sea captain, and then the President of the Marine Courts of Inquiry at Calcutta (now Kolkata). He had made a thorough investigation of a storm that had struck disaster on the east coast of India in December 1789, killing over 20,000 people. He presented his results before the Asiatic Society of Bengal at Calcutta in 1840, and described the storm as a ‘cyclone’, a name derived from the Greek word ‘kuklos’ meaning going around, or encircling, like the coil of a snake.

Piddington introduced this newly coined word in the books that he wrote soon thereafter on the laws that governed the tropical storms. In 1844, Piddington published a book entitled “The Horn-Book for the Law of Storms for the Indian and China Seas”. In 1848, he published an enlarged version of this book, with the title “The Sailor’s Horn-Book for the Law of Storms”. He is said to have published yet another book in 1852, entitled “Conversations about Hurricanes: for the Use of Plain Sailors”. This was written in the style of a ship’s captain training an apprentice sailor, about how to deal with storms, how to know that they are approaching, and how to take advantage of them. The book included transparent storm cards with wind arrows that could help the captain of a ship caught in a storm to sail with the wind into safer waters.  

Piddington was engaged in scientific research in varied disciplines like botany, geology, mineralogy and soil chemistry, besides of course meteorology. He published numerous papers in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. He was also the Secretary of the Agri-Horticultural Society of India at Calcutta. At the suggestion of Rev. Dr. William Carey, of the Serampore Mission, who had similar scientific interests, he compiled the English Index to the Plants of India.

It is said that in 1854, Piddington wrote an open letter to Lord Dalhousie that the new port that he was building at Calcutta would not be able to withstand the fury of a tropical cyclone if hit by one.  Dalhousie, however, did not heed this advice. Port Canning was built, but it was indeed destroyed by a cyclone in 1867 and later abandoned.

By 1875, the name cyclone had gained the official acceptance of the international meteorological community. Today, however, tropical cyclones are called by this original name only in India and the adjoining seas, Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean. Over other oceanic basins, they are now commonly known as hurricanes or typhoons.

Henry Piddington, who was born in 1797, died at Calcutta in 1858.

(This post is based upon information derived from various sources, printed and web-based, and some of the details may need to be corrected. – R. R. Kelkar, June 2007)