Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Fossil Hunters, Biographers, and Chas. Insco Williams

Fossil Hunters, Biographers and Chas. Insco Williams                                       

Skywatchers readers,

Please bear with me in these first four paragraphs while I set up an analogy that will be exemplified at the end of this essay…

When a Tyrannosaurus’s skeleton or millenias-old Hominid jawbone is found, paleontologists are usually able to tell us the nearly miraculous way they were preserved in rock.  The typical process I remember reading about was that a corpse was quickly buried by river silt which prevented oxygen from decomposing it.  Ages passed with more sand burials, and the bones petrified in their sandstone matrix.  Eventually a fossil hunter wins a grant for exploration because of her insight about probable burial locations; she chips and scrapes away rock layers and uncovers a prized specimen.  Sometimes a scientist’s analysis and explanation of the burial scene provides us with a description of the animal’s last moments, perhaps even what led to its death; reading the rock tells the fateful story.

People’s life events are preserved by the written word in documents: their birth dates and parents’ names, school sports feats, graduations, marriages, work achievements, awards, failures, and their death dates and places.  Our lives are recorded in lines of printers’ ink and on social media pages.  Over time these pages accumulate in layers in archives, waiting for the probing biographer to locate and open the correct one. Then, the writer can reconstruct a biographical narrative from a life’s sequence of events. 

Fossil hunters and biographers have a lot in common task-wise. Displaying a new fossil specimen requires assembling scattered bones that were freed from a rocky matrix; publishing a person’s life narrative means sequencing life events found in scattered texts in archives.

However, many peoples’ biographies are not written even though their facts are archived.  They await the investigator whose interests lead to the archive with their records. I consult archives containing records about astronomers.  That’s how I have publicized people whose vitae may not have been cited beyond a death notice, or an obituary in a newspaper or online funeral notice. My privilege has been to introduce Skywatchers’ readers to some little-celebrated lives; people who have engaged in observational astronomy.  For me, that was their ticket to a memorial on these pages.  I like to unearth accounts of those people who have studied the heavens; I believe that readers would like to know about them.

Popular Astronomy’s volumes are the archives I often peruse.  Its 1934 tome contained two lines of print about a man named “Chas. Insco Williams” who had submitted a sky watch report.  He was one of the citizen scientists who assisted astronomer Charles P. Olivier to record ‘shooting stars’ during 1933’s Leonid display.[1,2,3]  Williams reported his address as, ‘Eglinton’ in King George County, Virginia about 80 km from where I live. I became curious about him simply because he had lived so nearby. [1, 2]  Williams had counted Leonid meteors during the height of the shower’s 1933 return, when Olivier had cautiously hoped a stupendous ‘storm’ of meteors would fill the sky. Specifically, Williams spent 8.5 hours during two early mornings, on November 16 and 17, waiting for the sky to fill with fire.  That never happened.  But he did count 32 Leonids on the 16th and 9 the next day. [3] He also reported that he had company during those predawn hours because he noted that “we” had watched meteors. [3]

So there were three questions to answer: who had Charles Insco Williams been, where was Eglinton located; and who were his meteor watch companions? has been a dependable go-to archive when I need to learn someone’s history, but it disappointed me.  It did not reveal a specific person to the prompt of ‘Chas. Insco Williams, Eglinton, Virginia.’  However, it did have two ‘Charles Insco Williams’ in its databases.  One was born in 1853 and had been a noted architect; the second was born in 1906 and had been an executive for a refrigerator manufacturer.  Unfortunately those men had lived in Ohio and additional information about them showed that neither had lived in Virginia.  Compounding the confusion over Charles’ identity, my colleague, Tim Manley found a third man with the same three names who had been born in 1873 in My’s database.  Had Charles number 3 migrated to Virginia?  Did any of the three Charles have a summer cottage or estate in Virginia that he called Eglinton?

Locating Eglinton was frustrating too.  Scrutiny of a King George County geographical map, where Williams had claimed residence did not show Eglinton. I wrote to the King George County Historical Museum in King George, the county’s seat, asking if staff had records identifying Williams and his residence.  The staff had no information about either one. So, I was stumped with the same two mysteries: who was Williams and where did he live?

