The Great Meteorite of July 1860 – When Stars Fell to Earth

Written by Douglas Palmer, Sedgwick Museum, University of Cambridge 

159 years ago, on July 14th 1860, the people of the remote Himalayan hill station of Dharmsala in Himalchal Pradesh, north-western India were treated to the awesome sight of ‘shooting stars’ burning up as they plunged through the atmosphere into the surrounding landscape. Awed they may have been, but not too frightened to retrieve some of the heavenly bodies. They were of course in for a surprise when they picked them up but not in the way you might expect.

The Long Reach of the Empire

1860 was just three years after the Indian Rebellion. The local population of Dharmsala had increased in number with the newly garrisoned Gurkha Light Infantry and the seasonal influx of colonial administrators and their families escaping the heat of Delhi. The celestial drama drew the phenomenon to the attention of the Geological Survey of India, then directed by an Irish geologist Thomas Oldham, and an investigation was ordered.

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According to the investigating officer eye-witnesses ‘ran to the spot to pick up the pieces. Before they had held them in their hands half a minute they had to drop them…’. However, the reason was not what was expected. The report continued – it was ‘…owing to the intensity of the cold which quite benumbed their fingers…’. As surprised and puzzled as the locals, the officer continued ‘…considering the fact that they were apparently but a moment before in a state of ignition, is very remarkable, each stone that fell bore unmistakable marks of partial fusion’.

The reported facts were thought to be sufficiently remarkable for the meteorites to be dispatched to the Woodwardian (now Sedgwick) Museum of the University of Cambridge, where they are currently on display.

One of the 1860 Dharmsala meteorite fragments on exhibit in the Sedgwick Museum. © Sedgwick Museum, University of Cambridge.

It’s Cold out There

What the people of Dharmsala had in fact experienced was the intense coldness of deep space from where the meteorites had originated. Despite their surface fusion, the low thermal conductivity and size of each rocky meteorite before it fragmented, preserved the low temperature.

An American Connection – The Poet, Prince and President

That might have been the end of the story but for an unlikely combination of events in New York State. A few days after the Dharmsala meteorite, in New York on the night of July 20th 1860, the great American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) saw a “strange huge meteor procession, dazzling and clear, shooting over our heads’ and wrote of it in his poem Year of the Meteors. The brief description was tantalising, for what kind of meteorite event had he actually seen?

The full stanza of Whitman’s poem telescopes the appearance of the meteors with three other major American events of 1860. There was the June arrival in New York of Brunel’s leviathan, the Great Eastern on her maiden voyage, the October state visit of the18 year-old Prince of Wales and the November election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. For Whitman and many others, such an astronomical event was ‘Year of meteors! Brooding year!’ and filled with foreboding, which the outbreak of the American Civil War seemed to confirm.

And a Painter

Whitman was not the only observant artist on the night of July 20th. One of America’s most famous landscape painters, Frederick Church (1826-1900), was equally impressed by the same event. Influenced by Humboldt’s vision of the interconnectedness of nature and Ruskin’s emphasis on close observation, Church was greatly interested in the scientific portrayal of nature. By 1860, he was the most famous and successful American painter and could afford to buy a farm in Hudson, New York. And, he was there on his honeymoon on the night of July 20th at 9.49 pm when the meteoritic fireballs passed horizontally overhead. They took some 30 seconds to cross the night sky from the Great Lakes towards New York State and out over the Atlantic. Church saw enough of the unexpected and dramatic succession of bright fireballs to paint ‘The Meteor of 1860’. In this painting Church clearly shows a train of fireballs following the same trajectory across the night sky with such brightness that their incandescence is reflected in the lake waters below.

‘The Meteor of 1860’ painted by Frederick Church, image Wikimedia commons  “Courtesy of Judith Filenbaum Hernstadt”.

But despite his fame, Church’s painting did not become widely known because he kept it in his farmhouse bedroom for many years. The painting was not connected with Whitman’s poem for another 150 years. Whitman scholars had been puzzling over what had prompted his poem until 2010, when rediscovery of the Church painting allowed the connection to be made.

Great Meteor Procession

This rare and remarkable astronomical event is now recognised as ‘The Great Meteor Procession of 1860’. It was the result of a meteor breaking up as it entered the atmosphere and forming a train of fireballs all following similar paths. In this event the meteor is thought to have entered the atmosphere at such a low angle that it became what is known as an ‘earth-grazing’ meteor. It glanced through the upper atmosphere and returned to space.

It is not known whether the Dharmsala and New York meteors were related events. Their coincidence in July 1860 does not appear to have been previously commented upon. If they were related, the only tangible evidence is preserved in the University of Cambridge’s Sedgwick Museum.

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