03 November 2013

"Thick Like Rain"

One of those chance things you come upon that distract you far away in time and place.

A meteor storm was seen by two awestruck young children of Adam Spencer UE, on the Niagara Peninsula in 1799:
"The shower of stars that was visible in North and South America November 13, 1799 was witnessed by them. Their fire, which at that time was always kept alive in the fireplace of the homes, by banking up at night, had gone out, and two of the children were sent in the early morning hours to a neighbour for coals. This was not an uncommon occurrence in those days as there were no matches, fire could only be obtained by flint. My grandmother then a very little girl and an older brother, together witnessed the beautiful sight. She said the stars fell thick like rain until a few feet from the ground and then disappeared. The beauty of it was beyond description, though awe inspiring the children were not afraid, but many of the people in the neighbourhood were panic stricken, thinking that the end of the world had come, or was near."(1)

The spectacular sight the night before was apparently the first record of a meteor shower, probably because astronomer Andrew E. Douglass reported the same event from a ship near the Florida Keys:
"the whole heaven appeared as if illuminated with sky rockets, flying in an infinity of directions, and I was in constant expectation of some of them falling on the vessel. They continued until put out by the light of the sun after day break."(2)
 Also according to This Day in History:
The Leonids meteor shower is an annual event that is greatly enhanced every 33 years or so by the appearance of the comet Tempel-Tuttle. When the comet returns, the Leonids can produce rates of up to several thousand meteors per hour that can light up the sky on a clear night. Douglass witnessed one such manifestation of the Leonids shower, and the subsequent return of the comet Tempel-Tuttle in 1833 is credited as inspiring the first organized study of meteor astronomy.

Meteorologist Joe Rao says:
"Other accounts were brought to light of a shower of thousands of bright meteors on November 12, 1799, described by the Prussian scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt from his camp in CumanĂ£, Venezuela. In his words, there was 'no part of the sky so large as twice the Moon's diameter not filled each instant by meteors.' An observer in Florida that same night noted that the meteors were 'at any one instant as numerous as the stars,' while at Iserstadt, Germany, 'bright streaks and flashes' were seen even though day had already broken."(3)

As we know, spectacular meteor showers are not everyday happenings. The largest ones can more or less be predicted and measured every thirty-odd years, thus the flurry of popular interest when celestials align. November is usually the time of year for watching.

We are so sophisticated now we do not fear that the sky is falling. We can share the Spencers' childish rapture at nature's dazzling cosmic display. You can bet they remembered it all their days and obviously passed the story on.

 (1) Eugene O'Leary, "Notes on the Spencer Family," 15 May 1914; Toronto Branch, United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada (UELAC), Accession Box 994.005.1, File 16, Correspondence January-June 1914.
(2) "First Meteor Shower on Record," This Day in History (http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-meteor-shower-on-record : accessed 20 March 2013).
(3) Joe Rao, "The Night the Stars Fell," Illinois Genealogy Trails History Group (http://genealogytrails.com/ill/stars.htm : accessed 20 March 2013); originally from Sky and Telescope Magazine, 1998.

© 2013 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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