Little Bits of History


Posted in History by patriciahysell on November 13, 2013
Meteor shower of 1883

Meteor shower of 1883

November 13, 1833: In the four hours before dawn, the sky is lit by meteors. The first few flashes began soon after dusk the evening before. The pre-dawn sky in eastern North America was streaked by fire from on high. The local reactions ranged from hysteria and claiming Judgment Day had arrived to the wonder of scientists confronted with a new phenomenon. There were said to be 1,000 meteors per minute coming from the constellation of Leo. The display was so awesome, almost no one slept through it. If shouts and wails from neighbors didn’t wake people up, the bright flashes in the sky did.

Science of the day had no real explanation for meteors, but they came up with some fantastic theories. The wildly speculative reasoning gave way to scientific study by D. Olmsted. He presented his finding in January 1834. He observed the meteors radiating from a point in the constellation Leo and surmised they had originated from a cloud of particles in outer space. His further suppositions were erroneous but led to further study of the occurrence. The recurring pattern of the Leonid meteor showers was established.

The shower is associated with the comet Tempel-Tuttle. The shower is seen yearly around November 17 (a week on either side). At that time, Earth moves through a stream of particles left from the comet. The meteor shower of 1833 was truly spectacular over the entire North American continent east of the Rocky Mountains. The storms were again of superior strength in 1866 and 1867. They didn’t comply in 1899 and the comet was thought to be defunct. In 1966 another impressive show filled the night sky. The varying intensity of the shower occurs because the Earth’s orbit doesn’t always exactly intersect with the dust cloud as it did in 1833.

The Tempel-Tuttle or 55P comet was discovered on December 19, 1865. The comet was observed in 1699 but not recognized as recurring until the 1866 return. The comet passes by every 33 years and Earth encounters the debris stream while it is still condensed. The last perihelion was February 28, 1998 and the next is due on May 20, 2031. Study of the event continues with ever more sophisticated apparatus. Weather conditions are a factor as cloud cover blocks the view. As dust particles enter the atmosphere, air molecules ram the meteoroid which fragments. The atomized dust cools by glowing.

“[Gases] became ignited by electricity or phosphoric particles in the air.” – Charleston Courier (1833)

“The strong southern wind of yesterday may have brought a body of electrified air, which, by the coldness of the morning, was caused to discharge its contents towards the earth.” – United States Telegraph (1833)

“I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.” – Jack London

“Men of genius are often dull and inert in society; as the blazing meteor, when it descends to earth, is only a stone.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Meteor showers are the result of passing through cosmic debris. The meteoroids enter Earth’s atmosphere at very high speed and at a parallel trajectory. Because all the small debris, mostly smaller than a grain of sand, are travelling in parallel paths, they appear to us on the planet’s surface to be coming from a single radiant point. This is simply a matter of perspective and is similar to the artistic idea of a vanishing point when creating a picture using perspective. These showers are usually named for the constellation seen as their site of origin. The debris is left behind when a comet approaches the sun and is warmed. The concept of “dirty snowballs” was demonstrated by Fred Whipple in 1951. As the ice warms it releases rocks that are variable in size and ranging from grains of sand to boulders. The ice itself can also be from more that water and can include methane, ammonia, or other volatiles. All this debris is left behind and if the Earth intersects it correctly, we see a meteor shower.

Also on this day: Deadliest Natural Disaster of the Twentieth Century – In 1970, the Bhola cyclone hits land.
Sammy and May – In 1960, the two married.
Rescue – In 1901, the Caister-on-Sea incident took place.

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