The Star-fall of 1866*

The spectacular shower of meteors in the early hours of the morning of 14 November 1866 was observed all over Europe. It was an extraordinary event exciting comment from professional astronomers and laymen alike. The following accounts have been chosen from the many reports and letters in contemporary newspapers.

The Times
Saturday, 17 November 1866.

The Rev. Robert Main, the Radcliffe Observer at Oxford, gives the following account of the meteorological phenomenon of Tuesday night last:

'...This great display began about 13 h. (or 1 o'clock in the morning), and reached its maximum at about 13h.24m., after which time it gradually began to slacken. The watch, however, was kept up till 18h., though after 15h., there were not many meteors seen. In all there were observed not fewer than 3,000 during the night, of which about 2,000 fell between 13h. and 14h., or between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. As to the general appearance of the meteors, it was noticed that the majority of them were of a whitish or yellowish colour. Some, however, were reddish or orange-coloured, and one meteor was noticed to be bluish. The brightest left generally a train behind them, which was to be seen for a few seconds after the meteor disappeared.'


* For its significance see p. 270

The Times
Thursday, 15 November 1866.


The predicted display of shooting stars was observed here on a magnificent scale during the early hours of this morning, and, as the sky may have possibly been in few places so clear as here, the notes I made may perhaps be interesting to some of your numerous readers.

During the half-hour preceding midnight about 66 were observed.
From midnight to 12.30 about 200 were observed.
From 12.30 to 12.50 about 201 were observed.
From 12.50 to 12.58 about 190 were observed.
From 12.58 to 1.2 about 201 were observed in 4 minutes.
From 1.2 to 1.5 about 206 were observed in 3 minutes.
From 1.5 to 1.10 about 214 were observed in 5 minutes.
From 1.10 to 1.11 about 100 were observed in 1 minute.
From 1.11 to 1.13 about 206 were observed in 2 minutes.
The falls now became so incessant that it was impossible to count numbers fast enough...

I am, Sir, your obedient Servant
Cowes, Isle of Wight, Nov. 14.

The Times
Thursday, 15 November 1866.


The following observations of last night's phenomena were made near Corley, the highest point of Warwickshire, by myself and a friend...The meteors took a direction from E. to W., with but very few exceptions. They may be divided into three classes. The most numerous were the ordinary shooting stars interspersed with some very large ones, which left a long blue (and sometimes green) streak of light varying in width. At the moment of extinction there was nothing extraordinary but the intense brilliancy of the head. Another class occurred at intervals of a few minutes,


and seemed to be balls of copper-coloured fire, which left no path, nor varied in brightness before vanishing. The most remarkable series were also infrequent. The path they took was an irregular curve, short, but well defined, and which remained in view two or three minutes.

Some of the largest meteors appeared to burst, and then reappear, leaving two nodes of light connected by a luminous line.

It would be impossible to exaggerate the grandeur of the heavens between 1 and 3 o'clock...

I am, Sir, yours &c.,
Coventry, Nov. 14.

The Times

Thursday, 15 November 1866.


The predicted shower of meteors has been witnessed here during the past night under very favourable atmospheric circumstances...From midnight to 1 o'clock a.m., Greenwich time, one thousand one hundred and twenty meteors were noted, the number gradually increasing. From 1 a.m. to 1h.7m.5s. no less than five hundred and fourteen were counted, and we were conscious of having missed very many, owing to the rapidity of their succession. At the latter moment there was a rather sudden increase to an extent which rendered it impossible to count the number, but after a hundred and twenty a decline became perceptible. The maximum was judged to have taken place about 1.10, and at this time the appearance of the whole heavens was very beautiful, not to say magnificent...while the meteors in the opposite corners of the sky traversed arks o many degrees, in the vicinity of the diverging point they shone out for a few seconds without appreciable motion, and might have been momentarily mistaken for stars by anyone to whom the configuration of the heavens in that direction was not familiar...

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
Mr. Bishop's Observatory, Twickenham, Nov. 14.


The Times

Saturday, 17 November 1866.


Last night, the 14th of November, I witnessed a very extraordinary display of 'falling stars', and as I think I have understood that this particular night of the year is remarkable for the appearance of these meteors, a short account of their occurrence on the occasion may not be without interest to some of your readers. For several weeks past the sky in this part of Spain has been without a cloud, and consequently the display of last night was seen under circumstances which could only very rarely occur in England. My attention was first directed to the falling stars at about 12 o'clock at night, by observing groups of people in the narrow streets of Saragossa conversing together with a certain degree of excitement. 'Mira Usted es como si fue en el tiempo del sito' ('Look, it is just as if it were in the time of the siege') was the reply to my question as to what was the matter, and on looking up the appearance certainly was as if the city was being shelled. Showers of meteors seemed to be pouring into the place, a score or more at a time, exploding with a brilliant flame at different points, and leaving long luminous trains behind them, some of which lasted as streaks in the sky several instants after the explosion of the meteor. I hastened to an open space, and I much regret that the sight I witnessed did not fall to the lot of a scientific observer. The meteors seemed to be more abundant towards the north and northwest, and I noticed a particular stream of them not far from the constellation of the Great Bear. The direction of their flight was mostly from right to left downwards at various angles of inclination; but on arriving at my own room afterwards I observed from the window, which commanded a somewhat different view, a succession of meteors, which seemed to fall nearly in a vertical direction from about the same point in the sky. I may notice that the luminous tracks at this point were occasionally seen crossing at acute angles those which were projected from right to left, but I did not observe a single instance of the tracks crossing in other


directions, or, in other words, of meteors projected from the opposite side. It was evident to me that the stars were being projected in one or more fixed lines of flight. Those which fell in a nearly vertical direction appeared to be much more brilliant than the others; they all left a well defined trail or track of sparks of a pale bluish colour, and they finally exploded with a brilliant white or yellow flame; in some instances the flame appeared tinged on the edges with a vivid emerald green colour, and others exhibited tints of pink or crimson and blue. Some idea may be formed of their number and brilliancy from the fact that when I went to bed, though the field of sky visible through my window as I lay was very small, it was being continually crossed by the meteors, and a looking-glass which hung on the wall was every moment brilliantly lit up with the reflection of the explosions which occurred. During the short time I observed them many hundreds of meteors fell, and, as there was no perceptible diminution in their number, I have no doubt during the night the number must have been tens of thousands.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant.
Saragossa, Nov. 15.