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The Ringelmann scale, invented by Professor Maximilian Ringelmann in Paris in 1888, is a method of estimating smoke color by an observer looking at smoke and comparing its colours to a standard chart with shades of grey numbered from 0 (white) to 5 (black).

It is a simple, and surprisingly reliable, way of evaluating smoke. But, it is a system of human judgement completely dependent on light conditions and the skill of the observer and cannot be automated. The colour of the smoke does not necessarily indicate the quantity of smoke, or how harmful it is. It is perfectly possible to have a high volume of smoke which is highly diluted show a low R-number, and equally to have a very small quantity of smoke which is not diluted and emitted only slowly to show a high R-number.

Where the Ringelmann scale is useful is in determining whether smoke from a particular stack, under common conditions, is better or worse than it was the day, or the hour before. It is also a rough indicator of the density of smoke from stacks of a common type, and is therefore widely used in municipal evaluation of smoke offence.

In using the chart, take care... white smoke - which isn't real smoke but harmless water droplets - can sometimes look dark in shadow. Look for the point where the fumes leave the stack, if they're invisible there but only become visible higher up, as the water condenses, then that's water vapour, well illustrated in this diagram from an attempt to produce an automated R-scale.

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