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THE GREAT METEOR OF 1860

By Hon. THOMAS L. CLINGMAN, of North Carolina, as recounted in Appleton's Journal of Popular Culture, January 7, 1871, pp.10-13.


  On the 2nd of  August, 1860, I was at Asheville, Buncombe County, in the picturesque mountain-region of North Carolina.
  On the evening of that day I retired to my room a little after ten o'clock. The moon was full and approaching the meridian, and the night was clear and bright.  There was a window on the west side of the room covered by a  white curtain. The candle having been extinguished, my attention was suddenly arrested by a bright glare of light. It was much brighter than a candle would have made, and   seemed like a sheet of flame against the window. With surprise and alarm I went toward the window, but before I reached it the light suddenly changed its color and became beautifully white. The thought at once flashed upon me that it must be a meteor, and I saw its out- line through the curtain as it exploded in the northwest. The light at the moment of explosion seemed as white as that produced by the burning of the metal magnesium. During the whole period that I ob- served the light it was greater than hundreds of moons would have caused.

      On the next day, I made inquiries of many persons who had seen the meteor. It was observed by a large number, because the evening was that of the election-day, and also because there was a party of gentlemen then on horseback in the town to receive General Lane, whose coming was expected. They all concurred in saying that the meteor was first seen in the southeast, but at a point nearer to the south than the east, that it moved toward the northwest, and when due west of Asheville appeared to be at an elevation of forty or forty- five degrees, and that it seemed to explode in the northwest, with a great display of light. Most persons regarded it as appearing to be equal in size to the full moon, and all agreed in saying that the moon. light was nothing in comparison with its brightness. When first seen in the southeast it seemed of a dull or pale red color, and became  brighter as it moved along until it resembled the sunlight.

      Persons from the surrounding country made similar statements as to its appearance. Colonel C. M. Avery, who saw it while in Morganton, sixty miles to the east of Asheville, described it as not materially differ ent in position and aspect; while persons in Franklin, seventy miles west of Asheville, spoke of it in similar terms, except that it seemed to them higher in the heavens to the west, and more nearly over the lD. In a few days the newspapers from Knoxville, Tennessee, and from Columbia, South Carolina, came to hand, with similar descriptions, representing the meteor as having passed on the west side of both of  those places. When the Raleigh Register arrived from the east, it con tained a very clear and minute description of it from the pen of  B. F. Moore, one of our most eminent lawyers. In a few days I saw descriptions of the meteor in two successive numbers of the New York Herald, of the dates of August 7th and 9th. These numbers contained extracts from newspaper, and also letters from various persons, at points widely distant, and covering a great extent of territory.

     The most easterly notices were from Guiney Post-office, Caroline County, Virginia, and from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and the most westerly, from Montgomery, Alabama, Holly Springs, Mississippi, and Nashville, Tennessee. The telegraphic correspondents said next day that it had been seen simultaneously at New Orleans, Memphis, Cairo, etc. j and while, according to the statement of two of the papers at Nashville, it was seen to the east of that city, it appeal red to pass on the west  of Cincinnati, and several other places north and east or it in Ohio.

     The course or the meteor would seem to have been along a track nearly over the State line between South Carolina and Georgia, then directly above the county of Habersham in the latter State, near the western extremity of North Carolina, very little to the east of Athens, Tennessee, but west of Knoxville and Cincinnati, and east of Nashville.

    I will, in the first place, ask attention to the facts bearing on the, subject or the height of the meteor while visible. Raleigh, North Carolina, and Holly Springs, Mississippi, are at least six hundred miles distant from each other. A few days after I read Mr. Moore's precise and elaborate statement, he and I went to the spot where he had stood at the time he saw the meteor. By means of certain trees and houses, he was able to indicate the line along which it had traveled.  By taking the directions with the aid of a compass, it was shown that he observed the meteor when it was twenty-four degrees south of west, and that the point where it was last seen by him was also when it was twenty-four degrees north of west. He saw it continuously as it passed over these forty-eight degrees, but, Holly Springs being a little south of west only, he necessarily saw it at the time when it was in  the direction of that place, and he estimated its height as being thirty  degrees above the horizon. 

     From Holly Springs we have a carefully prepared and apparently very accurate statement from Mr. J. H. Ingraham, corroborated by  the letters or several other gentlemen. From that place the meteor was first seen in the southeast, passed on the east side going northwestwardly, and disappeared in a direction west of north.

     At its greatest elevation, and when east, it appeared to be thirty degrees above the horizon. It is clear, therefore, that Mr. Ingraham  and the other gentlemen must have seen it when it was in the direction of Raleigh. Both observers, therefore, saw the object when it ,vas directly between them, and each estimated it as being at an altitude  of thirty degrees above the horizon. If it ,,-as equally distant from each of them, and I take it that such was very nearly the fact, it was above a point on the earth's surface not less than three hundred miles distant from them. To be seen at such an altitude, it must, therefore, have been not less than one hundred and fifty miles above the earth's surface. Even if it were only twenty degrees in height apparently, it would in its altitude be more than one hundred miles above the earth.

