As often thro’ the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
Moves over still Shalott.
A bolide explodes over Hurworth, near Durham, October 1854
The ‘hot topic’ in the natural sciences during the early years of the nineteenth century was meteorites. The absurd ancient notion that stones could fall from the sky was now known to be an incredible fact. Meteorites existed, and did fall from the heavens, and scientists, after years spent disdaining such reports, were now eager to hear of new incidents.
The event which changed their minds happened in 1803. At about 1 p.m. on April 26, at Aigle, in the French department of Orne, a ‘frightful explosion’ was heard, followed by alarming sounds resembling cannon-fire. From a single black cloud in an otherwise clear sky, a vast hail of stones, numbering about 3,000, fell over an area about six miles long. The largest stone, ‘still fuming’, weighed just under 24 pounds. The fall occurred a few minutes after the appearance of a ‘fiery globe of great brilliance, moving with great rapidity’, which was seen from Alencon, Caen, and Falaise.
One of the Aigle stones. All meteorites were drawn from life in the British Museum (Natural History)
Ernst Chladni, in 1794, was the first to deduce that these fiery bodies, which had been variously described as flying dragons (draco volans), meteors, bolides, and fireballs, and which had amazed and terrified witnesses for centuries, were the visible manifestations of interplanetary bodies plunging into the Earth’s atmosphere. He said, “I consider it...probable that these masses come to our regions from the common expanse of the universe, and that, besides planetary bodies, there are smaller accumulations of matter, which when they approach too near our earth, must fall down...fire-balls and the falling of such masses are the same meteor.“ Rival theories, which considered the sky-stones to be accumulations of matter in the upper atmosphere or rocks hurled into the air by volcanoes, failed to find much acceptance. Nineteenth-century astronomers distinguished two classes of bolide; ‘ordinary’ bolides, which occasionally burst with a report, but were usually silent, and the great ‘aerolitic fireballs’, of dazzling brilliance and tremendous velocity, which exploded with earth-shaking detonations and often ended in a hail of stone or iron masses.
A draco volans. From the Kalender of Sheepeherds, c. 1560
Those evanescent phenomena known as ‘shooting stars’ superficially resembled bolides, but the latter were larger, brighter, and rarer. They were often as bright as the Moon, and sometimes exceeded even the Sun in brilliance. The paths of these fireballs were hundreds, occasionally thousands, of miles long; like the ‘terrific meteor’ of 5th September, 1868, which, as R.S. Ball said, “broke into visibility at a great height above the Black Sea, and had not expended its stupendous energy until it passed over the smiling vineyards of France.” Some scientists believed that there was a spectrum of bolides, with shooting stars at one end and the monstrous apparition of 1868 at the other, whilst others considered the phenomena to be distinct. The second opinion proved to be correct. ’Shooting stars’ were the dust of comets, whilst bolides originated as asteroidal fragments. Shooting stars were certainly far more common than fireballs. The former could be seen on any clear night,whilst a major bolide was a once in a lifetime experience. During meteor showers, shooting stars fell in their thousands, but a bolide merited a letter to a scientific journal. A record of bolides gathered from all over the world from mid-1877 to mid-1878 produced a total of only 86. (Of course, many went unreported). A limited area such as the British Isles, despite being thronged with eager observers, recorded such things even less frequently, However, as bolides took no note of terrestrial geography, a brilliant example was as likely to be seen there as anywhere else.
The great bolide of June 20th, 1866 hurtles over Kent before
exploding above the coast of France, 10.45 a.m.
1719 March 19 (O.S.)
At about 8 p.m., London was suddenly illuminated by a light almost as bright as the Sun. The stars and the waxing Moon were blotted out, and candles gave no light. A great fiery body, estimated to be over a mile in diameter, raced over southern England at 21,000 miles an hour before exploding thirty miles above the English Channel. At Stoulton in Worcestershire, about two minutes after the meteor passed, “a great howling noise (was heard) in the air”, and about five minutes after, “such a crack...as could not be made by the largest cannon.” The detonation shook the windows and doors of houses, and at Tiverton a looking-glass fell out of its frame and was broken. It is fortunate that the colossal energy of this meteor (which was a classic ‘aerolitic fireball’) was expended in the Earth’s atmosphere with no more effect than this.
1737 December 5
Dr. Thomas Short described a meteor ‘like a great ball of fire’ which burst over Kilkenny in Ireland. The explosion “shook a great part of the Island, and set the whole Hemisphere on Fire, which burnt most furiously, till all the Sulphureous Matter was spent.” Dr. Short held to the pre-Aigle view that bolides were entirely insubstantial manifestations created in the upper atmosphere.