Investigating Williams online and by postal mail had reached a dead end   There was nothing left to do but take a field trip to a regional historical archive in Fredericksburg, about 10 miles (16 km) west from King George village.  In a breakthrough, its online search engine had revealed some documents related to a Charles Insco Williams who had lived locally.  Indeed, it contained letters written to Williams in his role as Secretary of Fredericksburg’s Masonic Lodge No. 4. [4] There was also a music score and lyrics written for Fredericksburg’s James Madison High School’s song that was attributed to him. That score provided a crucial clue that led to identifying the correct Charles.  It had been published by “E.H.S. Williams.” [5]

When that publisher’s name was entered into’s search engine, the 1930 U.S. Census’ database offered ‘Elsie H. S. Williams.’ And she had had a husband named Charles.  He had been 57 years old in 1930, so he was the Charles who had been born in 1873! [6]  At last the correct Charles was known.  The 1930 Census showed the Williamses to have lived in King George County, but not precisely where: ‘Eglinton’ was not mentioned as a location. The most direct way to locate their residence was to consult the Deed Books in the county’s Circuit Court Clerk’s office.  Indeed, it was the correct place to look: in 1931, Elsie had purchased 25 acres from another county resident; the parcel was on the western outskirts of King George village. [7]

Her property’s location was found on a county real estate plat, but neither the plat nor the Deed Book entry was labeled Eglinton. [8] Disappointed, I guessed Eglinton had been an informal name that the couple gave Elsie’s property. Above, Eglinton’s location is shown as the pink-outlined area on an excerpt from a real estate plat in Deed Book 38.  North is toward the bottom of the diagram.  The village of King George is to the left on the State Highway.

Finally, we had found the correct Charles, Eglinton’s location, and his Leonid watch partner’s name; I assumed that the “we” Williams had referred to in his report to Olivier was a reference to Elsie.  Although those three data points were exciting by themselves, they only furnished a skeleton sketch of the sky watching couple in 1933 Virginia.  Tim and I wanted a description of them with more ‘meat on the bones.’ 

With persistence, we succeeded in finding more information which filled out our understanding of the couple: meaty ‘bones’ were added to the skeleton.  Newspaper accounts as well as the high school song gave evidence of Charles’ musical performance and composition skills.  Even though he claimed in the 1940 U.S. Census that he was a “retired artist” [13], there was better evidence that he had had a successful career in music. [11, 12, 15] Elsie’s newspaper and Census records show that she had had a long-term career as an educator. [6, 10, 14]  The 1910 Census reported that the couple had had a son born in 1904 and a daughter in 1907. [16] A newspaper obituary documented Charles’s death in 1940. [9] Elsie published Charles’ song posthumously in 1941 [5] and she sold Eglinton for $100 on May 30 of the same year. [17] Elsie relocated to Ohio after Charles’ death to live with their daughter Virginia.  Elsie died in 1960 at age 83. [10] She and Charles are buried together in a rural family‘s private cemetery in Louisa County, Virginia. [9, 10]  

A photograph of Elsie H.S. Williams taken from an unknown local newspaper circa 1936. 

Courtesy of King George County Historical Museum, King George, Virginia

In retrospect, Charles’ 1933 report in Popular Astronomy was a fact that served as analog to a fossil hunter’s discovery of a fossilized bone fragment: it led to ‘digging further’ to find more. As Tim and I explored more archival strata, the history of Charles and Elsie Williams emerged as a coherent whole instead of remaining buried in scattered records.


[1] Olivier, C. P, 1933. Bulletin 14, List of Members, American Meteor Society, p.4

[2] Olivier, C. P, 1934. Bulletin 15, List of Members, American Meteor Society, p.4

[3] Olivier, C. P, 1934. Meteor Notes, Popular Astronomy, volume 42, pp.100 and 102

[4] Messrs Timberman and Uhlman, 1930.  Two letters to Williams from Masonic Lodge Officers in Northern Virginia. Central Rappahannock Heritage Center, File number


[5] Williams, C. I., 1941.  The James Monroe High School Song, words and music by

Charles Insco Williams.  King George, Virginia: E.H.S. Williams.  Central Rappahannock Heritage Center, File number 2007-044-004

[6] United States Census for 1930; Rappahannock Magisterial District of King George

            County, Virginia.  Household of Elise (sic) H. S. Williams, Husband: Charles S. (sic)


[7] King George County, Virginia Deed Book 43, p. 84.  Purchase date was May 9, 1931.

