THE FIRE of 1783

Montgolfier 01
The first aerial voyage, 23rd November 1783

1783 began a strange and disastrous year for natural phenomena. On February 5, in Sicily, something described as a "black intense fog" obscured the horizon throughout the island. In Calabria, there was a "dry fog" with a "most disagreeable odour". The inhabitants regarded this as the prelude to "some unhappy event", and they were right. Half an hour after noon, one of Europe's most disastrous earthquakes shook every town and village in Calabria for two minutes, and 30,000 people died.

Fissures at Polistena, Calabria, after the earthquake of 1783

As Calabria quivered with constant aftershocks, the dry fog moved north and spread. On May 24th it appeared in Copenhagen as a reddish or bluish vapour. Many observers said it was not a vapour at all, but resembled smoke or dust. In many places a ‘sulphurous odour’ was smelt, which penetrated everywhere and made people cough, irritated their eyes, and badly affected those with weak lungs. Some said that the fog not only smelt but tasted of sulphur. By the end of the year the dry fog had engulfed most of Europe, parts of Asia and North and South America. It covered mountains and valleys, veiled the sky, and rain was unable to wash it away. By day the fog obscured the Sun; at night it was luminous. Some observers claimed that it "afforded even at midnight a light equal to that of the full Moon." In Paris, "a kind of hot fog" made the Sun look dull red, and terrifying rumours circulated. Some said that an earthquake disaster like that of Calabria was imminent, others that a dangerous comet was approaching the Earth. The scientist De La Lande tried to reassure people, claiming that the "hot fog" was only the result of the Sun heating ground moistened by heavy rains, but he failed to convince even himself.

Wherever the "fog" penetrated, people viewed it with unease. In Hampshire, the naturalist Gilbert White wrote on June 26th, "Sun looks all day like the moon, & sheds a rusty red light." On June 28th, he noted, "The country people look with a kind of superstitious awe at the red louring aspect of the sun thro` the fog…" At Lincoln on July 10, a "thick hot vapour" had been noted for several days. Horace Walpole complained on July 15th about “a constant mist that gives no dew, but might as well be smoke. The sun sets like a pewter plate red-hot; and then in a moment appears the moon at a distance of the same complexion.” Some people said that this mist was the "electrical effluvia" which had caused the disasters in Italy, others expected the end of the world or some lesser disaster. Although they did not know it, the disaster had already happened.

The dry fog had reached Iceland on June 1. The Sun turned brownish red, and visibility became so bad that fishermen would not put to sea. Then, on June 8th, the Skaptar Jokull (Laki) fissure burst.

It was to be history's greatest ever eruption of lava. Soon, the fissure would be 25 kilometres long, studded with 135 craters. On June 10th, vast floods of lava poured into the Skaptar River valley. In 24 hours the river had been boiled dry and molten rock took its place. On June 18th, another lava flood poured down the same route, while the thwarted river, denied its usual passage, overflowed the neighbouring land. The great waterfall Stapafoss became a fiery cataract. On August 3rd, yet another lava stream usurped the channel of the Hverfisfloit River, filled it to its brim and overflowed the land on each side. Two other rivers, the Holtsa and Fjadara, fought back; they overflowed the hardened lava embankments, and "stifled the fire that was pursuing its course in the river-bed".
However, this was a minor victory. By the time the eruption ended in November, three cubic miles of lava had covered the countryside; the largest flow was 50 miles long, 12 miles wide and 100 feet thick. Ash covered grazing land, and a poisonous haze mingled with the dry fog. 9,500 people, a fifth of Iceland's population, died, mainly from famine and asphyxiation. For a while there was talk of abandoning the island.

The great meteor of August 18, 1783, as seen from Winthorpe, Nottinghamshire. Engraving by Henry Robinson.

On August 18, at 8.50 pm, a gentleman who signed himself to the Gentleman's Magazine as "T.S." (and who was probably Dr. Thomas Short of Sheffield) was travelling in his chaise between Wakefield and Sheffield. It was a cool evening, and a layer of thick mist covered the ground. Suddenly Mr. T.S. saw the landscape outside his carriage illuminated. Swiftly the illumination grew to a dazzling flood, which filled the whole atmosphere. Mr T.S. thrust his head from the chaise, in time to see a ball of fire, trailing a long streamer of flame, rush across the sky from the north-west to the south-east.

