Great Meteor of August 18, 1783
The Great Meteor of August 18, 1783 was an unusually bright bolide observed from the United Kingdom
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 at a time when such phenomena were not well understood. The meteor was the subject of much discussion in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society
The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society is a scientific journal published by the Royal Society of London. It was established in 1665, making it the first journal in the world exclusively devoted to science, and it has remained in continuous publication ever since, making it the world's...

and was the subject of a detailed study by Charles Blagden
Charles Blagden
Sir Charles Brian Blagden FRS was a British physician and scientist. He served as a medical officer in the Army and later held the position of Secretary of the Royal Society...



The event occurred at between 9.15 and 9.30 on August 18, a clear, dry night. Analysis of observations has indicated that the meteor entered the Earth's atmosphere over the North Sea
North Sea
In the southwest, beyond the Straits of Dover, the North Sea becomes the English Channel connecting to the Atlantic Ocean. In the east, it connects to the Baltic Sea via the Skagerrak and Kattegat, narrow straits that separate Denmark from Norway and Sweden respectively...

, before passing over the east coast of Scotland
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

 and England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 and the English Channel
English Channel
The English Channel , often referred to simply as the Channel, is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates southern England from northern France, and joins the North Sea to the Atlantic. It is about long and varies in width from at its widest to in the Strait of Dover...

; it finally broke up, after a passage within the atmosphere of around a thousand miles, over south-western France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 or northern Italy
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...


There were many witnesses. Perhaps the most prominent was Tiberius Cavallo
Tiberius Cavallo
Tiberius Cavallo was an Italian physicist and natural philosopher.-Life:He was born at Naples, where his father was a physician....

, an Italian natural philosopher who had happened to be amongst a group of people on the terrace at Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle is a medieval castle and royal residence in Windsor in the English county of Berkshire, notable for its long association with the British royal family and its architecture. The original castle was built after the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror. Since the time of Henry I it...

 at the time the meteor appeared. Cavallo published his account of the phenomenon in v. 74 of the Philosophical Transactions :

Some flashes of lambent light, much like the aurora borealis, were first observed on the northern part of the heavens, which were soon perceived to proceed from a roundish luminous body, whose apparent diameter equaled half that of the moon, and almost stationary in the same point of the heavens [...] This ball at first appeared of a faint bluish light, perhaps from appearing just kindled, or from its appearing through the haziness; but it gradually increased its light, and soon began to move, at first ascending above the horizon in an oblique direction towards the east. Its course in this direction was very short, perhaps of five or six degrees; after which it directed its course towards the east [...] Its light was prodigious. Every object appeared very distinct; the whole face of the country, in that beautiful prospect before the terrace, being instantly illuminated.

Cavallo noted both that the meteor, which was visible for around thirty seconds in total, appeared to split into several smaller bodies
Meteor procession
A meteor procession is the term used to describe when an Earth-grazing meteor breaks apart, and the fragments travel across the sky in the same path...

 immediately following the main mass and that a rumbling noise, "as it were of thunder at a great distance", was heard around ten minutes after the meteor appeared, which he speculated "was the report of the meteor's explosion". Other accounts, such as those of Alexander Aubert
Alexander Aubert
Alexander Aubert FRS, , was an eminent English amateur astronomer and businessman.-Life:He was born at Austin Friars, London, 11 May 1730...

 and Richard Lovell Edgeworth
Richard Lovell Edgeworth
Richard Lovell Edgeworth was an Anglo-Irish politician, writer and inventor.-Biography:Edgeworth was born in Pierrepont Street, Bath, England, grandson of Sir Salathiel Lovell through his daughter, Jane Lovell....

, noted red and blue colour tints in the fireball.

Some accounts appeared rather more fanciful; the London Magazine
London Magazine
The London Magazine is a historied publication of arts, literature and miscellaneous interests. Its history ranges nearly three centuries and several reincarnations, publishing the likes of William Wordsworth, William S...

mentioned a letter by a lieutenant on a British warship which had been positioned north of Ireland "who relates he saw the same meteor moving along the north-east quarter [...] but he adds something singular enough, namely, that a little time afterwards, he saw it moving back again, the contrary way to which it came". The author added that "several other observations of this meteor have come into my hands, but they are so inconsistent with these already related, as well as with one another, that I forebear to mention them".

Gilbert White
Gilbert White
Gilbert White FRS was a pioneering English naturalist and ornithologist.-Life:White was born in his grandfather's vicarage at Selborne in Hampshire. He was educated at the Holy Ghost School and by a private tutor in Basingstoke before going to Oriel College, Oxford...

, writing in 1787, was to remember the "amazing and portentous" summer of 1783 as "full of horrible phaenomena [...] alarming meteors and tremendous thunder-storms that affrighted and distressed the different counties of this kingdom".

Visual depictions

One of Cavallo's five companions on the terrace was the artist Thomas Sandby
Thomas Sandby
Thomas Sandby was an English draughtsman, watercolour artist, architect and teacher. Along with his younger brother Paul, he became one of the founding members of the Royal Academy in 1768, and was its first professor of architecture...

, who in collaboration with his brother Paul
Paul Sandby
Paul Sandby was an English map-maker turned landscape painter in watercolours, who, along with his older brother Thomas, became one of the founding members of the Royal Academy in 1768.-Life and work:...

 who was to base a now well-known engraving on the event. A print of this engraving is in the collection of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery
Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery
The University of Glasgow's Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery is the oldest public museum in Scotland. It is located in various buildings on the main campus of the University in the west end of Glasgow.-History:...

 at Glasgow University. A second engraving was produced by a schoolmaster, Henry Robinson, who observed the meteor from the village of Winthorpe, Nottinghamshire
Nottinghamshire is a county in the East Midlands of England, bordering South Yorkshire to the north-west, Lincolnshire to the east, Leicestershire to the south, and Derbyshire to the west...

.. Further engravings, based on the drawings of the authors and presented in a fold-out form, were included with articles by Cavallo and Nathaniel Pigott
Nathaniel Pigott
Nathaniel Pigott was an English astronomer, noted for his observations of eclipses, a transit of Venus and a transit of Mercury, and comets...

 in the Philosophical Transactions.

A painting traditionally thought to be of the 1759 apparition of Halley's Comet and attributed to the "English Canaletto
Giovanni Antonio Canal better known as Canaletto , was a Venetian painter famous for his landscapes, or vedute, of Venice. He was also an important printmaker in etching.- Early career :...

", Samuel Scott, has in more recent years been interpreted as depicting a large fireball meteor given its generally uncometary appearance. Further work by Jay Pasachoff
Jay Pasachoff
Jay Myron Pasachoff is an American astronomer. Pasachoff is Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College and the author of textbooks and tradebooks in astronomy, physics, mathematics, and other sciences.-Biography:...

 and Roberta Olson has suggested that the painting is not in fact by Scott, and that it depicts the third stage of the 1783 fireball, viewed over the Thames.

Possible relation to meteorite falls

It has been speculated that the Hambleton Pallasite
A pallasite is a type of stony–iron meteorite.-Structure and composition:It consists of cm-sized olivine crystals of peridot quality in an iron-nickel matrix. Coarser metal areas develop Widmanstätten patterns upon etching...

, a rare type of meteorite found in 2005 in north Yorkshire
Yorkshire is a historic county of northern England and the largest in the United Kingdom. Because of its great size in comparison to other English counties, functions have been increasingly undertaken over time by its subdivisions, which have also been subject to periodic reform...

, may be related to the 1783 Great Meteor, based on the latter's track and on weathering on the pallasite's surface.

External links

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