How could an artist make the most spectacular meteor shower ever recorded look even more stupendous?
The same way a tightrope walker adds drama to his act: by placing it over Niagara Falls.
The dramatic engraving shown above was published in an 1865 edition of Smith’s Illustrated Astronomy, a school textbook written by Asa Smith, originally published in 1848. It is one of many illustrations produced in America and Europe to depict what is generally known as the most intense meteor shower ever known, and the beginning of the study of meteors and their origins.
On the night of Nov. 12-13, 1833, “a tempest of falling stars broke over the Earth,” as Agnes Mary Clerke, an Irish astronomer, described it. ” The sky was scored in every direction with shining tracks and illuminated with majestic fireballs. … Their numbers… were quite beyond counting…”
According to the website http://meteorshowersonline.com/leonids.html: “Reactions to the 1833 display varied from the hysterics of the superstitious claiming Judgment Day was at hand, to just plain excitement by the scientific, who estimated that a thousand meteors a minute emanated from the constellation Leo. Newspapers of the time reveal that almost no one was left unaware of the spectacle, for if they were not awakened by the cries of excited neighbors, they were usually awakened by flashes of light cast into normally dark bedrooms by the fireballs.”
Anyone viewing Niagara Falls in the early morning hours of that night would have seen the light show of a lifetime. It wasn’t until 1925 that such intense illumination – this time powered by electricity – would glow on the mighty cataracts.
There was no city of Niagara Falls, New York, then. A growing town called Manchester sat beside the river on the American side. While regular tourism to the famous falls had begun, the riverside above and below the falls was already marred by spewing mills and manufacturers. Visitors had to pay to view the falls from the shore or walk over private toll bridges to Goat Island.
The intensity of the 1833 Leonid meteor shower drew widespread attention to the annual phenomenon, and led scientists to greater study of it. They learned that the Earth passes through the meteor range every November, generally between Nov. 13 and 21. Every 33 years we see a more dramatic display as the Earth travels through the tail of the meteors’ parent comet.
Today, we don’t have to wait for meteors to light up Niagara Falls. We can see them lit in all the colors of the rainbow every night of the year, thanks to electricity.