The Early Years of Meteor Observations in the USA

By Richard Taibi

AMS Staff Advisor on History

The history of meteor observation in the United States contains some surprises for today’s reader. The first is that the partnership between academic meteor astronomers and amateurs began in 1837, when Denison Olmsted invited some of his Yale College students to join him in monitoring the Leonids. So, the “pro-am” nature of the American Meteor Society, with its partnership between a professional and amateurs, had a predecessor in the nineteenth century. The second surprise is the great number of amateur meteor observers who watched the skies in the decades before the American Meteor Society was founded.

Most of the story about nineteenth century meteor studies is contained in the pages of the American Journal of Science and Arts (AJS). The AJS was started in 1818, by Benjamin Silliman (1779-1864), a Yale College chemistry professor. Silliman was thrust into meteoric matters when he was asked to investigate an 1807 meteorite fall on Weston, Connecticut. Professors Silliman and James L. Kingsley performed a chemical analysis of the meteorite’s fragments and on the basis of that concluded that it had an extraterrestrial origin. As a result, Silliman taught his students that meteoric fireballs could produce rocks that fell from the sky. One of his students, Denison Olmsted (1791-1859) became a Yale professor of astronomy and was the first to invite amateur astronomers to join him in astronomical research about meteors.

1833: Olmsted was awakened by a New Haven, Connecticut neighbor to witness the Leonid storm on November 13, 1833. Olmsted reported his findings to a local newspaper and asked its readers to contribute their observations so that he could analyze the astonishing phenomenon. Unexpectedly, his report was discovered by other papers and Olmsted received observations from the entire eastern half of North America. Widespread clear skies had allowed the public to see the display and knowledgeable people contributed their sightings.

1837: Olmsted’s library research disclosed that high Leonid rates had occurred in 1831 and 1832. High rates also occurred in 1834-1836. Consequently, Olmsted desired to monitor the 1837 display, with the goal of determining the date of maximum. He realized that he alone could not possibly watch meteors several days in a row. So, for the first time, amateur observers were asked to join in a meteor study. Olmsted asked Edward Claudius Herrick (1811-1862) a New Haven amateur astronomer to join the effort. Olmsted also asked the following Yale students to assist him. Robert Bethel Claxton (1814-1882) became an Episcopal priest and college professor. Elisha Fitch (1813-1839) made many meteor watches before, during, and after full moons preceding the one in November 1837. This work enabled him to estimate the percentage of Leonids that would be overwhelmed by the full moon that coincided with the Leonid maximum. Without Fitch’s data, Olmsted would have been unable to decide if the Leonids had appeared in unusually great numbers. Fitch became a U.S. Navy shipboard instructor of mathematics and navigation and died on active duty. Ashbel Bradford Haile (1806-1880) was a frequent observing partner of Edward Herrick’s. The two men helped establish average meteor rates so that unusual rates, marking the return of a shower, could be detected. Haile contributed to meteor studies until he graduated from Yale medical school in 1842. Ebenezer Porter Mason (1819-1840) was a highly talented amateur who built two reflecting telescopes. The largest was a 12-inch with which he observed and sketched nebulae. John Herschel praised Mason’s work for its accuracy. Mason also used the 12-inch to observe meteors during a Perseid shower. Mason had decided upon an astronomy career, but tuberculosis killed him shortly after his 21st birthday. Hamilton Lanphere Smith (1818-1903) collaborated with Mason in constructing and using telescopes. He became a professor of astronomy at Kenyon College, and later, Hobart College. Edward Strong (1813-1898) became a Congregational minister. David Tappan Stoddard (1818-1857) became a Christian missionary in Iran. Olmsted’s invitation to these amateurs to join his research marked the beginning of a partnership that persists to this day.

1838-1862: Herrick was a voracious reader of domestic and foreign newspapers and scientific literature. He discovered that besides the “November meteors (Leonids),” observers had seen meteor showers, and sometimes storms, during certain dates in April, August , and early December. Herrick borrowed Olmsted’s idea of soliciting observations from astronomers and amateurs in distant locations, in an effort to confirm the annual nature of the showers that we now call the Lyrids, Perseids, and Andromedids. For 24 years, Herrick coordinated national meteor watches of these showers and published the results in AJS. He demonstrated the contribution an amateur could make to meteor studies, and was acknowledged by astronomers in the U.S. and Europe for his work.