[8] King George County, Virginia Deed Book 38, p.636  Williams’ property location was

            deduced using a plat that accompanied this deed.

[9] C. Inscoe (sic) Williams Buried in Louisa. Free Lance Star (Fredericksburg, VA),

            August 24, 1940, p. 1

[10] Long Illness Fatal to Mrs. Williams.  Free Lance Star (Fredericksburg, VA), October 5,


[11] Charles Insco Williams, Musician, Palladium-Item (Richmond, Indiana), February 5, 1900,


[12] Musical Club Recital, Palladium-Item (Richmond, Indiana), March 17, 1900 p.4

[13] United States Census for 1940; Jackson District of Louisa County, Virginia; House hold of

            Dr. S.F. Hart.  Lodger there: Charles I. Williams, “retired artist”

[14] School Officials Meet in Fredericksburg, Northern Neck News, volume 57, number 22,

            October 25, 1935, p.5

[15] 1901 City Directory, Cincinnati, Ohio, p.1857

[16] United States Census for 1910; Westmoreland County, Virginia, House hold of  

            Charles Williams

[17] King George County, Virginia Deed Book 50, p. 528.


I had help to ‘unearth’ the facts in this detective saga; Timothy P. Manley was the able investigator who shared the laborious searches needed during the ten months it took to reconstruct Charles and Elsie’s story.

Ms. Elizabeth Lee, Historian at the King George County Historical Museum allowed me to use a 1936 newspaper photo of Elsie Williams, who was the first Principal of King George County High School, opened in 1927.  Ms. Lee also provided a history of Willow Hill, the general area where the Williamses had lived. 

Staff members of Central Rappahannock Heritage Center in Fredericksburg helped Tim and I find photocopies of Charles’ correspondence and a high school’s song he wrote. 

Staff at the King George County Circuit Court Clerk’s office helped Tim and I locate property deeds and real estate plats in its Deed Books.   

Friday, March 15, 2019

Meteor Watching Mariners

Meteor Watching Mariners                                                            


During the last 18 years, I’ve had the opportunity to read many meteor watch reports that were made by historical as well as by present-day observers.  I recall that the vast majority of those people were situated on dry land when they stood their watches.  Only a very few ocean-going observers’ names or reports came to mind.  When I discovered those old accounts, considering that they are so rare, they caught my attention and stayed in my memory.  Perhaps you will find the following accounts of sea-going meteor watchers to be of interest for the same reason.

One such maritime astronomer was George Lyon Tupman (1838-1922).  He was a Captain in the British Royal Marine Artillery during the years 1869 to 1871.  Having had a lifelong interest in astronomy, he sketched meteors on star charts while aboard the HMS Prince Consort during an assignment on the Mediterranean Sea [1].  His collection of 2000 meteor path drawings led him to publish a catalog of 102 ‘radiants,’ places in the night sky from which his meteors emanated [2].  What made his radiants so useful is that his south-of-Europe vantage point gave him access to southerly constellations and consequently to radiants northerners could not detect.

My historical research failed to discover any more oceanic meteor watchers until some were named by Charles P. Olivier (1884-1975) in his ‘Meteor Notes.’  He was a professor of astronomy whose research became well-known for improving scholars’ knowledge about meteors.  His ‘notes’ were published in a nine-or-ten-times a year magazine named, Popular Astronomy.  They were mostly intended for members of the American Meteor Society which Olivier established in 1911.  The notes kept his amateur astronomer colleagues up to date concerning outcomes of research projects in which Olivier had asked them to participate. 