The meteor of 11th February, 1850, at the moment of explosion, as seen from Paddington Green, London.
Drawing by a Mr. Wyatt.
1850 February 11
A fragment of interplanetary debris entered the atmosphere about 84 miles above Warwickshire at 10.45 p.m. It became a fiery globe a third of a mile across, with a tail several miles long; a few moments later the body exploded 19 miles over Biggleswade in Berkshire. In Oxfordshire, the detonation shook houses. A scattering of luminous remnants descended to within ten miles of the earth. Near Aylesbury, the meteor appeared as “a great mass of fire darting across the sky from west to east: a report like thunder followed about two or three minutes after the extinction.”
1866 June 20
“One of the largest class of bolides’ appeared about 10.45 a.m., in daylight, and was seen from Kent, Sussex, Boulogne, Lille, and Delft in Holland. From Penshurst in Kent, an observer (Mr. Naysmyth) described the meteor as “a bright red comet-shaped object rapidly moving across the clear blue sky...It is impossible to convey...the impression left by the appearance of this mysterious object, majestically traversing the clear blue sky during brilliant sunshine.” At Boulogne, the concussion of the detonating bolide sent alarmed persons running into the streets, where they saw the smoky train of the disintegrated meteor hanging in the sky.
1868 October 7
Once more nocturnal London - in fact the whole of south-east England and northern France - was illuminated by the light of a bolide. One observer said that everything in St. Paul’s Churchyard was suddenly “as clear as day, the cathedral...standing out in bold relief against a brilliant sky, the lights in the gas-lamps being for the time invisible.” From the suburb of Wimbledon the bolide was seen as “a red ball emitting bright sparks, and having a flaming tail of great length.” The bolide exploded somewhere between the Channel and Paris, at least sixty miles up. There were rumours of meteorite falls in various parts of France, but nothing definite was found.
The Wold Cottage meteorite, a 56-pound stone which was seen to fall in Yorkshire, December 13, 1795.
Aerolitic fireballs may explode in the atmosphere and produce a shower of meteorites, but these fall under the influence of gravity for miles, and those who see the meteor rarely witness the descent to earth of the meteorite which created it. Most meteorite falls are unwitnessed and unfound, The ones that are seen usually take their observers by surprise.
1813 September 10
The morning was fine but sultry in County Limerick, Ireland, until at about 9 o’clock a solitary cloud appeared in the east. Soon after, strange sounds reverberated down from the sky. Eleven detonations, like the ‘discharge of heavy artillery’ seemed to emanate from the cloud; then ‘a considerable noise (like) the beating of a large drum’ followed by ‘an uproar’ resembling mass musket fire. At last a hissing noise was heard, and several bodies fell from a darkening sky, ‘which directed their course with great velocity in a horizontal direction towards the west.’ One object was seen to fall to earth near Pobuck’s Well; it was immediately dug up, still warm, and having a sulphurous smell. It weighed about 17 pounds. Two other large stones (and several small ones) were found a few days later; one weighed 24 pounds and the other 65 pounds.
1876 April 26
A solid mass of iron, weighing eight pounds, fell from the sky at Rowton in Shropshire. The weather was wet, and no-one saw a meteor; but the fall was preceded by two loud detonations, which startled people over many miles. An hour after the mass was found it was still warm.
The Rowton iron. Part of the meteorite has been cut and polished.
The breaking of a mirror in Tiverton seems to be the sum total of the damage done by bolides to Britain in the recent past. However, truly enormous meteorites may rarely strike the earth with much of their cosmic velocity still intact, creating a devastating crater-forming blast, or may explode in the atmosphere, wreaking havoc on the region below. Has this ever happened in the British Isles during recorded history? There are no recognisable accounts, (although some geologists have looked askance at the semi-circular shape of St. Magnus’ Bay in Shetland), and no unequivocal records. There is, however, the Scottish legend of how the Caledonian Forest was set afire and destroyed by a winged monster, which flew at a great height above the clouds, letting fall flaming torches (a draco volans?).
The chronicle The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, by the Four Masters, describes ‘a bolt of fire’ which passed south-westwards through Leinster, and killed a thousand persons and flocks as far as Ath-cliath. The Annals of Ulster calls this mysterious and awful phenomenon an ‘arrow of fire’ which came from the south-west “and killed hundredth thousands of men and cattle, with the houses of Dublin burnt.” Was this a thunderstorm, a tornado, or something other?
METEOR Bolides over Britain