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"Aerolite" shower terrorizes Baltimore

One hundred years ago tonight, Marylanders - and Baltimoreans in particular - were rattled and amazed by what seemed like a fiery bombardment of a sort not seen seen since the British attack on Ft. McHenry in 1814.

Headlines in The Sun the next morning pulled no punches: "FIERY BALL HITS CITY; Brilliant Shower Of Aerolites Turns Night Into Day; ONE FALLS IN BELAIR MARKET; Heavens Appear White With Heat And Electric Lights Are Dimmed By Dazzling Vapor."

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The event occured just before 10 p.m., so from the start, our reporters were racing to gather the facts in the face of a looming deadline. They seemed hard-pressed to resolve the conflicting reports they were hearing that evening.

THE SUN: "Each of the individual observers from whom reports were received only saw one of the aerolites, but from the multiplicity of the accounts, of their direction and the descriptions of their light, it is evident there were many of them," the story asserted.

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"At about the same time the one landed in Belair Market, another was seen near Govanstown ... Other meteoric manifestations were observed at Reisterstown, Lawyers Hill, Howard County, East Baltimore street and South Baltimore, all of which seemed to be near the earth and going in various directions."

WEATHER BLOGGER: It seems likely now that all the observers in 1907 saw the same object - what is now more often called a "bolide," or a "fireball." These are unusually large, bright and persistent meteors. Here's a video of one that fell over Mexico last year.

Observers commonly describe them as coming in "just over the trees," beyond nearby buildings or hilltops. It's almost always a gross underestimate of their distance, which is more typically tens or hundreds of miles away. And that means plenty of people will be reporting the fall, each describing it as a nearby event. (Anyone recall the "Glen Burnie meteor"?) And I don't lend much weight to the fact that various observers differed in their descriptions of the "aerolites'" direction of flight. Lots of people are directionally challenged.

What seems quite accurate in the 1907 descriptions is the brilliance and color of the object.

THE SUN:  "Unlike the thousands of shooting stars that may be seen at the right time and place every night ... the intensity of the 'shooting stars' last night was such that its light outshone electric lights along the streets of the city and made its rays noticeable in brightly illuminated rooms. The glare from the sky, which attracted  hundreds of eyes heavenward ... had a distinct duration, which observers ... set at several seconds.

"Mr. J. Louis Brown, 21 Kenwood avenue, said he was walking on Kenwood avenue, near Baltimore street, when the sky became suddenly brilliant. He looked up just in time to see an aerolite flying through the air at a rapid rate. He said it moved from east to west. The light from it preceded it for a great distance, he said.

"A resident of Lawyer's Hill, near Relay ... said it looked like an immense flash of lightning only that the light cast by it was of a greenish color and much slower than lightning. At Reisterstown one of the aerolites was seen by several persons, who say it gave forth the brightness of day for several seconds.

Two Baltimore doctors saw the object from the 2100 blocks of Calvert and St. Pauls streets. They agreed that "the light of the 'star' with its trail of brilliant fire was the most wonderful sight they had ever beheld."

"The light seen down town was of a greenish blue and had an intensity and a distinction from the ordinary 'yellowness' of incandescent electric lights that made it observable in offices to persons who didn't have their eyes directed toward windows at the time," The Sun reported.

WEATHER BLOGGER: The color is not unusual for meteors. The green is produced by the excitation of oxygen molecules high in the atmosphere as the meteor streaks through the air and heats up. Here's one from Australia.

THE SUN: "The aerolite which fell in Belair Market created a furor among the hundreds of persons there. It appeared to be about one foot in diameter and had a tail of sparks about three feet long."

WEATHERBLOGGER: That's a fascinating detail. Clearly the meteor was many miles away, but the estimates here allow one to imagine how big it appeared in the sky. Wow!

THE SUN: "The market people and women who were making purchases were in a high state of fright when it loomed up before them and blinded them ... and while they were standing terrorstricken it fell on the market roof at Ensor street. An explosion followed, and upon investigation later it was found that in all probability the burning mass had been transformed into vapor and passed off."

WEATHERBLOGGER: The story also says they looked on the tin roof and they found nothing. No damage, no scorching. Obviously they misjudged the object's distance. It dropped below the roofline from where they stood and, believing it was much closer than it was, they assumed it fell on the roof. The explosion? Maybe a coincidence. Perhaps someone dropped a box of fish. More likely it was a sonic boom, which can accompany a bolide's fall. But you could not have convinced anyone who witnessed the event.

THE SUN: "Patrolman Charles L. Fields, of the Central district ... said, " 'Did I see the ball of fire? Yes I did, and I will never forget it as long as I live ... When I saw it first it was far off, and the first thing I knew was that the entire market space seemed ablaze. Never before was I under such a strong light ... The women and market people took fright and stared vacantly for several minutes after the ball fell on the roof. The moment the ball fell on the roof, its fiery appearance ceased. and small clouds of smoke were seen to pass off."

WEATHERBLOGGER: Sun reporters immediately sought scientific opinions about the event.

THE SUN: "Mr. Justice Stahn, secretary of the astronomical section of the Maryland Academy of Science, said last night there are such phenomena as balls of fire falling to the earth and vanishing in vapor or a quantity of froth ... 'There are various theories regarding their origin. Some suppose that the earth ages ago ejected the masses when the volcanic action was much greater than now, the force being so great as to throw them beyond the earth's attraction and after traveling about for ages they again come in contact with the earth.'"

Stahn continued: "It is also assumed that the moon ejects the matter from the lunar volcanoes. Their source is also supposed to be from comets, while others entertain the theory that during  the early ages some planet exploded and we are now gathering in the debris.'"

WEATHERBLOGGER: Well, Stahn wasn't all wrong. Volcanoes on Earth can't and never could hurl debris fast enough to reach orbit. And there are no lunar volcanoes. But comets, comet dust and rocks - from the impacts on the moon or Mars, or the unconsolidated debris of asteroids do contribute to the variety of objects that mankind has long witnessed in the night sky.

THE SUN: Stahn continued, getting better as he went along: "Other observers came to the conclusion that the stones of meteors came somewhere from space and gradually the theory was advanced that when they reached the earth's atmosphere, traveling with a velocity of almost 40 miles a second, the heat generated by the friction was so great as to cause them to become luminous."

"In fact, the heat in many cases has been so great that the bodies have exploded. I have seen such phenomena during the night, and on one occasion during daylight distinctly saw the trail of smoke left behind ... Astronomers frequently hear of the falling of such balls of fire. It is not strange that the mass of fire and smoke vanished into vapor when it fell on the roof. This frequently occurs."

 WEATHERBLOGGER: Bolides can explode as they fall, vaporize and leave no trace. But in the rare instance when a meteor actually strikes the ground, it can (though not always) strike with sufficient force to punch a hole in a roof, or a car, or blast a crater in the Earth's surface. Here's a video of a fireball that landed on a car in Peekskill, NY in 1992.  It's safe to say nothing struck the Belair Market on that evening a century ago. 

Thanks to Sun researcher Paul McCardell for alerting me to this curious anniversary.

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