1841 description of a 'meteor'

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I have been reading a book: _Lights and Shadows of Sailor Life_ by Joseph G. Clark.

It is a memoir of the 1838 to 1842 United States Exploring Expedition.

One event that is vividly described is a 'meteor' that falls while the author is anchored in Puget Sound on May 31, 1841. It is described as being so bright that it lights up the sky like a sheet of fire and that it took one hour and twenty five minutes to fall, before making a clear impact.

This is a very vivid description and sounds unlike (to my presumably less than comprehensive knowledge of the subject) like any meteor that I have heard described, particularly the duration of its visible flight.

Could he be describing a meteor or perhaps something else? Was this description perhaps of some otherwise historically recorded event?

Just curious.... the description really got my attention. I can reproduce the relevant paragraph if there is interest, I don't have the book at my fingertips, but can easily enough retrieve it.

In fact, here is a digital rendering of the book:

https://archive.org/details/lightsandshadow01clargoog

archive.org has several different copies of it, if this one proves troublesome.

Here we go: Here is the relevant text from Chapter XIV, page 217:

-----------------
At ten minutes past 8 o'clock, on the 31st, a meteor of immense magnitude and brilliancy shot across the heavens in a north-west direction, illuminating the heavens to such an extent that there was a resemblance to a sheet of fire, till it nearly reached the horizon, when it exploded, sending off myriads of corruscations in every direction. When it first commenced its flight, it was exceedingly slow in its descent, but as it increased its distance towards the horizon, it increased its velocity considerably, until it burst. Many old seamen on board never witnessed a meteor half so large, nor one whose light remained so long visible. From the time it was first seen until it entirely disappeared, was one hour and twenty-five minutes.
-------------------------------

What do you think?

diogenesNY
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
Shape, composition, and entry angle could be accountable for it's long descent. For example, look up the Hoba meteor and how it left no crater despite it being estimated at 66 tons.
 
  • #3
phyzguy
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Given the duration, and the description as a "sheet of fire", it sounds more like a very intense aurora.
 
  • #4
Bandersnatch
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Given the duration, and the description as a "sheet of fire", it sounds more like a very intense aurora.
1. It would have to be really intense, given how it's ~48N, and at 8 'o clock at the end of May, when there's still daylight.
2. How likely is it that seasoned sailors would mistake an aurora for a meteor?

From the time it was first seen until it entirely disappeared, was one hour and twenty-five minutes.
The description is a bit cryptic. What exactly did happen during the one and a half hours? It needn't necessarily mean that it was the atmospheric passage stage that was visible for that long.
For example, it could have been a comet, or a heavily fragmented meteoroid, visible for a good while already when above the atmosphere (illuminated by the setting sunlight, maybe?), and the final stage of the descent - when it appeared to accelerate due to the shortened perspective, and started actually burning in the atmosphere - could have been just seconds of the reported observable time.
 
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  • #5
Drakkith
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The description is a bit cryptic. What exactly did happen during the one and a half hours? It needn't necessarily mean that it was the atmospheric passage stage that was visible for that long.
That was my thought as well. Whatever it threw into atmosphere during its descent and explosion could be what the author is referring to when he says "nor one whose light remained so long visible".
 
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  • #6
phyzguy
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That was my thought as well. Whatever it threw into atmosphere during its descent and explosion could be what the author is referring to when he says "nor one whose light remained so long visible".
Yes, what you and bandersnatch are saying makes sense. These large meteors can leave a glowing track in the sky of debris that lasts a long time. So we could imagine that the actual meteor lasted only a few seconds and the track was what was visible for over an hour.
 
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  • #8
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Thanks for the thoughts. It is always a bit difficult extracting facts from brief descriptions of historical works.

Seems it 'could' have been a meteor or a few other things. Given the specific date and place, it occurred to me that something so dramatic might have been observed by others and possibly recorded as a historical event.

diogenesNY
 
  • #9
sophiecentaur
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Thanks for the thoughts. It is always a bit difficult extracting facts from brief descriptions of historical works.

Seems it 'could' have been a meteor or a few other things. Given the specific date and place, it occurred to me that something so dramatic might have been observed by others and possibly recorded as a historical event.

diogenesNY
Yes. My first thought was "Corroboration ????"
Could it have had a terrestrial origin? I wonder what sort of energy source would have been needed for it to have been described at the time in those terms. Could a meteor have landed and caused a fire, just over the horizon? Witnesses are notoriously bad at coming to their own conclusions and then reporting an event so that it fits their own explanation. (The day before yesterday, there was a traffic collision outside my house. The guy who caused it all claimed he had been travelling in totally the other direction.
 
  • #10
CWatters
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Thanks for the thoughts. It is always a bit difficult extracting facts from brief descriptions of historical works.

Seems it 'could' have been a meteor or a few other things. Given the specific date and place, it occurred to me that something so dramatic might have been observed by others and possibly recorded as a historical event.

diogenesNY
I tried to Google another reference to one on that date but couldn't find one.
 
  • #13
CWatters
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Have modified the link as suggested.

I couldnt see away to copy and paste the relevant paragraph from the book, at least not on my tablet.
 
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  • #14
Tom.G
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I couldnt see away to copy and paste the relevant paragraph from the book, at least not on my tablet.
Yeah, even on a full size computer Google has the page well protected, they even disable the browser text search. I've found only two ways to copy that: Screen capture; or view the page source (ctrl-u in many browsers), copy the relevant text to the clipboard, then clipboard to destination. What a pain.
 
  • #15
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Very cool. That diary if from the same expedition, btw.

diogenesNY
 
  • #17
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I think it is fairly clear what the long duration was about. You have probably seen a vapor trail from an aircraft illuminated by the sun while the sun has set where you are. No, I'm not putting an jet airplane in 1841, but a meteor can cause the same ice crystals to form. Or the moisture could come from an evaporating comet, or smoke/soot particles, same source. Yes, any of those imply a very shallow incidence angle, but we have those anyway. Doesn't help with the composition of the object though, even an iron meteor could cause a vapor trail if the conditions were right. Think of a cloud chamber.
 
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  • #18
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The smoke/dust trail over Chelyabinsk lasted for some time after the event, and at least on one side, the Western Side, come to think of it, being very bright which is how they would have seen the possible meteor in Puget Sound area (where I grew up and live) after it had burnt up. I am sure it took at least an hour for the high altitude winds to break up the trail, even with Chelyabinsk.
 
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