The yearly Leonid meteor showers can be a splendid display; the showers for 2001 were memorable, even faded by city lights. The showers for 1833 were equally memorable—though not for their beauty. Startled Americans watched the many streaking meteors with confusion and trepidation; and some concluded that the brilliant bodies sliding down the sky and winking out overhead were the stars themselves, falling from the heavens as the world came to an end. “The Night the Stars Fell” entered American folklore, in family stories and in the work of quilt maker Harriet Powers.

Astronomical information at the time was … still tenuous. A meteor falling at dawn on December 14, 1807, near Reston, Connecticut, provided evidence to astronomers that bright things falling from the sky could actually be physical objects. (Young Samuel Griswold Goodrich, making up the household fires that cold morning, witnessed the fireball bright as the sun.)

A Glance at the Physical Sciences is one of Samuel Griswold Goodrich’s contributions on astronomy. (Peter Parley’s Dictionary of Astronomy was published eight years earlier.) Goodrich offered young readers a look at the solar system and its wonders, including meteors and “aërolites,” which, it was thought at the time, were separate phenomena. The discussion included a description of the Leonids of 1833.

Here are excerpts from Glance, on meteors (perhaps, says Goodrich, rocks hurled from the moon’s surface by volcanos) and those mysterious aërolites, especially the ones which—strangely—seemed to come from the same section of the sky each November.
Meteorites and the Leonids of 1833, by Samuel Griswold Goodrich (from A Glance at the Physical Sciences. Boston: Rand and Mann, 1849 [1844].)
[section on meteorites; pp. 48-49]

If such remote bodies as the fixed stars shone by reflected light, we should be unconscious of their existence. Each star must then be a sun, and may be presumed to have its system of planets, satellites, and comets, like our own; and for aught we know, myriads of bodies may be wandering in space unseen by us, of whose nature we can form no idea, and still less of the part they perform in the economy of the universe. Even in our own system, at its farthest limits, minute bodies may be revolving like the new planets, which are so small that their masses have hitherto been inappreciable, and there may be many still smaller.

Nor is this an unwarranted supposition; many such do come within the sphere of the Earth’s attraction, are ignited by the velocity with which they pass through the atmosphere, and are precipitated with great violence on the Earth. The fall of meteoric stones is much more frequent than is generally believed. Hardly a year passes without some instances occurring; and if it be considered that only a small part of the Earth is inhabited, it may be presumed that numbers fall in the ocean, or on the unoccupied part of the land, unseen by man. They are sometimes of great magnitude; the bulk of several has exceeded that of the planet Ceres, which is about 70 miles in diameter. One, which passed within 25 miles of the Earth, was estimated to weigh about 60,000 tons, and to move with a velocity of about 20 miles in a second; a fragment of it alone reached the ground. The obliquity of the descent of meteorites, the peculiar substances of which

p. 49

they are composed, and the explosion accompanying their fall, show that they are foreign to our system.

Luminous spots have occasionally appeared on the dark part of the moon. These have been ascribed to the light arising from the eruption of volcanoes; whence it has been supposed that meteorites have been projected from the moon by the force of volcanic eruption. It has even been computed that if a stone were projected from the moon in a vertical line, with an initial velocity of 10,992 feet in a second, (more than four times the velocity of a cannon-ball,) instead of falling back to the moon by the attraction of gravity, it would come within the sphere of the Earth’s attraction, and revolve about it like a satellite. These bodies, impelled either by the direction of the primitive impulse or by the disturbing action of the Sun, might ultimately penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere and arrive at its surface; but it is much more probable that they are asteroids revolving about the Sun, and diverted from their course by some disturbing force; at all events, they must have a common origin, from the uniformity of their chemical composition.

[section on aerolites; pp. 49-51]

Shooting stars and meteors differ from aërolites in several respects. Aërolites burst from the clear azure sky, and, darting along the heavens, are extinguished without leaving any residuum except a vapor-like smoke, and generally without noise. Calculations have shown them to be very high in the atmosphere—sometimes even beyond its supposed limit; and the direction of their motion is, for the most part, opposite to the

p. 50

motion of the earth in its orbit. The astonishing multitudes of shooting stars and fire-balls that have appeared within these few years, at stated periods, over the American continent, and other parts of the globe, warrant the conclusion that there is either a nebula, or that there are myriads of bodies revolving round the Sun, which become visible only when inflamed by entering our atmosphere.

One of these nebulae, or groups, seems to approach close to the Earth, in its annual revolution, on the 12th or 13th of November. On the morning of the 12th of November, 1799, thousands of shooting stars, mixed with large meteors, illuminated the heavens, for many hours, over the whole continent of America, from Brazil to Labrador; they were observed even in Greenland and Germany. Meteoric showers were seen off the coast of Spain, and in Ohio, on the morning of the 13th of November, 1831. In 1832, during many hours of the morning of the 13th of November, prodigious multitudes of shooting stars and meteors fell at Mocha, on the Red Sea, in the Atlantic, in Switzerland and England.

But by far the most splendid meteoric shower on record was in 1833. It began at nine o’clock in the evening of the 12th of November, and continued till sunrise the next morning. It extended from the great lakes of Canada, southward, to Jamaica, and from the 61st degree of longitude in the Atlantic, westerly, to the 100th degree in Central Mexico. Shooting stars and meteors, of the apparent size of Venus, Jupiter, and even the full moon, darted in myriads towards the horizon, as if all the stars in the heavens had started

p. 51

from their spheres. Those who witnessed this grand spectacle were surprised to see that every one of these luminous bodies, without exception, moved in lines which converged to one point in the heavens. None of them started from that point; but their paths, when traced backward, met in it like rays in a focus, and the manner of their fall showed that they descended from it in nearly parallel straight lines. The most extraordinary part of the phenomenon is, that this radiating point was observed to remain stationary, in the constellation Leo, for more than two hours and a half,—which proves the source of the meteoric shower to be altogether independent of the Earth’s rotation. Other observations showed it to be far above the atmosphere.

As all the circumstances of the phenomenon were similar, on the same day, and during the same hours, in 1832, and as extraordinary flights of shooting stars were seen at many places, both in Europe and America, on the 13th of November, 1834, and the two following years, proceeding also from a fixed point in the constellation Leo, it has been conjectured, with much apparent probability, that this nebula, or group of bodies, performs its revolution round the Sun in a period of about 182 days, in an elliptical orbit, and that its greatest distance from the Sun is about 95,000,000 of miles, which brings it in contact with the Earth’s atmosphere.

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