Stars falling like Snowflakes, the Leonids Meteor Shower: A Steampunk Perspective

A 1889 engraving depicting the Leonid meteor shower of 1833

“On the night of November 12-13, 1833, a tempest of falling stars broke over the Earth… The sky was scored in every direction with shining tracks and illuminated with majestic fireballs. At Boston, the frequency of meteors was estimated to be about half that of flakes of snow in an average snowstorm. Their numbers… were quite beyond counting; but as it waned, a reckoning was attempted, from which it was computed, on the basis of that much-diminished rate, that 240,000 must have been visible during the nine hours they continued to fall.” – Agnes Clerke’s, Victorian Astronomy Writer

In the November of 1833, there occurred one of the major North American astronomical events of the Victorian era. One estimate put the shower at over one hundred thousand meteors an hour. The Leonids are remnants of the particle stream left behind by the comet Temple-Tuttle, and the Earth moves into the path of this stream in November each year. The meteor showers appear to be originating from the constellation of Leo, so hence their name.

In 1866, two astronomers named Tempel and Tuttle discovered a comet in orbit around the Sun. They calculated that this comet had an orbit such that it would revolve around the Sun once every 33 years and that the comet’s orbit closely intersected that of Earth. This coincidence means that the particle streams from the comet at perihelion are still dense when they encounter Earth and the Moon, resulting in the 33 year cycle of Leonid meteor storms. It is thought that the impact of the Leonid meteors on the Moon contributes to the Moon’s dust trail.

One night I was roused from my sleep by a rap at the door, & I heard the Deacon’s voice exclaiming ‘Arise, Abraham, the day of judgment has come!’ I sprang from my bed & rushed to the window, and saw the stars falling in great showers! But looking back of them in the heavens I saw all the grand old constellations with which I was so well acquainted, fixed and true in their places. Gentlemen, the world did not come to an end then, nor will the Union now.”  –   attributed to Abraham Lincoln by Walt Whitman

The 1833 storm affected its many witnesses in various ways. Many published accounts of this event describe the fear and trembling that accompanied the spectacular meteor shower. According to one account, “No wonder that many, calling to mind the vision of St. John the Divine, when ‘the stars fell unto the earth, even as a fig-tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind,’ felt awestruck, and imagined that the day of wrath was come.” Though there was no Judgement, the meteor storm of 1833 is often credited with precipitating Christian revival in America during the 1830s and 1840s.

I can’t help but see the meteor shower as a fabulous metaphor. Some people saw it as an opportunity to understand the astronomy behind comets and meteors, while others saw the end of the world. There is the real difference in the discourse between science and religion right there. You could use the Leonids to symbolize enlightenment in a Steampunk narrative.


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Filed under Analogy, History, Metaphors, Steampunk

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