1857: Francis Bradley (1815-1893) was an observing partner of Herrick’s. He moved to Chicago when he became an auditor for the Rock Island Railroad. Bradley was not a man to let his work interfere with meteors. He watched the 1858 Perseids from a Rock Island train as it sped toward Chicago! Bradley established his own group of amateur meteor astronomers in Evanston Illinois. They monitored the Perseids and Leonids until about 1870.

1862: Benjamin V. Marsh (1818-1882), a Burlington New Jersey dry goods merchant, discovered the Geminid meteor shower, independently of, but simultaneously with Professor Alexander Catlin Twining (1801-1884) of the U.S., and Robert Philips Greg (1826-1906) and Alexander Stewart Herschel (1836-1907) of England. Marsh and his brother-in-law, Professor Samuel James Gummere (1811-1874), of Haverford College, were avid meteor observers in the late 19th century.

1863: Yale College astronomer and mathematician Hubert Anson Newton (1830-1896) predicted, after exhaustive historical research, that the Leonids would storm again in 1866. This prediction set in motion thorough Leonid watches in the U.S. and the U.K. during the years 1863-1870. Newton maintained a voluminous correspondence with many amateur meteor observers, like Marsh and Bradley. A young amateur, Frederick William Russell (1845-1915), began a meteor observation group of amateurs in Natick, Massachusetts. He sent the group’s observations to professor Newton during the years 1861-1867.

1863: During the 1840s and 1850s in England, Professor (and Reverend) Baden Powell (1796-1860), collected and encouraged meteor observations. He was a founding member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA). At the time, meteors were called “luminous meteors” to distinguish them from other atmospheric phenomena, like rain and lightning. He published meteor results in the BA’s annual reports. When he died, the BA formed the Luminous Meteor Committee (LMC) to continue Powell’s work. The LMC’s membership changed somewhat over the period 1862-1880, but two of the stalwarts were Robert Philips Greg and Alexander Stewart Herschel. The LMC developed detailed instructions about how watchers were to make meteor observations. The committee urged meteor observers to hold a straightedge up to the sky when a meteor appeared, so that its path could be better recalled. The LMC also requested that observers transfer the meteor’s path onto a gnomonic map so that meteor radiants could be located.

1866-1868: Leonid storms were seen in Europe and the U.S. The public became enthralled with meteors. Magazines like Scientific American prompted United States readers to watch for the Leonids. Publicity about the Leonids encouraged a new generation of amateur meteor watchers. Among them were William Frederick Denning (1848-1931) in England and Edwin Forrest Sawyer (1849-1937) in the U.S. Both began life-long observational careers.

1868: The LMC published and distributed gnomonic maps to English and foreign observers alike. Its goal was to stimulate thorough searches for meteor radiants. Alexander Herschel was successful in mentoring W.F. Denning, who proved to be a tireless radiant-finder. By 1899 Denning had evidence of almost 4,400 radiants and he was considered the world’s foremost meteor observer. George Lyon Tupman (1838-1922), a Royal Marine officer, used the LMC maps during a Mediterranean cruise from 1869 to 1871. He discovered many southern radiants not easily seen from England. The LMC sent its materials to Benjamin V. Marsh, H.A.Newton, and A.C. Twining, and perhaps to other American observers. For instance, it is known that Herschel sent the LMC’s 1862-1863 report to Marsh. The LMC’s methods had great influence on American meteor observers in the late 19th century. H.A. Newton also developed and mailed star maps so that observers could plot meteors during the Leonid storms. 1869: Newton’s analysis of the 1868 Leonids in AJS contains observations from amateur observers. Among them were Charles G. Boerner (1827-1900), a Weather Bureau observer in Indiana, and Winthrop Sargent Gilman (1839-1921) a New York banker. Gilman’s younger brothers also contributed their data. In Washington, D.C, Daniel Horrigan contributed his Leonid counts. Horrigan was the U.S. Naval Observatory’s night watchman and he watched meteors while the astronomers conducted their telescopic duties.

