The mid-to-late 1830s were a peak period in the sunspot cycle and, consequently, was a major period for auroras. In 1839, Ralph Waldo Emerson would grumble at the “cold arithmetical eyes” with which observers watched an aurora (journal, Sept 14), but in 1837 “Francis” emphasized for readers of the Youth’s Magazine the beauty of the skies over Cincinnati, Ohio. The two incidents recorded here correspond to periods of intense activity observed in New England. Francis’s use of the word “meteor” to describe the aurora is in keeping with early 19th-century usage, with the word referring to atmospheric phenomena of many kinds.
“The Aurora Borealis,” by “Francis” (from Youth’s Magazine, April 14, 1837; pp. 43-45)

The aurora borealis, or the northern lights, is a meteor, which appears in the northern part of the heavens, on cold evenings, in winter. It usually appears in streaks of yellow or red, the flashes rising from the horizon and shooting upwards in the forms of pyramids, to the zenith. It is sometimes seen in this country, but with far less brilliancy than in the more northern regions. In the northern parts of Europe, America, and Asia, it is frequently equal to the light of the full moon, and supplies, in a great measure, the light of the sun. Though the climate in those countries is extremely cold, the earth covered with trackless waste of snow, and all nature appears desolate and dreary, as soon as the short days are closed, the auroral light appears, and illuminates the sky with fires of a thousand colors and figures.

Sometimes a luminous arch is fixed towards the north, but more frequently they seem to cover the whole extent of the hemisphere. They then begin in the form of a great scarp of bright light, with its extremities on the horizon, and gliding with a swift motion up the sky, all the lights unite at the zenith, forming at the top, a kind of crown. Arcs of light often appears [sic] both in the north and south at once. Their summits approach each other, and the distance of their extremities widens towards the horizon. They appear in a great number of different figures, and are agitated by various motions. Their most common motion is like that of a pair of colors, waved in the air, and the different tints of their light give them the appearance of so many vast streamers of changeable silk. The flashes sometimes have the appearance of contending armies, fiery chariots, and a thousand other prodigies. The streaks are supposed to extend several thousand miles.

A traveler in Lapland, speaking of these lights, says: ‘On the 18th of December, saw a phenomenon of this kind, that in the midst of all the wonders to which I was now every day accustomed, raised my admiration. To the south, a great space of the sky appeared tinged with so lively a red, that the whole constellation of Orion looked as if it had been dipped in blood. This light which was at first fixed, soon moved and changed into other colors, violet and blue, settled into a dome, whose top stood a little to the south-west of the zenith. The moon shone bright, but did not in the least efface it.’

The polar lights are attributed to the effect of electricity in the atmosphere.

p. 44

Dr. Thieneman, who spent the winter of 1820-21 in Iceland, made numerous observations on them, of which the following are some of the general results. 1. The polar lights are in the lightest and highest clouds of our atmosphere. 2. They are not confined to the winter season or to the night, but are seen in favorable circumstances at all times; being only visible in the absence of the rays of the sun. 3. The lights have no ascertained connection with the earth. 4. He never heard any sounds proceeding from them. 5. Their common form, in Iceland, is the arched, and in a direction from N. E. and W. S. W. 6. Their motions are various, but always within the limits of the clouds which contain them.

The aurora appears in our climate, through the course of almost every winter, though generally with a very faint light. Perhaps the most splendid and beautiful one ever witnessed in this country, appeared on the evening of the 17th November, 1835. The weather was mild, and the atmosphere clear and serene. Before 6 o’clock, as the twilight was fading, a light was seen in the north and north west, which soon extended round to the north. At 6 o’clock, the position of the light had changed a little. About forty-five degrees of the northern horizon was lit up with a heavy, fiery light, something like that produced by a large fire in the night, at a distance, or reflected on the heavens above it. Some persons at first, supposed it to be a fire, and were expecting to hear the alarm given. At half past six, the light had much faded. Two large masses glided off one in an easterly, and the other in a westerly direction, leaving the sky nearly clear in the north. From these bodies, beams or pillars shot up towards the zenith, resembling somewhat in their appearance, the tail of a large comet. For two hours, the light continued to be seen in the north occasionally, shifting its position a little, and varying in brightness. At ten o’clock the light increased in brilliancy and extent, and about 90 degrees of the northern horizon was spanned by an arch of crimson. It is very difficult to convey an idea of its splendor. The blue vault of the heavens was perfectly clear, and studded with the most brilliant stars, and over this ground work was spread a veil of the most fine and delicate crimson, unsurpassed in beauty by the scarlet and crimson hues of the rainbow. The outline of the arch was irregular, varying from ten to fifteen or twenty degrees in diamter. I had the pleasure of witnessing part of this exhibition, but no written description can do justice to its beauty, and the pleasant impressions which it made on our minds. About 11

p. 45

o’clock, it had nearly or quite disappeared, and though observations were made after that time, it was seen no more.

There was a vivid and beautiful exhibition of the aurora, on the evening of the 26th of January last, which was observed in this place, and in the middle and eastern states. The corruscations of light were very bright and extended from the horizon to the zenith, shifting their positions at different periods. All accounts of it unite in representing the scene as one of uncommon brightness and magnificence. It is not improbable that the aurora may be seen next winter. If it should appear, I hope the youthful readers of the Magazine will not fail to view it and make all the observations they can.

Cincinnati, March, 1837.

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