Thursday, March 27, 2008

from Meteors, Aerolites, Storms and Atmospheric Phenomena, 1886

(page 212)

An Extraordinary Meteor—In a letter addressed to M. A. Quételet, the permanent secretary of the Royal Academy of Belgium, with regard to a remarkable meteor observed at Hurworth in October, 1854, Sir J. Herschel quotes the following description, which we give substantially as it appeared in the Sheffield Times. It was published by a person living at Hurworth, who, in company with his brother, saw the phenomenon:

"My brother and I were returning home at nine o'clock in the evening, and had just reached the end of the village, and were about to cross a meadow of considerable breadth. The sky was clear and starry, but dark. We were looking at one of the brightest constellations, when, at the very point on which our gaze was fixed, we beheld a magnificent sight. A cry of admiration and astonishment escaped us both.

"What we saw was a globe of fire, at least double the size of the moon when it rises. It was as red as blood, and shot out sparkling rays, which were marked in sharp outlines, as old engravings represent the rays of the sun. It drew after it a long trail of light of the most beautiful limpid golden color. The train had no resemblance to the hairy tail of a comet, but was more like a solid column, of great breadth and perfect compactness, standing out against the deep blue of the sky. In the beginning it presented the appearance of a straight line, but as it mounted the heavens, it described the curve of an arch with sparkling scintillations of great intensity, which, however, did not pass beyond the well-defined exterior lina. Its direction was from northeast to southwest, and its length so enormous that, when its nucleus was disappearing under the southwestern horizon, the tail was still risible at the northeast in all its original splendor.

"When this globe of fire was immediately above us, it seemed to pause for a moment with vibrations so violent that I was afraid it would fall on us. But, the next instant, I saw that the vibration was only a whirling motion, and that it was turning rapidly on its axis, passing from a vivid fiery red to the deep red mentioned above, without, however, losing any thing of its general appearance. We continued to see it, looking as brilliant as ever, behind the trees on the other side of the village. While this globe was passing over us it seemed a little smaller than when it first appeared on the horizon, no doubt because of its great elevation, just as the sun and the moon look smaller at their meridian than when they are rising.

"As I have been, for a long time past, in the habit of watching the stars, I have seen several brilliant meteors, but never any that could bear the least comparison to this one, whether for dimensions or for splendor and duration. Owing to its height in the air, it must have been visible at a great distance, and I hoped that it would have been seen and described by intelligent observers. As such, however, has not been the case, I have thought it my duty to furnish some details concerning a phenomenon so grand and striking."

According to Sir John Herschel's letter, this phenomenon was seen, in like manner, by many other persons, at Darlington, at Durham, and at Dundee, in Scotland:

"It is quite remarkable that, in consulting the register which records the observations made of the famous meteor that crossed England on the 18th of April, 1783, we found that it was seen at Windsor about nine o'clock, which was precisely the hour at which we saw this one, my brother having looked at his watch at the moment of its appearance. The meteor of 1783, having appeared during the twilight of a summer evening, would, no doubt, have been more generally observed than the latter phenomenon, which showed itself in a dark night at the close of autumn. But, for this very reason, the latter should have been much more brilliant than the former one, and it is to be regretted that the lateness of the hour, or rather of the season, should have prevented it from being as generally observed.

"No noise, accompanying its passage, reached us. Those who saw the enormous globe of fire, sweeping across the sky with inconceivable velocity, will never forget that magnificent and wonderful meteor. In beholding unrolled above us that splendid train of light, which covered more than half of the sombre vault of the heavens with a golden arch, we involuntarily thought of the spectacle that must be presented to the eyes of the inhabitants of Saturn by the ring that encircles that planet. The tail, near where it ended, broadened enormously; it seemed more transparent, and less compact, yet with well-defined outlines, and rounding off at the extremity. The illustration accompanying this letter was sketched with the hope of attracting general attention to an occurrence so interesting, rather than with any pretension of giving even a feeble idea of this rare and splendid phenomenon."

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