     Mr. Samuel Schooler, principal of Edge Hill School, at Guiney Post-office, Caroline County, Virginia, was distant more than seven hundred miles from Holly Springs, and saw it first in the southwest, moving toward the north, and disappearing in the west, or over the State or Kentucky. He states its altitude as being apparently twenty degrees above the horizon. As he must have been four hundred and fifty miles distant from its path, his estimate would give a similar or I even greater altitude to the meteor. Caroline County and New Orleans are fully nine hundred miles apart, and, if it passed midway be tween them, it might well have been seen by observers at both stations. 

    'When a11 the statements published are considered, there would seem to be 110 reason to doubt but that this meteor, when distinctly J seen between Raleigh and Holly Springs, was more thl1n one hundred ( and less than two hundred miles above the earth's surface. If, therefore, the common opinion be true, that meteors are rendered visible only by passing through the earth's atmosphere, then that atmosphere I must extend much more than one hundred miles from the earth's surface. This very meteor affords a strong proof of the correctness of this conclusion. It exhibited at first a pale or dull red color, became  gradually brighter, till it attained a silvery whiteness, and then ex ploded with brilliant coruscations, and, as it moved on, repeated these explosions several times. This would be accounted for on the supposition that a body originally cold was, on entering the atmosphere,  heated by the friction caused by its rapid motion, at first becoming s faintly luminous, and then growing brighter until its surface became - so intensly heated as to generate gases, and thus cause explosions,   throwing off fragments from its surface, and, as its successive coats became heated in like manner, repeating its explosions till it passed out t of the earth's atmosphere, or was finally shivered to pieces.

When this meteor was first visible, it must have already passed for some distance through the earth's rarefied atmosphere, and have , dipped deeply into it. It would therefore seem to be almost certain  that the atmosphere must extend more than one hundred miles from ~ the earth's surface, and probably much farther.

      I will now advert briefly to the statements as to the size of the meteor. On this point the evidence is not so conclusive. Persons are liable to be deceived by the appearances of bright lights with respect to their real size. Mr. Moorc says, when first seen, it appeared to be only six inches in diameter, but; when at the nearest point to him, he estimated it to appear thirty feet in diameter, and of some hundreds of yards in length. He lays  stress on the solid appearance of its light, it being well defined and without any irregular edges. Others say it looked like a railroad train, while some say it was as large as a barrel. Mr. Ingraham and others at Holly Springs say it was in size fully equal to the distance  of the moon when full. A similar estimate was made by observers at Antioch College, Ohio, and at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. If a body at the distance of three hundred miles should appear as large as the moon, it ought to be nearly three miles in diameter. As this meteor was throwing off luminous gases, it would of course appear larger than it really was, especially after it became intensely heated; but, when its color was dimmer than that of the moon, the deception ought not to be so considerable. It is also true that the observers generally say its bright- ness was greatest after it had passed and had receded from them.
     
The amount of light it gave also indicates its great size. Major Francis Logan, of Habersham, Georgia, and R. N. McEwen, then at Athens, Tennessee, nearly under its line of movemellt, represent it as being larger than the moon, white, "like melted silver," and throw.
  ing ~ light upon the carth II like that of ~he sun." And yet its brightness is described in terms almost as strong by persons at Holly Springs, more than three hundred miles distant. At Nashville and other points they speak of this light as sufficient to enable one to pick up a pin. Could any but a large body cast such a light over so great an extent of country?

     But the most perplexing part of the subject is the rapid transmission of sound from this meteor. Colonel William M. McDowell (who was then and for several years previous making observations, for the Smithsonian Institution, at Asheville) stated to me the next morning, that, being on horseback and looking downward to the earth, which was already bright in the light of the full moon, he heard a rushing or hissing sound, and, on looking up, he observed the meteor in the southeast, presenting at first a dull-red color, and rapidly becoming brighter. Several other gentlemen in Asheville also declared that they heard such a sound distinctly, and at first supposed the meteor to be a rocket sent up. There were, however, in fact, no rockets at Asheville, nor was there any expectation that they were to be discharged.

