Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Today in History: the Perseid Meteor Shower

Post by Jayne Ptolemy, Reading Room Supervisor

In the early morning hours of August 12th, the Perseid Meteor Shower will be at its peak for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. As we pass through the trailing dust left by the Swift-Tuttle comet, we should witness a beautiful demonstration—if the weather permits. In 1866 James Edwards Oliver watched a similar meteor shower in Lynn, Massachusetts. He did not have the benefit of a modern alarm clock, but he assured his correspondent, “We shan’t miss the meteors; neither shall we sit up beforehand to see them: for our night-watchmen are to ring the bells when they come.” After six pages of emotive ruminations on gravitation, motion, and meteor showers, he described the cause of the lightshow as “aerolites… arrested suddenly by our stronger atmosphere, they flash into unexpected splendor, burst into hot vapor, cool into the finest dust of iron-oxide, sift down slowly & unseen through the air, become part of the lovely & ever-changing earth, live in the red blood-disks of man...” James Edwards Oliver’s letter is among many beautiful and descriptive accounts to be found in the Clements’s American Science and Medicine Collection.

With items ranging from 1702 to 1913, and respecting astronomy, botany, epidemics, medicine, quackery, mental health, and many other topics, this diverse group of individual manuscripts is an especially compelling one. Contributors include laymen, experts, businessmen, women, and others, giving a broad overview of American perspectives on medical and scientific matters. Among these is an August 1832 letter, where student William H. Butler described his astronomical studies to a family member. He illustrated his correspondence with a pen and ink drawing of the solar system, using stamps to place the planets. Butler identified Uranus as "Herschel," after astronomer and composer William Herschel, its recognized discoverer.

Butler’s manuscript map is complemented by holdings in our book and map divisions. For example, this printed map of the solar system appears in Uzziah Burnap’s 1822 edition of The Youth’s Ethereal Director, or, A Concise and Familiar Explanation of the Elements of Astronomy.

Uzziah Burnap, The Youth’s Ethereal Director (Middlebury: J.W. Copeland, 1822). Uranus is again identified with a capital ‘H,’ reflecting the planet’s early name. The Clements’s books, maps, and atlases give many beautiful and detailed depictions of astronomical bodies and systems, while a number of our manuscript collections provide nuanced first-person perspectives on celestial events.

An unidentified writer from the American Science and Medicine Collection gives us one last glimpse into how people enjoyed stargazing. Describing bright flashing lights in an early-morning sky, the observer noted, with a degree of awe, that “It appeared as if all the stars were falling to the earth” (September 1833). If we are fortunate, maybe it will appear so to us this August 12, 2013.