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How Newspapers Helped Crowdsource a Scientific Discovery: The 1833 Leonid Meteor Storm

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“The Falling Stars, Nov. 13, 1833.” Bible Readings for the Home Circle, p. 323. Review and Herald Publishing Association. 1914.

The following is a guest post by Jennie Horton, the 2020 Librarian-in-Residence with the Reference Team in the Serial & Government Publications Division. 

It’s an ordinary night in November. You look up in the sky at around 10:30 pm and notice a few shooting stars. After you appreciate the pretty sight, you get ready for bed and tuck yourself in. Shortly after 3:00 am, you are awoken as your room fills with light. You can hear your neighbors outside shouting. As you rush outside, you’re met with a spectacular scene—the sky is lit up with hundreds of meteors, as if it’s raining fire. The barrage of lights persists until daybreak when the sunlight causes the meteors to fade from view. You can hardly believe what you saw, but you won’t soon forget it!

“Remarkable Phenomenon.” New York Journal of Commerce (New York, NY), November 23, 1833. Accessed through America’s Historical Newspapers, August 20, 2020.

The Leonid meteor storm was seen across the United States in the night and early morning of November 12th and 13th, 1833. Those who were awake to witness the storm were in awe as between 50,000 and 150,000 meteors fell each hour. Denison Olmsted, a professor at Yale, wanted to know more about this phenomenon. However, he did not have much data to study aside from his own observations. As soon as the meteors began to disappear with the sunrise, Olmsted drafted a letter and sent it off to the New Haven Daily Herald, appealing to the public to send any information about the storm. This issue of the Daily Herald would be the catalyst for one of the first crowdsourced science projects—in which Olmsted used information from everyday people to help him make new discoveries about meteors.

As the cause of ‘Falling Stars’ is not understood by meteorologists, it is desirable to collect all the facts attending this phenomenon, stated with as much precision as possible. The subscriber, therefore, requests to be informed of any particulars which were observed by others, respecting the time when it was first discovered, the position of the radiant point above mentioned, whether progressive or stationary, and of any other facts relative to the meteors.
-Denison Olmsted’s appeal reprinted in the Richmond Enquirer, Nov 26, 1833.

“The Meteors.” Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, VA), November 26, 1833.

Newspapers at the time were usually subscribed to each other and upon receiving their copy of the New Haven Daily Herald, papers across the nation began reprinting Olmsted’s letter. In addition, local newspapers took their own interest in reporting on the meteor storm, publishing eyewitness accounts and opinions from scientific experts.

“The Shower of Stars.” Phenix Gazette (Alexandria, DC), November 23, 1833.

Olmsted’s letter in the paper worked, and he received responses from all over the country. He was successfully able to crowdsource information about the meteor storm based on the descriptions of everyday people. Olmsted read through these accounts and used them to draw new conclusions about meteors. Olmsted published his findings in an 1834 edition of the American Journal of Science and Arts. This project, and the sheer scope of the feedback Olmsted received, would not have been possible without the help of newspapers circulating his call for information.

Crowdsourcing information for research projects (scientific or not) is a much more common practice today. Large projects, which would take a research team years to complete, can be partially outsourced to members of the public. This allows research to get done faster and allows regular people to participate. A popular example of crowdsourcing at work is the UC Berkeley project, [email protected], which allowed users to contribute their computing power to analyze radio telescope data in the hopes of finding extraterrestrial intelligence. Other crowdsourcing projects include those hosted on Zooniverse, BOINC, and the British Library.

There is also a crowdsourcing project taking place at the Library of Congress! Volunteers can transcribe, proof, and tag historical texts from letters to diaries to legal documents that cannot be transcribed by a computer. “By the People” not only helps to make these documents more discoverable to the public, the crowdsourcing project also helps to make these documents accessible to those who cannot read the original images or are not fully sighted. You can contribute to the Library’s crowdsourcing project by working on a variety of unique collections including papers on women’s suffrage and letters to Theodore Roosevelt.

Related Resources:

* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Comments (10)

  1. Great article, Jennie!
    I loved learning about crowdsourcing in the 1800s.
    Excellent research and citations!

  2. No social media needed! Such a genius way to gather information!

  3. Was anyone killed we’re house’s destroyed

  4. In the WPA interviews of former slaves (1936-8), a few–supercentenarians, of course–give eyewitness accounts of this event.

  5. Why was the meteor shower named “Leonid”?

    • Great question, Sammy! The Leonid meteor showers are called that because the meteors come from the direction of the constellation Leo. If you have more questions or want more information, please send us a question through Ask-A-Librarian!

  6. Did this happen only in the USA

  7. this meteor shower was supposed to happen it prophecy in scripture before Jesus comes this would happen also the day that darkened so dark the cows came home

  8. My great, great, great grandfather was taking his family from North Carolina to Indiana and witnessed this first hand from the trial.

  9. I became interested in this after I read a book by Ginny Dye when the meteor shower was viewed at a plantation outside Richmond, VA. during the Civil War. While her book ( one of 20 in a series ) was fiction this story included in one of them was apparently quite real.

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