    Dr. J. F. E. Wordy (who has since the war been making the observations for the use of the Smithsonian Institution) was then in the piazza of Mr. Cheesboro's house, two miles southeast of Asheville, and declares that he not only saw but heard the meteor while it was in sight. Being somewhat deaf, he asked the members of the family if they heard it, and had an affirmative reply from all present. Colonel John A. Fagg, who had on that day been elected a member of the Legislature for Madison County, and who was then in the town of Marshall, twenty-one miles distant in a northwestwardly course, declared to me that he beard the hissing sound plainly while it was passing. Mr. J. H. Ingraham, writing from Holly Springs, says its pas. sage was accompanied by a hissing sound, if the testimony of a great number of persons was to be relied on. Mr. \V. C. Knapp, of the same place, says it was accompanied by a hissing noise. Mr. H. A. Preston, who writes from Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio, says a faint hissing sound was distinctly heard.

   Major Francis Logan, of Habersham, Georgia, says that persons there generally spoke of hearing it during its passage in the same manner. Mr. R. N. McEwen, who was then at Athens, Tennessee, says that he and his wife, being in the piazza of his house, were both confident that they heard a hissing sound as it passed over them. Seeing t: its brilliant explosion after it had passed toward the northwest, think. I ing it only two or three miles distant, they remained standing for some a time in expectation of hearing a report, but not until after they had lJ gone into the house, and, as he supposed, an interval of fifteen minutes iJ bad elapsed, was there heard a prolonged sound, as the report of a " large cannon. 

   A gentleman, who lived near Asheville, stated to me the day after' the meteor had appeared, that, on seeing the explosion, he paused in ~ the road for a little while, in expectation of hearing a report, but that he walked afterward nearly around his farm, and, after an interval, he c thought of at least fifteen minutes, had elapsed, a heavy sound came c from the direction of the meteor. 

   We have thus the statement of a number of intelligent and trust- e worthy persons who were separated hundreds of miles from each other, ~ all affirming the same fact. But as sound is ordinarily estimated to J: travel but little more than eleven hundred feet in a second, the meteor t might be supposed to have been out of sight of those nearest to it, ( for at least eight or ten minutes, before the sound created by its pas. B sage could have been heard. Were they all mistaken in supposing ( that they heard it while it was in sight? 

   Is the ear much more likely to be deceived than the eye? Are not s persons generally as confident that they hear the thunder as that they 1 see the lightning? Why should all these persons imagine that they heard such a sound when it is not usual for meteors when so secn to t be also heard? Two of them did expect to hear the explosioD, and I waited for it without imagining that they heard it at the time when I they expected it, and only heard it long after they had ceased to look, for it. 

   It is but natural that we should hesitate to believe as true what is I at variance witb general experience and with what seems established, in science. Solid bodies had often been seen to come down from the higher regions of the atmosphere, before scientifio men accepted the 1 tall of meteorites as an established fact. But the circumstances under! which these sounds were manifested were peculiar, and are not neces- I sarily to be assumed as contradicting our general experience. In this! instance a large body was moving with very oreat rapidity through the c atmosphere. We can only approximate in our estimate the speed with I which this meteor moved. While some observers regarded it as being from six to ten seconds in sight, the longest estimate of its visibility is that of Mr. Ingraham, viz., twelve to fift,een seconds. He and others with him at Holly Springs saw it in the southeast, and until it had passed to the northwest. One writer says it disappeared west of north. It must therefore have been seen to move through a space to be measured by more than a hundred degrees, and it might have been m~ch more. As the meteor, considering its elevation above a place
on the earth's surface at least three hundred miles off, was at the nearest point farther from the observers than that distance, if it moved through one hundred degrees of space in a right line nearly, it must have been in view while it was passing through a distaDce of six or eiebt hundred miles. Such a calculation would make its speed from forty to sixty miles per second, dependiDg of course upon the accuracy
of the estimate of the time. It could not have been describing a curve around Holly Springs, because it was at the same time seen by
t:le observers in Ohio, Pittsburg, PcnnsylvaDia, and Caroline County, Virginia, in its course to tbe Dorthwest. Mr. Moore, who was at Raleigb, on the opposite side of the meteor's track, and probably about tbe same distance from it, saw it pass through forty.eight degrees by n.easurcment in eigbt seconds, as he estimated the time it was in view. Its speed, calculated from these data, would approximate fifty miles in a second. Ad it appeared to be moving in the part of its course seen by me, it seemed certainly not less rapid.

    Might not a body moving with this velocity generate a rapid transmission of sound ? If we assume that there is some highly-elastic medium through which light and electricity, for example, are propa- gated, might not this body, by the suddenness of the impulse it gave, propagate a sound to a great distance with such speed ?

