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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, SETI@home, 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 (17)

  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.

  10. The Leonids Meteor Shower in November 2001, was a Beyond Mind Blowing Life changing event. Far beyond being Majestically spectacular, It was a Celestial The most Epically Jaw dropping Night & morning that I’ve ever experienced in my Life, There was Easily 500 to well over a 2,000 Per hour at times
    November 2034 can’t wait

  11. My family watched the Nov 2001 storm from an open pasture in rural Galveston County. It was a good shower, then suddenly burst into a 2-3 meteors PER SECOND for a breathless minute and a half, then rapidly subsided. I literally held my breath. It was like driving through a snowstorm with high beams on. Contact me via Facebook for more details.

  12. The link to American Journal of Science & Arts 1834 no longer works – it just points to the digital collection at Carnegie Mellon.

  13. Thank you for a part of the 1833 meteor storm story I did not know. A pictorial representation of the meteor storm can be seen in one of the two extant quilts of Harriett Powers (Georgia, 1837-1910). Powers was born enslaved 4 years after the storm and heard stories of it. It is included as the center block in her 1898 pictorial quilt currently owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

  14. I have always enjoyed a great meteor shower, and the Denison Olmsted must have been quite astute to recognize “The falling stars ” As repetitive in nature…also, the “Olmsted” name is also where one set of my grandparents resided…In Southern IL…thank you for sharing this information, will assist me in the writing of my memoirs!

  15. Falling stars, meteors or meteorites as they have been labeled, are in fact the representation of souls who ceased to survive. Those who have utilized gifts through life experiences to build houses and castles made from the remains of the nephalim without the honor to God (the Creator), these houses and castles built helped a soul obtain a star. Without the honor to God (the Creator) during the building and living throughout life in all gratitude, honoring the maker of heaven and earth and the creation of all living things–stars included. A star or many stars, have the tendency to fall to the ground. For stars are in fact living.

    When this happens and a soul leaves the body and becomes a star through living in the remains of the nephilim. When the alignment of the planets during an Era or time period take place, it is then the soul star must too die. The planets are a time clock of continuum for this to happen.

    May it no longer be a mystery to anyone. We all deserve the truth ❤️🤍💛🖤

    The horseshoes at Stonehenge act as a portal to the sky. The portal to the sky is the direct link to the heavens, which means to obtain a star. Stars were created in this way to protect the lineage of those who came before. The horseshoe image is used in the medicine wheels, used at the sight of Stonehenge, and utilized throughout ancient sites around the world.
    The protection — the direct link, has allowed for the saving of what the Bible identifies in the last days as saving the tribes of the 144,000. The stones that built ancient pyramids around the world. The stones that built Stonehenge. The stones that built the medicine wheels, the stones that built the pyramids, they were built as portals to the afterlife. In the Native American culture it is called the “other camp”.

    These stones were never ever transported from a different area. It was during the time of the great flood that God drowned and killed the nephilim. The nephilim are the giants who roamed the earth, who feasted on all Indigenous peoples.

    Each structure was built with the bones of the nephilim, once the waters from the great flood subsided. Each site was built by the indigenous peoples as an honor to the creator to protect the Earth from the giant nephalim ever being able to come back and cause destruction ever again.

  16. It means very soon Jesuse will come

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