Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Brilliant Starry Messenger, 1783

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Isabella reporting,

The night sky is unfamiliar territory to most modern Westerners. A sky filled with stars and planets that was once so familiar for telling time and location is today lost in the brightness of electric lights. Rare celestial events like comets, meteors, and fireballs are relegated to a passing notice on the Weather Channel (or worse, in a song by Pitbull.)

But to our ancestors, the sight of an unexpected ball of fire shooting across the heavens was a strange and unsettling thing, a divine portent of a coming war or the downfall of a king. Starry Messengers: Signs and Science from the Skies is the name of a wonderful exhibition currently on display at Harvard University's Houghton Library, and features examples of how early modern scientists, artists, and writers tried to explain and understand the stars and skies above. The exhibition runs through May 2, and is free and open to the public; click here for more information, and also watch the excellent short video here.

I was particularly fascinated by the story that accompanied these two images on the exhibition caption:

"On the evening of August 18, 1783, a fireball streaked across the British night sky, breaking up in the atmosphere and vanishing over the course of a minute. The summer heat meant there were a number of observers outside at the right moment. Remarkably, a gathering on the terrace of Windsor Palace included both the physicist Tiberious Cavallo and the artist Thomas Sandby, each of whom recorded the event in his own way; Cavallo in the pages of the premier scientific journal of the time, and Sandby in a beautifully atmospheric painting of the event, turned into a hand-colored etching by his brother Paul."

The illustration, right, that accompanied Cavallo's scholarly account in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1784 no doubt explained the stages of the fireball's self-destruction to his learned readers. However, the Sandby painting, above, (click on the image to enlarge it) captures the magic of the event, showing a group of party-goers turned celestial observers gazing up into the sky from the terrace. Unlike some of the earlier illustrations in the exhibition that show people recoiling in fear from comets, these individuals are calmly regarding the fireball with true Age of Reason solemnity.

I like that Sandby included two well-dressed women in the group, and that they are watching solemnly, too, without any signs of female hysterics or fear. What did they make of the sight, I wonder? They certainly weren't going to report their reaction to the Royal Society; women were not admitted as Fellows to that august group until 1945. Did they rush to tell their friends and family and mantua-maker the next day? Did they write letters describing what they'd witnessed? Did they rely on the men around them for explanation(that one fellow pointing his hand was probably a know-it-all), or were they sufficiently educated themselves to understand what they were seeing?

Alas, no one knows. But don't be surprised if a heroine in one of my next books happens to be walking on the terrace of Windsor Palace on a warm August night....

Many thanks to John Overholt and Andrea Cawelti for their assistance with this post, and for my tour of Houghton Library; I am still in a blissful Nerdy History Girl daze.

Above: To Sir Joseph Bankes, President of the Royal Society, London, this plate, from motives of respect and esteem, is inscrib'd. London: P. Sandby, 1783.
Right: Royal Society (Great Britain), Philosophical transactions, 1784.
Both from the Houghton Library, Harvard University. Images via Houghton Library.


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