One of the 25 million meteors that strike the Earth's atmosphere every day. This bright Perseid was photographed by Bruce Atwood of Rockford, Illinois, on the morning of August 13, 1971. It flared near the end of its 23° flight after crossing the bright trail of Theta Draconis.
Edward Claudius Herrick was a bookworm. His father was a Yale graduate and founder of a girls' school. His mother was a descendant of one of Yale's founders. The Herricks lived in New Haven, Connecticut, the home of Yale. But young Edward did not go to Yale. He did not go to college. His parents felt that his chronic eyelid inflammation would keep him from succeeding in higher education. So in 1827, at the age of 16, Edward became a clerk in a bookstore that served Yale students and faculty and was also the college's publishing house.
Everyone in New Haven with intellectual interests stopped by the bookstore, and Herrick reveled in conversations with professors such as astronomer Denison Olmsted and chemist Benjamin Silliman. The young clerk worked hard, and at age 24 he became one of the bookstore's owners. But during the next three years the business failed and left Herrick broke. On the evening of August 9, 1837, just as his business was teetering toward collapse, Herrick observed an unusual number of meteors in the night sky. From people who had stayed up very late that night, he heard that the meteors were even more numerous and brilliant after midnight.
One of the few early color representations of the 1833 Leonid storm over North America appeared in Bilderatlas der Sternenwelt, published in 1892 by Edmund Weik, University of Vienna, Austria. The illustration depicts the meteors over Niagara Falls.
Courtesy University of Vienna.
American astronomers in 1837 were still gripped by the excitement of the epic meteor deluge that had taken place four years earlier. On the night of November 12-13, 1833, more than a thousand shooting stars per minute had been seen radiating from the constellation Leo (Sky & Telescope:
November 1995, page 24). Astronomers had been taken completely by surprise; it was the first time that most of them had paid attention to meteors at all. They were especially startled by Olmsted's demonstration that the shower's meteors must have been flying together in parallel from a distant region of space. Most astronomers had believed that meteors were mere atmospheric phenomena, to be ignored like clouds and weather.
Now astronomers were searching historical records and turning up accounts of previous mid-November meteor showers. But to observe abundant meteors in August? That seemed odd.