“And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.” – Revelation 6:13
On the night of November 13, 1833, a young Illinois man was awakened by an urgent rap on the door. A Presbyterian Deacon was issuing warnings to his neighbors that the day of judgement had arrived. The young man walked outside to see hundreds of falling stars in the sky. Noting that the constellations were in their usual spots, Abraham Lincoln concluded correctly that this was an unusually intense meteor storm and not the end of the world. This scene was repeated across North America as many resorted to the biblical interpretation of what was happening. When the Sun rose the following morning, a shaken populace realized life would go on as normal. This meteor storm would begin our modern understanding of the science behind these events.
The world of 1833 was one without electric lights and the Moon had set in the early evening giving North America an unobstructed view of one of the great astronomical events in modern times. The Leonids, an annual meteor shower that yields about a dozen meteors per hour, generated tens of thousands of meteors per hour in 1833. Prior to this event, meteors were thought to be an atmospheric phenomena. The word meteor is derived from Greek as meaning high in the sky and of course, is also the basis for the word meteorology. Some good old fashion detective work by Denison Olmsted kick-started the modern science of meteors.
Olmsted examined depictions of the meteor storm from across the nation via newspaper accounts, an arduous task 165 years before Google arrived on the scene. His report included descriptions from New Haven, Boston, West Point, Maryland, Ohio, South Carolina, Georgia, and Missouri. Olmsted also received word of a similar event in 1799, a finding that would play a key role in his investigation. A cold front had moved through the eastern half of the United States dropping temperatures 15 to 30 degrees. This had the effect of clearing haze from the previous days unusually warm weather making the seeing even more ideal.
Olmsted had noted there were no unusual observations from magnetic instruments. This is important as some reports came in that the storm was accompanied by aurora. Finally, Olmsted discovered that the meteors had radiated from a point in the constellation Leo.
This data had led Olmsted to deduce that meteors were not an atmospheric event but caused by a cloud of debris in space. This theory was strengthened in subsequent years as observations confirmed the meteor shower was an annual event – albeit with much less intensity than the 1833 storm. The question remained, where did this debris come from and why was the 1833 storm so unique in its magnitude? It would take another three decades to obtain the answer.
In 1866, Comet Tempel-Tuttle was discovered as it approached the Sun. It had been observed before, but it was on this pass where its 33 year orbit was calculated to intersect the Earth’s orbit. As a comet approaches the Sun, it forms two tails. Radiation pressure from sunlight creates a dust tail, and ultraviolet radiation ionizes gas from the comet which is then swept away by the solar wind. Cometary tails are very tenuous. In fact, you could fit the contents of the tail inside a suitcase. However, when these small particles strike the Earth’s atmosphere at high speeds, they burn up and cause the streaking meteors we see on the ground. In the case of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, it leaves a fresh deposit of debris every 33 years. This will often, as in the case of the 1833 pass, result in a spectacular meteor storm.
All annual meteor showers are produced this way and the interactive below demonstrates how Comet Tempel-Tuttle generates the annual Leonids meteor shower.
Can a meteor storm generate an aurora as some reported in 1833? The answer is no. Comet debris are insufficient in mass to disturb the Earth’s magnetic field to create an aurora in the mid-latitudes. It is possible the quantity of meteors created an optical illusion of background light mistaken fo an aurora.
In 1866, observers in Europe measured hundreds of meteors per hour confirming the comets role in producing the storm. Some detective work was required to link Comet Tempel-Tuttle’s prior passes to other meteor storms. It was discovered that Chinese astronomers observed a Leonid storm in 902 AD. In 1630, two days after Johannes Kepler passed away, another Leonid storm was seen. And in 1799, as noted by Dennison Olmsted’s research, an intense storm occurred. A large storm such as these do not happen with each pass. The years 1899 and 1932 produced upticks in meteor counts, but were disappointments for those hoping for a repeat of the 1833 storm. However, 1966 & 1999 produced bursts of several thousand meteors per minute. Still, the 1833 event stands alone as the greatest of all meteor storms.
The legend of the 1833 Leonids lived for decades afterwards. Frederick Douglass recounted his memory of the meteor storm in his 1881 autobiography.
“…was also the year of that strange phenomenon when the heavens seemed about to part with their starry train. I witnessed this gorgeous spectacle, and was awe-struck. The air seemed filled with bright descending messengers from the sky. It was about daybreak when I saw this sublime scene..” – Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass , page 127.
Olmsted wrote in his 1834 report on the event:
“Probably no celestial phenomenon has ever occurred in this country, since its first settlement, which was viewed with so much admiration and delight by one class of spectators, or with so much astonishment and fear by another class.”
By the end of the 19th Century, the nature of meteor showers was understood not to be a harbinger of the end of the world. America had experienced much history between 1833 and 1900. Frederick Douglass was five years away from freedom when he witnessed the 1833 meteor storm. Lincoln was 30 years away from residing over the most costly war in American history. By the end of the century, America was an emerging power that over the ensuing five decades and two world wars, would take over global leadership formally held by the European colonial powers. Leaving fear and superstition behind in favor of knowledge and education played no small role in that transformation.
*Image atop post is a woodcut carving of 1833 Leonid meteor shower over Niagara Falls. One witness described as such: “No spectacle so terribly grand and sublime was ever before beheld by man as that of the firmament descending in firery torrents over the dark and roaring cataract.” – From the Bible Readings for the Home Circle, page 367.