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HomeNews100 Years Ago/HistoryFiery Snowflakes from the Sky: The Leonid Meteor Shower of November 1833

Fiery Snowflakes from the Sky: The Leonid Meteor Shower of November 1833

By Philip R. Devlin

(November 15, 2022) — It happens every November. Cosmic dust, rocks, ice, and debris, apparently from the constellation Leo, fly by the Earth, sometimes creating a spectacular light show. It’s called the Leonid Meteor Show. This year the show peaks on November 18-19, but it will pale in comparison to the 1833 show.

The 1833 show both amazed and terrified people in North America, as up to 150,000 shooting stars fell per hour on November 12-13 in 1833. Here’s what the Vermont Telegraph newspaper reported about the show: ”A most remarkable exhibition in the firmament was witnessed by multitudes early on the morning of the 13th. It was between 5 and 6 o’clock…but we have heard of its being noticed as early as 2.”

Here’s what the Philadelphia National Gazette had to say about the cosmic fireworks:

“The line of descent was rectilinear; the course from the direction of the Zenith to the horizon…in a line varying from 10 to 45 degrees from a vertical line…Much diversity of size and of the degree of brilliancy was observed. Whilst many, in their sudden transit, would exhibit only a train of pale light…others, bursting suddenly upon the sight, would blaze splendidly through the whole extent of their course, impressing the eye for a few moments with the appearance of a brilliant line of light.”

One Connecticut observer reported in the November 18, 1833 edition of the Hartford Courant that, “The exhibition that I have described was the most splendid vision of pyrotechny I ever saw.” Here’s what the Litchfield Enquirer reported on November 14, 1833:

“Singular Phenomenon: Yesterday morning, between 5 and 6 o’clock, some of our citizens observed a very singular and, at first, alarming phenomenon. A dark cloud was seen hanging over the village, and from the sides, thousands of meteors, like shooting stars, were constantly descending on the earth, some perpendicularly, and others in a zig-zag, lightning-like course. The cloud passed away almost instantaneously, and still the meteors continued falling and shooting until near broad day…and occasionally a snapping, crackling noise was heard, like those following the escape of sparks from an electric battery.”

According to experts on the subject, the Leonid Meteor Shower peaks about every 33 years, which means our next chance for a massive shower like the one observed in 1833 should occur in November of 2031. Nevertheless, experts say that this year’s show will be “above average,” due to the fact that the debris has circled around Uranus and is now headed back toward Earth; additionally, the sky is predicted to be clear with the moon waning; so heat up some tea or coffee, wake up early, and you will get to see a good fireworks show in November! Look to the Northeast.

Note: The first illustration above is from a book in 1898 that depicted the 1833 shower. The second photo is from NASA in 2009, looking at the shower from outer space.


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