…continuedThe Discovery of the Perseid Meteors
As so often happens in science, others were working along the same lines independently just months apart. The 1833 Leonid storm had galvanized interest in meteors, and the time was ripe. Adolphe Quetelet, a Belgian statistician and founder and director of the Brussels Observatory, had mentioned mid-August meteors very tentatively six months earlier. His attention had been called to meteors by François Arago of France, who dominated European science at the time with his skill in discerning important scientific problems and suggesting experiments to solve them. What, asked Arago in the wake of the 1833 display, constituted a shower of meteors, and what was the rate of the ordinary, everynight drizzle?
By the following year, Quetelet had accidentally found records in his observatory of exceptional meteor displays on August 10th of 1834 and 1835 to accompany the increase he had seen in 1836. He called for scientists at the March 4, 1837, session of the Royal Academy of Brussel to watch the sky on August 10, 1837.
Herrick stumbled onto another annual meteor shower that occurred around December 7th, the Andromedids or Bielids (so named much later, in 1872, for their association with Biela's Comet). This was fun, discovering meteor showers. Herrick called for worldwide observations all night and year round. He also offered some practical advice. "Shooting stars must always be watched in the open air: observations through a window can not be trusted."
When the following August (1839) came around, Herrick and three friends concentrated on determining the radiant of their favorite shower. They concluded that the August meteors appear to come from Perseus and were right.
But again Herrick's discovery was not the first. This time he was five years too late.
Locke and the Perseids
Locke's letter in a small newspaper on the Western frontier went completely unnoticed. But he read and contributed to the scientific journals and was angry when Herrick and Quetelet gained acclaim for discovering both the August meteors and their radiant. He wrote to Silliman (for whom he had once worked as a lab assistant) claiming credit and snubbing the later discoverers. Silliman passed the letter to Herrick, who immediately wrote up a notice for the American Journal of Science and Arts acknowledging Locke's observations. So now there were three independent discoverers of the Perseid meteor shower.
Well, not three after all, it turned out. Thousands.
The Tears of Saint Lawrence
The earliest discoverers of the Perseids were anonymous, and their feat lay buried in an English farmer's almanac. Both Quetelet and Herrick chanced upon it. Bravely, Herrick acknowledged, "The annual occurrence of a meteoric display about the 10th of August appears to have been recognized for a very great length of time." Thomas Furley Forster of London had recorded it in 1827 in his Pocket Encyclopaedia of Natural Phenomena. "According to Mr. T. Forster," Herrick reported in October 1839, citing Quetelet, "a superstition has 'for ages' existed among the Catholics of some parts of England and Germany that the burning tears of St. Lawrence are seen in the sky on the night of the 10th of August; this day being the anniversary of his martyrdom."
Herrick never seemed bitter about being repeatedly upstaged. He continued to tend his August meteors with great faithfulness and to report their activity in Silliman's journal all the remaining years of his life.
In 1838, soon after his first scientific articles appeared in print, Herrick lost his bookstore. But Yale was so impressed by his scholarship that it awarded him an honorary master of arts degree. Five years later, Yale built a new library and made Herrick college librarian. It was a pleasant irony for a man whose eye trouble had kept him from college and who had complained about New Haven's poor libraries. Herrick spent the next 15 years vigorously developing the Yale library collections. He never married. He never took a vacation.
Later he assumed the duty of writing and publishing Yale's obituaries of graduates and faculty. Herrick was so organized and efficient that he wrote his own death notice a few days before he died in 1862 at the age of 51.