At the "White-horse" Inn, five miles from Bury, a Mr. Aymss saw a strange blue ball of light on the horizon, and called his family. They came in time to see it pass directly over the house, "as he thought, just clear of the chimnies." As it passed, the ball of fire shed innumerable fire-trailing stars. Mr. Aymss rushed to a back window in time to see the fireball disappear over the horizon to the south-west. About a minute later, he heard what he could only describe as "a loud noise".
At Canterbury an observer calling himself "J.R." saw the meteor burst 45 degrees above the horizon, with fiery fragments streaming in different directions. Five minutes later, he heard the sound of a great explosion. He calculated therefore that the meteor was then 65 miles from him, and 46 miles above the coast of France near Boulogne, and the diameter of its fiery globe must have been about 2,800 feet. "J.R." told the Gentleman's Magazine; "I therefore imagine that it was generated in the atmosphere over the German ocean, and as soon as it took fire directed its course to the south-west, mounting in its passage until it arrived at the utmost limits of the atmosphere".

It soon became evident that the meteor had been seen from all over the British Isles, travelling from north-west to south-east above the East Coast. And what was it? Whatever it was, it must have been of vast size, judging by the fact that it could cast such an illumination and create such a noise while travelling at over 40 miles above the earth. Most, if not all, the meteor must have been insubstantial, mere flaming gas that dissipated into the atmosphere. That was fortunate, if J.R.`s estimate of the meteor's diameter was to be believed. The French scientist Le Roy had said of another meteor in 1771, "What city could escape a general conflagration and total ruin, if a similar globe fell within its walls!"

The great Asama-yama volcano, 90 miles from Tokyo, and over 8,000 feet high, had begun its eruption on May 5. Slowly, over months, the eruption worked itself up to a climax, until on August 4, a tide of lava and hot mud cascaded from the crater and covered an area at the base 2 miles long and 4 miles wide to a depth of 100 feet. This was not the climax. The next day, there was an explosion from the volcano heard 300 kilometres distant. A gigantic ash cloud, streaked with lightning, rose miles into the upper air. Simultaneously, another cloud, heated to a temperature of over 300 degrees C., swept down the slope of the mountain at inescapable speed. Four villages were incinerated. The burning cloud collapsed over the river Azuma-gawa, blocking it with volcanic debris. However, like the rivers in Iceland, Azuma-gawa fought back. It forced its way through the dam, and poured in a flood for over 50 miles, carrying away over 1,200 houses. 1,162 people were killed.

Gilbert White said, "The summer of the year 1783 was an amazing and portentous one, and full of horrible phenomena". The British Isles suffered with heat, thunderstorms, a plague of wasps, and the ubiquitous dry fog. Some scientists suspected that the axis of the Earth had shifted. The inhabitants of Castleton in Derbyshire lived in the shadow of a nearby mountain for most of the winter. They claimed that the first sunshine of the year entered their houses several days earlier after the winter solstice than it did 50 years previously, and that the shadow of their mountain was now several yards shorter than it should be at midwinter.
Like the mystery fog, thunderstorms had been ubiquitous over Europe. The city of Cremnitz in Hungary was set afire by lightning and destroyed, and lightning exploded a powder magazine in a church of Klattau in Germany, with predictable results. Five men about to be executed at Tyburn had their fate delayed by the passage of a violent thunderstorm, which also drenched a vast crowd assembled to watch the event. The Elector of Bavaria forbade the ringing of church bells during thunderstorms, because "lightning falls most frequently on those churches where this fanatick custom prevails."

1783 ended on a more optimistic note, with a victory over the elements. On November 23rd, "M. Montgolfier`s new trial of his aerostatic machine" took place. The balloon was 70 feet high and contained 60,000 cubic feet of hot air created by burning straw. It soared to an altitude of 3,000 feet, and the Marquis D`Alandes and M. de Rozier became the first men to fly.