The Great Meteor of 1783

On 18 August 1783 sometime between 21:15 and 21:30 an unusually bright bolide was seen over Britain. This became know as the 1783 Great Meteor and was an intense topic of discussion in the early scientific publication, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

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Analysis indicates that the meteor entered the Earth’s atmosphere somewhere over the North Sea, then transited over the east coasts of Scotland and England before crossing streaking the English Channel into continental Europe. The meteor traveled south-west for roughly 1000 miles before disintegrating in near the boarder between modern-day France and Italy.

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An Italian scientist (which were still known as natural philosophers) named Tiberius Cavallo was standing on a terrace at Windsor Castle when the meteor appeared, and he published his observations in v. 74 of the Philosophical Transactions :

“Some flashes of lambent light, much like the aurora borealis, were first observed on the northern part of the heavens, which were soon perceived to proceed from a roundish luminous body, whose apparent diameter equaled half that of the moon, and almost stationary in the same point of the heavens […] This ball at first appeared of a faint bluish light, perhaps from appearing just kindled, or from its appearing through the haziness; but it gradually increased its light, and soon began to move, at first ascending above the horizon in an oblique direction towards the east. Its course in this direction was very short, perhaps of five or six degrees; after which it directed its course towards the east […] Its light was prodigious. Every object appeared very distinct; the whole face of the country, in that beautiful prospect before the terrace, being instantly illuminated” … Cavallo noted both that the meteor, which was visible for around thirty seconds in total, appeared to split into several smaller bodies immediately following the main mass and that a rumbling noise, “as it were of thunder at a great distance”, was heard around ten minutes after the meteor appeared, which he speculated “was the report of the meteor’s explosion”. Other accounts, such as those of Alexander Aubert and Richard Lovell Edgeworth, noted red and blue colour tints in the fireball.

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One of the small bodies seen by Cavallo was probably the Hambleton Pallasite, “a rare type of meteorite found in 2005 in Hambleton, North Yorkshire” which matches the age of the Great Meteor.

Although natural philosophers, like most modern people, saw this as a astronomical event rather than an omen, it freaked out a goodly portion of the population of Britain and Northern Europe. It didn’t help that, as diarist Gilbert White recorded, the summer whole summer of 1783 was “full of horrible phaenomena … that affrighted and distressed the different counties of this kingdom”.

The reason for these horrible phenomena was the atmospheric disturbances caused by the start of an 8 month long eruption of the volcano Laki in Iceland known as the Móðuharðindin. As I have blogged about earlier, the change in weather patterns caused by this volcanic incident probably instigated the economic instability and food shortages that led to several political upheavals in Europe, not the least of which was the French Revolution.

Astrologers of the time, basing their knowledge on the writings of Ancient Greeks, would have ironically been correct that the fireball ‘foretold’ climatic disturbances, such as drought interspersed with  turbulent, life-threatening storms and natural disasters, that would cause loss of life and crop failures. The nightmare series of floods, drought, and famine for the next year was certainly bad enough to warrant heavily signs of doom!

Additionally, for astrologers the coming of the Great Meteor (as a ‘dead’ comet) would have presaged a great change for the countries it passed over, often the painful ‘release’ of one thing and the beginning of a radical new worldview. These astrologers would have nodded sagely as Great Britain signed the Peace of Paris soon after the Great Meteor, formally ending the American Revolutionary War and ending hostilities between Britain and the Franco-Spanish Alliance. They would also be watching for for sociopolitical upheavals in the UK, France and Northern Italy … of which there were subsequently an abundance.

The fact that the Great Meteor occurred near these climacteric and sociological disruptions is given a particular designation by science — coincidence. And they are right about that, of course. However, in my heart of hearts I am still influenced by my Appalachian heritage to pay heed to things that can be read as signs, omens, and portents. I think of the Great Daylight Fireball in the USA on 10 August 1972 and the crazy changes of the next two years in the Nixon administration, and the  Chelyabinsk meteor of Russia on 13 February 2013 and the timing of Putin revealing his inner despot. Those things are, I tell myself, just a coincidence, but my inner hillbilly – the one growing up hearing death comes in threes and other warnings – wonders.

You can take the girl out of Appalachia, you can even give her science degrees, but you cannot take the superstitions of generations of wise old Appalachian grannies wholly out of her.

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