Fireball over New York, 1842

June 21, 2019

Meteors weren’t entirely understood in the early 1800s, when they were considered some sort of atmospheric phenomenon or maybe rocks shot out of volcanoes on the moon. Fireballs wowed viewers then just as they do now; young Samuel Griswold Goodrich, up before dawn on December 14, 1807, to build up the fires in his family’s house, was startled when “[s]uddenly the room was filled with light, and looking up, I saw through the windows a ball of fire, nearly the size of the moon, passing across the heavens from northwest to southeast. It was at an immense height, and of intense brilliancy. Having passed the zenith, it swiftly descended toward the earth: while still at a great elevation it burst, with three successive explosions, into fiery fragments. The report was like three claps of rattling thunder in quick succession.”

So a fireball lighting the skies over New York and Pennsylvania on April 11, 1842, inspired a certain amount of printed ink. The brightness of the fireball would have been even more impressive in a time of little light pollution. The description in The New World is vivid and— Okay: there’s a lot here that just doesn’t sound plausible. Fluid falls onto the observer, who feels heat and smells sulphur and arrives at his destination with a scorched face. His faintness and difficulty breathing can be ascribed to panic; the heat and sulphur could be the product of a startled imagination; and the fluid is so hazily described that it might be a product of the aftereffect of looking at a bright object. But scorching? Was it a sunburn that developed during the night?

Still, the piece is detailed enough to provide a vivid mental picture of a memorable event—almost as good as a dash cam video.

“Splendid Meteor” (from The New World, 23 April 1842; p. 274)

A most extraordinary display of meteoric fire was observed in the town of Westfield, in this State, on the morning of the eleventh instant. It was accompanied by a loud noise—first an explosion, then a snapping and grating sound. It appeared a large and long-extended mass of fire. The light which it emitted was as bright as noon-day. Its disappearance was singular. The long tail seemed to separate from the nucleus, or head, and the latter rushed on, emitting a dark blue flame; but there was no division of its body into fragments, or any thing else to indicate a fracture, unless indeed the very separation of the fiery and blue portions was the result of the explosion. A Mr. Palmer, who was on his way from Dunkirk to Westfield, stated to the editor of the Chautauque County Messenger, that, when two or three miles from Dunkirk, he was suddenly enveloped in a painfully-bright shower of light, proceeding from a mass of fluid or jelly-like substance, which fell around and upon him, producing a sulphurous smell, a great difficulty of breathing, and a feeling of faintness, with a strong sensation of heat. As soon as he could recover from his astonishment, he perceived the body of the meteor passing above him, seeming to be about a mile high. It then appeared to be in diameter about the size of a large steamboat pipe, near a mile in length! Its dimensions varied soon; becoming first much broader, and then waning away in diameter and length until the former was reduced to about eight inches, and the latter a fourth of a mile, when it separated into pieces which fell to the earth, and almost immediately he heard the explosion. On arriving at Westfield, in the morning, his face had every appearance of having been severely scorched; his eyes were much affected, and he did not recover from the shock it gave his system for two or three days.

The same phenomenon was observed in several other towns adjacent, in New York and Pennsylvania. In copying the above account, the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser says—“At Erie and Rochester, places about one hundred and fifty miles apart in a straight line, the light was nearly as vivid as that of day. This shows the immense magnitude and great height of the meteor.”

What will Professor Olmsted say to all this? Will he not be indignant that a meteor should appear in any place beside New Haven?

[Note: “Professor Olmsted” was Denison Olmsted, who pioneered the study of meteors; the New Haven meteor no doubt was the one witnessed by Samuel Goodrich in 1807, a piece of which is in the mineralogy and meteoritics collection at Yale (in, of course, New Haven, Connecticut).]

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