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STRANGE DOINGS IN THE SKY, 1864


2012 December 17

Eighteen-hundred and sixty-four ... the year of the Orgueil meteorite. The American Journal of Science [March, 1865] reported: "On the evening of the 14th of May, 1864, a very bright fireball was seen in France throughout the whole region from Paris to the Pyrenees. Loud detonations were heard in the neighbourhood of Montaubon, and a large number of stones came down near the villages of Orgueil and Nohic. The passage of the meteor was witnessed by a large number of intelligent observers, since it occurred early in the evening ...

"This fall of meteorites is of peculiar interest. While we have over a hundred large fireballs and detonating meteors whose paths through the atmosphere have been computed with more or less precision, there are only four or five of them from which stones have been known to come. Of these four or five, only one, the Weston meteor, has been so well observed that we can speak with confidence of its path.

"The published accounts show that the Orgueil meteor was first seen at an altitude greater than 55 miles, that it exploded at an altitude of about 29 miles, and that it was descending in a line inclined at the least 20° or 25° to the horizon. The velocity must have been not less than 15 or 20 miles per second. This example affords the strongest proof that the stone-producing meteors and the detonating meteors are phenomena not essentially unlike."

The great Orgueil fall turned many people's eyes to the sky, where they saw some surprising things. From The Astronomical Register 3, 53 (1865):

"LARGE FIREBALL. --- Account of a large fireball seen at Poggio Ubertini, near Florence. (Extract of a letter from Madame Baldelli):--

"On the 1st of last month (November 1864), wandering out after dark, I saw at about six minutes to 11, in the direction of Stella Polaris, one of the most remarkable meteoric appearances in the sky I have ever seen (and I have seen some very curious ones). A white globe of fire many times larger than the full moon seemed hanging almost motionless in the air; a large portion of the surrounding heavens was lighted up by it, so much so that my head being turned away from it, I mechanically apprehended it was moonlight, though, had I thought at all, I should have known that no moon was at that time in sight; but a bright shimmering of light on a tall bay tree not far from me recalled my attention, and turning I saw this fireball, white for a moment, shades of orange and blue passing over its surface, the latter gaining on the former. After a full minute's time (after I had turned towards it) it disappeared suddenly -- vanishing, not appearing to move from where it was; only just before its disappearance a smaller ball was seen immediately below it, of a fiery orange colour, the first one appearing at that moment of the same hue.

"I called Baldelli often whilst looking at it, but he had left the drawing-room, which opened on the grounds, and did not hear me. The servants in the kitchen (also on the ground-floor, but far away from where I was) thought the bright light came from sheet lightning."

Strange, but this is much stranger: From The St. Louis Democrat, 1865 October 30:

"Mr. James Lumley, an old Rocky Mountain trapper who has been stopping at the Everett House for several days, maked [sic] a most remarkable statement to us ... [H]e was engaged in trapping in the mountains about seventy-five or one hundred miles above the Great Falls of the Upper Missouri, and in the neighborhood of what is known as Cadotte Pass. Just after sunset one evening, he beheld a bright luminous body in the heavens, which moved with great rapidity in an easterly direction. It was plainly visible for at least five seconds, when it suddenly separated into particles, resembling, as Mr. Lumley describes it, the bursting of a sky-rocket in the air. A few minutes later, he heard a heavy explosion, which jarred the earth very perceptibly, and this was shortly after followed by a rushing sound, like a tornado sweeping through the forest. A strong wind sprang up about the same time, but suddenly subsided. The air was also filled with a peculiar odor of a sulphurous character.

"These incidents would have made a slight impression on the mind of Mr. Lumley, but for the fact that on the ensuing day he discovered, at the distance of about two miles from his camping place, that, as far as he could see in either direction a path had been cut through the forest, several rods wide-giant trees uprooted or broken off near the ground- the tops of hills shaved off and the earth plowed up in many places.

"Great and widespread havoc was everywhere visible. Following up this track of desolation, he soon ascertained the cause of it in the shape of an immense stone driven into the side of a mountain ... An examination of this stone, or so much of it as was visible, showed that it had been divided into compartments and that in various places it was carved with curious hieroglyphics. More than this, Mr. Lumley also discovered fragments of a substance resembling glass, and here and there dark stains, as though caused by a liquid. He is confident that the hieroglyphics are the work of human hands, and that the stone itself, although but a fragment of an immense body, must have been used for some purpose by animated beings.