1872: When the Andromedid meteor storm occurred on November 27, Edwin Sawyer and a friend made detailed counts. They also kept a magnitude distribution of the Andromedids they saw. They were familiar with this reporting style because they had used it many times before for other watches. It was so natural to them that they used it spontaneously to record a meteor storm they had not anticipated.

1877: Sawyer began to write in Science Observer, the Boston Scientific Society’s journal. His articles alerted readers to watch for annual showers and he published his and other’s data in the Observer. At age 28, he volunteered to mentor new observers so they could acquire necessary observation skills. Sawyer’s efforts were rewarded, because by the early 1880s, his contributors were distributed throughout most of the U.S. and included prominent observers like Edward Emerson Barnard (1857-1923) and Lewis Swift (1820-1913).

1879: Sawyer published a catalog of radiants he had discovered during 1877 and 1878.

1881: Sawyer published a second catalog in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. He had an active correspondence with W.F. Denning who included some of Sawyer’s radiants in his extensive radiant listings.

1882: Sawyer contributed two articles to Sidereal Messenger in which he taught U.S. observers about meteors and how LMC methodology could be used to study them.

1885: The Andromedids stormed again. H.A. Newton described readers’ results in AJS.

Late 1880s-1915: Sawyer published results of his Perseid and Leonid watches in Astronomical Journal. His correspondence with Denning continued.

1893-1894: Denning published a series of articles in Popular Astronomy. He described each major annual shower, and taught the LMC methodology to U.S. observers.

1899: Professionals, amateurs, and the public were all on alert to witness the forecast Leonid storm. Popular Astronomy published sky maps so that readers could plot meteors they saw. Wealthy amateurs purchased large aperture cameras to record Leonids during the storm. Fifteen-year-old Charles Pollard Olivier (1884-1975) assisted the McCormick Observatory’s astronomers while they photographed the Leonids. Unfortunately, everyone was frustrated by the Leonids’ failure to storm. The public was bitterly disappointed. As a result, the public became disenchanted with meteors for the next thirty years. 1904: Charles Olivier, then a junior at the University of Virginia, became skeptical about Denning’s claims for the existence of “stationary radiants.” Denning claimed that these meteor radiants did not move against the background sky, and lasted for weeks or months. Disproving these radiants’ existence became Olivier’s topic for a doctoral dissertation, which he completed in 1911.

1911: Olivier, now a Ph.D astronomer, volunteered to lead the meteor section of an amateur-founded astronomy association, the Society for Practical Astronomy (SPA). Two years later, Olivier broke away from the SPA and founded the American Meteor Society (AMS). Dr. Olivier continued to lead the AMS until just before his death in 1975.


Denning, W. (1893-1894) “Shooting stars, how to observe them and what they teach us” A series of articles. Popular Astronomy, 1, September 1893 to April 1894.

Eastman, J. (1890). “Progress of meteoric astronomy in America” Bulletin of the Philosophical Society of Washington. Washington, D.C. 11, pp. 275-358.

Kronk, G. (1988) Meteor Showers. Enslow Publishers, Hillside, N.J., USA and Aldershot, Hants, UK. p. 246.

Littmann, M. (1998) The Heavens on Fire. The Great Leonid Meteor Storms. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA. Chapter 1.

Newton, H. (1869) “Meteors of November 14th, 1868″. American Journal of Science and Arts. Second series, 47, pp. 118-126 and 399-413, with two plates.

Olivier, C. (1967) “History of the Leander McCormick Observatory circa 1883 to 1928.” Publications of the Leander McCormick Observatory 11, Part XXVI, pp. 203-209

Olmsted, D. (1838) “On the Meteoric Shower of November, 1837″ American Journal of Science and Arts. First series, 33, 379-393.

Payne, W. (1899) “The Leonids of November, 1899″ Popular Astronomy, 7, pp. 527

Taibi, R. (2004) “Edwin Forrest Sawyer” WGN, Journal of the International Meteor Society. 32, pp. 87-91.

Tupman, G. (1873) “Results of Observations of Shooting Stars, made in the Mediterranean in the Years 1869, 1870, 1871″ Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 33, pp.298-317.