    But it may be said that lightning moves with very great velocity, and that yet the noise of the thunder travels with only the speed of other sounds. It is true that, when the Hash is near, the thunder seems louder to the ear than any other sound, and yet it is propagated to the distance of only twelve or fifteen miles. On the other  hand, though, when one is near a large cannon, its report does not seem so loud as thunder, yet it can be heard to a much greater distance. When, during the late war, I was at Charleston or Savannah,   I could in favorable states of the atmosphere distinctly hear the guns at the other place, though the two cities are understood to be one hundred miles apart. The cannonades at Charleston were often heard in the upper portions of South Carolina, while those at Richmond, Virginia, were sometimes heard west of Greensboro, in North Carolina --- in each case at a distance of nearly a hundred and fifty miles. Why is it, then, that, though thunder seems louder than the reports of artillery, it cannot be heard so far?

     The explanation does not seem to be difficult. If a pistol be discharged into the water, the bullet breaks the surface violently, and causes the water to be sprinkled for a short distance; but the ripple produced on the surface extends but a few feet around. When, however, the steam-frigate Minnesota was launched at the Washington Navy-Yard, though she glided so gently into the water that she did not break the surface apparently, yet she caused a wave which extended itself across the harbor, and rose several feet on the shore opposite, wetting many persons who were there to see the launch. As an illustration on a still larger scale, I refer to the fact that earthquakes in Japan cause waves which are propagated across the Pacific Ocean to the shores of California. A large body, though moving slowly, creates a wave which extends to a great distance, while a violent impulse of a small one produces no such result.

    From the smallness of the furrow produced by lightning through the bodies of trees struck by it, and from its passing so readily along a small rod, it would seem that the volume of air displaced by it is small, and analogous to the effect caused by a pistol-shot on the water;  while the explosion of gunpowder, when a large cannon is discharged, produces a greater displacement of the atmosphere, causing  what is a large wave of sound, which is extended to a great distance, as the wave in the water caused by the Minnesota was perceptible for miles.
     
But, when the ship was launched, though a larger portion ~ cepted the bulk was in the air than in the water, yet she did not make a I ncea under sponding wave in the air which could be felt across the harbor.
  not neces- a railroad-4ain, moving much faster than did the Minnesota, d04 e. In this send in advance of it a great wAve in the sir. But, in fact, hrough the capable of receiving such an impulse. When a large gun is dischl speed with such motion is given to the air that houses are shaken and wi! it as being glass broken. .As air, therefore, is much rarer and more elasti( ta visibility water, it seems that it requires a much more sudden impulse to , I. He and an extended wave in it than in water. If, then, it may be reg Lnd until it as a general law that the greater the rarity and elasticity of ami ~ed west of the more sudden and violent must be a force sufficient to prod
  , a space to movement that will be extensive, then it might well be that tl
 t have been pansion of gases generated by the explosion of gUBpowder WOI ~ve a place too slow to affect a medium as much rarer than common air a!
was at the sir is rarer tban water. But a much more sudden and violent if it moved ment might possibly cause an impulse in such a medium that rly, it must be perceptible at a great distance.
 :e of su or .

A cannon-ball, propelled with the ordinary charge, is barely I speed from a mile in five seconds. If we take forty miles per second as t l1e accuracy locity of this meteor, it moved with a speed two hundred times @ escribing a than that of a cannon. shot. .A spherical cast-iron shot weighs ime seen by two hundred and twenty-five pounds. If the meteor be assun ine County, have had a diameter of one mile, its surface, and the consequeJ rho was at ume of atmosphere displaced, would have been more than twen bablyabout million times greater than that of the cannon-ball. And, as it degrees by contents were in hulk more than five thousand times greater thl was in view. number indicates, the resista,nce of the atmosphere would be 1 ifty miles in in comparison with that to the cannon-shot. Even if the diameter of the meteor were but one hundred feet, its surface would have been ten thousand times greater, and its bulk one million times larger.  Such a body, moving with a speed two hundred times faster, would present a condition of facts with which we are not at all familiar on the surface of the earth.

     The hissing sound described reminds one somewhat of I occasionally heard when electricity is passing along imperfect or non-conducting substances. 
     
If electricity be coextensive with the atmosphere, this meteor  might have produced great accumulations and disturbances in it, and  caused vibrations to great distances. That these should be very rapid  would seem to be probable from the fact that the greater the rarity of the several gases the higher the speed with which sound is propagated through them.

   Mr. McEwen, at Athens, heard the hissing sound while the meteor was in sight; but fifteen minutes elapsed before the report from the explosion reached him. The explosion was doubtless caused by the intense heat at the surface of the meteor, which generated gases, the expansion of which threw oft' the outer coating of the body in fragments. These gases ought to be expected to expand with a force and speed equal to those caused by the explosion of gunpowder. This has not, I think, been estimated as quite equaling one mile per second.

   Such a movement would, therefore, be slow, compared with the velocity of the meteor itself. Hence, while the hissing sound caused by the latter might move with the rapidity of electricity, that caused by the explosion would travel only with the speed of such sounds as we are familiar with, and would therefore reach a person one hundred and eighty miles distant in fifteen minutes.