"Strange as this story appears, Mr. Lumley relates it with so much sincerity that we are forced to accept it as true. It is evident that the stone which he discovered, was a fragment of the meteor which was visible in this section in September last. It will be remembered that it was seen in Leavenworth, Galena and in this city by Col. Bonneville. At Leavenworth it was seen to separate into particles or explode.

"Astronomers have long held that it is probable that the heavenly bodies are inhabited -- even the comets -- and it may be that the meteors are also. Possibly, meteors could be used as a means of conveyance by the inhabitants of other planets, in exploring space, and it may be that hereafter some future Columbus, from Mercury or Uranus, may land on this planet by means of a meteoric conveyance, and take full possession thereof -- as did the Spanish n avigators of the New World in 1492, and eventually drive what is known as the 'human race' into a condition of the most abject servitude. It has always been a favorite theory with many that there must be a race superior to us, and this may at some future time be demonstrated in the manner we have indicated."

And not so far away in another part of the West: Samuel Clemens in The Californian, 1864 November 19 [from Barbara Schmidt's wonderful Mark Twain site]: "A Full and Reliable Account of the Extraordinary Meteoritic Shower of Last Saturday Night ...

"I began my observations early in the evening, previously providing myself with the very best apparatus I could find wherewith to facilitate my labors. I got a telescopic glass tumbler, and two costly decanters, (containing eau de vie and Veuve Cliquot to wash out the instrument with whenever it should become clouded), and seated myself in my window, very nearly under the constellation Leo. I then poured about a gill of liquid from each decanter into the telescopic tumbler and slowly elevated it to an angle of about ninety degrees. I did not see anything ...

"Very well; after I had washed out my glass the third time, three or four stars, of about the nineteenth magnitude, I should judge, shot from the zenith and fell in the general direction of Oakland. During the fourth wash, and while I had one eye sighted on Venus and the other one closed in blissful repose, that planet fell upon the roof of the Russ House and bounced off into Bush street; immediately afterward, Jupiter fell and knocked a watchman's eye out - at least I think it was that star, because I saw the watchman clap his hand to his eye and say 'By Jupiter!' ...

"Up to this time the wind had been north by northeast half west, and I noticed an uncommon dryness in the atmosphere, but it was less marked after I applied the fifth wash. My barometer, never having had any experience in falling stars, got hopelessly tangled in trying to get the run of things, and after waltzing frantically between 'stormy' and 'falling weather' for awhile without being able to make up its mind, it finally became thoroughly demoralized and threw up its commission. My thermometer did not indicate anything; I noted this extraordinary phenomenon, of course, but at the same time I reasoned - and, I think, with considerable sagacity - that it was less owing to the singular condition of the atmosphere than to the fact that there was no quicksilver in the instrument...

"About this time the wind changed and quite a shower of stars fell, lasting about twenty minutes; a lull ensued, and then came several terrific discharges of thunder and lightning, and how it poured! you couldn't see the other side of the street for the hurtling tempest of stars! I got my umbrella - which I had previously provided along with my other apparatus - and started down the street ...

"The meteoric storm abated gradually, and finally ceased, but by that time the stars had cut my umbrella nearly all to pieces, and there were a dozen or more sticking in it when I lowered it ... As I was meandering down the street, pondering over the matters treated of in the preceding paragraph, I ran against another man, and he squared off for a fight. I squared off, also, and dashed out with my left, but he dodged and 'cross-countered,' that is to say, he ducked his head to one side and avoided my blow, and at the same time he let go with his right and caved the side of my head in. At this moment I beheld the most magnificent discharge of stars that had occurred during the whole evening. I estimated the number to be in the neighborhood of fifteen hundred thousand ...

"While my stranger and myself were staggering under the two terrific blows which we had exchanged ... a singular star dropped in our midst which I would have liked well to possess, because of its quaint appearance, and because I had never seen anything like it mentioned in Mr. Dick's astronomy. It emitted a mild silvery lustre, and bore upon its face some characters which, in the fervor of my astronomical enthusiasm, I imagined spelt 'Police - 18,' but of course this was an absurd delusion. I only mention it to show to what lengths scientific zeal will sometimes carry a novice. This marvellous meteor was already in the possession of another enthusiast, and he would not part with it."



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