In the tradition of Charles Fort, our good friend (and Darklore contributor) Blair MacKenzie Blake has collected a newspaper ‘clipping’ (more correctly, found an eBay listing for a collectable newspaper) that discusses an anomalous meteor shower way back in 1803.
This electrical phenomenon was observed on Wednesday morning last at Richmond, and its vicinity, in a manner that alarmed many, and astonished every person who beheld it. From one until three in the morning, those starry meteors seemed to fall from every point in the heavens, in such numbers as to resemeble a shower of sky rockets.
…Several of those shooting meteors, were accompanied with a train of fire, that illuminated the sky for a considerable distance. One in particular, appeared to fall from the Zenith, of the apparent size of a ball of eighteen inches in diameter, that lighted for several seconds the whole hemisphere.
…Since writing the above, we have been informed that several of the largest of these shooting meteors, were observed to descend almost to the ground before they exploded.
However, rather than being – as the eBay listing has it – an “1803 headline display newspaper UFO / Flying Saucers seen over RICHMOND Virginia”, this report was likely witness testimony of a particularly magnificent manifestation of the Lyrid meteor shower. In fact, an article written about this newspaper story, which collated it with other witness reports, was published in Popular Astronomy in 1931 (click for a PDF of the article).
What I found interesting about the testimony, however, was the mention of the sounds heard:
During the continuance of this phenomenon, a hissing noise in the air was plainly heard, and several reports, resembling the discharge of a pistol.
The 1931 article also mentions a witness at another location as saying that “we distinctly heard a hissing in the air, but heard no reports”.
This mention of a hissing sound (and pistol-like reports) reminded me of a fascinating article which appeared in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (Volume 7, Issue 4), “Progress in Explaining the Mysterious Sounds Produced by Very Large Fireballs” (which I originally discussed in this Grail story). In it, author Colin Keay notes that “for about ten percent of those who do witness a very luminous meteor fireball, the mental impression is heightened by strange swishing, hissing and popping noises coincident with its passage across the sky. Such sounds are quite anomalous in that they imply acoustic propagation at the speed of light.”
A suggested explanation for these anomalous sounds has been that the plasma trail produced by a fireball as it ionises the air in the atmosphere might be generating extra low frequency (ELF) radio waves. And in June this year a sky survey offered possible confirmation of this theory.
And to finish with an interesting sidenote regarding meteors and anomalous science: just a few days after the report above, a meteor shower in France occurred, the investigation of which (by Jean-Baptiste Biot) provided some solid evidence to the scientific establishment that rocks did actually fall from the heavens – marking a change from previous skepticism of eyewitness reports of this unlikely occurrence – and it is perhaps the event which could be said to have given birth to the science of meteoritics.