Attack of the Leonids: Baltimoreans quiver as shower of fire fills the sky


SOME THOUGHT it was the end of the world. Some believed the heavens were sending signals of impending, dreadful events. A great war, perhaps. Or a cataclysmic change in the weather for the coming winter months. A few took nature's show calmly and philosophically and tried to read its message.

The skies were clear and cloudless over Baltimore, and as it turned out, over most of the East Coast during the early morning hours of Nov. 13, 1833. It was crisp and cool, inviting enough for an unusual PeterKumpanumber of people to be up and out of bed, all to be witnesses what was called the great rain of stars, or the shower of fire.

One city newspaper published this first-person account: "Being up this morning at 5 o'clock, I witnessed one of the most grand and alarming spectacles which ever beamed upon the eyes of man. The light in my room was so great that I could see the hour of the morning by my watch, which hung over the mantle. Supposing that there was a fire near at hand, probably on my own premises, I sprung to the window and beheld the stars, or some other bodies, presenting a fiery appearance, descending in torrents as rapid and numerous as I ever saw flakes of snow or drops of rain in the midst of a storm.

"Occasionally a large body of apparent fire would be hurled through the atmosphere which, without noise, exploded casting millions of fiery particles through the air. To the eye it presented the appearance of what may be called a raining of fire, for I can compare it to nothing else."

Another witness' account was published in the Baltimore Gazette and Advertiser: "All of a sudden the heavens became illuminated by thousands of shooting stars going in the direction of the northwest. The phenomenon lasted without intermission for nearly 30 minutes. The meteors were of various sizes -- some larger, some smaller, some forming long trains which remained for several seconds in the heavens.

"They were observed not in one part of the sky only, but the north, the south, the east and the west were equally spangled. At 20 minutes before 5 a.m. a meteor, we would suppose about 6 inches in diameter, exploded with considerable noise almost perpendicularly over the northwest part of the city. The blaze was splendid, so as to give the sky the appearance of sunrise. It shot in the direction of the northwest leaving a stream of light, which assumed a serpentine form, apparently of 30 feet in length, and lasted more than a minute."

In another account, Thomas Kenny, watching from the corner of Charles and Fayette streets, thought the show particularly wonderful because one meteorite described a figure that looked like the number three before burning out.

Newspapers from New York to Virginia to the Carolinas ran similar accounts of the rain of fire. One South Carolina story told ,, of a resident's fear that the flood of shooting stars produced: "I then opened the door, and it is difficult to say which excited me most -- the awfulness of the scene or the distressed cries of the Negroes. Upward of 100 lay prostrate on the ground -- some speechless and some with the bitterest cries, but with their hands raised, imploring God to save the world and them. The scene was truly awful for never did rain fall much thicker than the meteors fell towards the Earth."

Baltimore newspapers carried several different versions of the origin of the meteorites. Some thought they were stones ejected from volcanoes on the moon. Some believed they were shot out of the Earth's erupting volcanoes only to break up and fall back.

Scientists in 1833 were confident that the fire showers came from solid particles revolving out in space and then plunging down to burn out in the Earth's atmosphere. Meteors had been common to those studying the sky from the most ancient times. One Chinese classic describes an event in 687 B.C. that was similar to the American phenomenon that occurred on the East )) Coast in 1833. The Chinese described it as a night when, "stars fell like showers."

When scientists studied the 1833 event further they found that practically all the showers came from a point in the constellation Leo. These showers were named the Leonids for their origin, while others that came in August were labeled the Perseid showers (after Perseus) or the Geminid showers, which came in mid-December, from the Gemini constellation.

The Leonid showers were found to be irregular, not showing the same strength every year. They tended to be spectacular in their peak periods, every 33 or 34 years. Records in Japan, Korea and China show evidence of this same pattern going back all the way to 920 A.D. The Leonids were long-time visitors.

In 1866 and 1867 astronomers waited for another bright show by the Leonids, and "large numbers" appeared in November of both years. Scientists calculated that the stream of meteoroids from which the Leonids came was moving in almost the same orbit as a comet also discovered during those year -- fellow travelers in the heavens. Since that discovery, at least 10 other partnerships between comets and meteoroid streams have been identified.

The Leonids continued to return regularly but were not always as showy as they were in 1833. The Maryland Academy of Science mounted a watch from the roof of its building on North Charles Street during a cold week in November, 1932. Scientists wanted a close study and pictures of the showers. It isn't an easy task since a meteorite travels 30 to 60 times faster than a rifle bullet. It was a long wait and an erratic night until the strings of fire came "thick and fast" from Leo's constellation. One count had 122 coming in a minute.

The Leonids came back strong on the morning of Nov. 17, 1966. Again, it wasn't an 1833 repeat; a heavy cloud cover extended from Canada over the entire East Coast and an ordinary observer saw nothing. The heavy barrages, those "swords of fire" hanging in the sky came through only on radar, amounting to miserably small blips. Out in the clear Southwest, however, the show was spectacular. By one count, the Leonids were spraying the Earth with 40 blazing meteors per second.

That would have been enough to awe the innocents somewhere on Earth as it did the Baltimoreans in 1833 who had the chance to see the heavens performing an extraordinary and sublime spectacle -- a once-in-a-lifetime experience indeed.

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