In the mid-1920s, Olivier urged members to report extremely bright meteors, called ‘fireballs’ that they had happened to see.  Fireballs are at least as bright as the planet Venus, but can be brighter than the full moon.  When one of the latter explodes during a dark night, the experience can be alarming-and temporarily blinding.  In an October 1927 article [3] Olivier coached AMS members on the crucial aspects of fireball appearances that they should be sure to report.  Consequently, many motivated land-based observers used his instructions when they saw and reported fireballs.  But eager to gather meteor data from as wide a geographical region as possible, Olivier urged naval personnel and merchant seamen to report fireballs they saw while in coastal and open ocean waters.

One sea-going AMS member paid attention to Olivier’s call.  Throughout 1928, a British Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship’s officer, E.E. Laurence reported 13 fireballs.  He had seen them as his ship made five roundtrips between Las Piedras, Venezuela and Bayonne, New Jersey.  He had been alert for them while on the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean.  Olivier was impressed by the Briton’s batch of fireballs and lauded Laurence, “Special mention should be made of our member Third Officer E. E. Laurence of the British S.S. Olna, who contributed 13 (fireball observations.)  The completeness of his records make them specially valuable [4].”  At that time scientific opinion was divided about whether fireballs were interlopers from other solar systems or were members of ours.  High quality data like Laurence’s helped Olivier learn about the origins of each fireball. It was hoped that as data accumulated the origin issue could be clarified.  Olivier prized data like Laurence’s because of its usefulness for what Olivier called the ‘technical side’ of meteor astronomy.

I was fascinated with Laurence’s accomplishment because he was the only mariner/AMS member to report fireballs so soon after Olivier’s call to members. I wanted to know more about him because I am interested in knowing how people manage time for meteor observing among life’s demands.  And the demands upon Laurence involved duties that kept the Olna afloat and sailing.  Unfortunately only some specifics were learned and guesses had to be made about the rest.  Laurence was an AMS member in 1929 and 1930 as well as in 1928. However, he did not report meteors in those other years. Perhaps his duty stations in 1928 placed him at a good shipboard vantage point at night so that surveying the sky was easier to do.  And his duties may have changed so that he did not have access to the night sky in 1929 and 1930; this is conjecture, but reasonable I think.  I don’t know how he learned about the AMS and whether or not he was also a member of any other astronomy group, like the British Astronomical Association.  Presumably, Laurence mailed his meteor reports to Olivier when on shore leave in Bayonne or nearby New York City.

I was also keen to learn about this observer’s non-astronomical career.  Edward Eugene Laurence’s (1902-1979) career was an interesting one.  Historical RFA and records provided many details about his life. Born at Tonbridge, Kent in England on May 25, 1902, his father abandoned his mother, an older brother and him in 1904.  Laurence “went to sea” at age 14 by joining the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. The RFA assisted the Royal Navy to maintain its operational status. For example, in 1928, the Olna’s role was to ferry crude oil from Venezuela to a Gulf Oil Refinery in Bayonne, where oil was prepared to power British naval vessels.  

Laurence was already a seasoned RFA mariner by 1928 when he watched fireballs off the Americas’ coasts. By the time he was 18 years old he had served during the First World War and his wartime service earned him a medal.  Then in 1922 Laurence had qualified to be a ‘Second Mate’ which enabled him to work aboard ocean-crossing ships.  In 1928 he was 25 years old and Port of New York documents recorded that he was six feet tall and weighed 151 pounds.  At that time he was the ship’s Third Officer and he was intent on continuing in a career at sea with the RFA.  In fact, he had a distinguished career.  After World War 2 service with the RFA, he became ship’s Master (a ship’s ‘Captain’) and commanded four of the RFA’s ships: in 1947, 1948, 1953 and 1956. Duties and commands had sent him to the Middle East and Far East.  His final RFA assignment must have been from the port of Hong Kong because he and his wife Mabel sailed from there when he retired in 1958.  Edward Eugene Laurence had had a 21-year retirement before his death in late 1979.

Laurence’s AMS reports stood out from other maritime meteor reports because they were made using specific instructions issued by Dr. Olivier in Popular Astronomy.  Much more often Olivier learned about fireballs after ships’ officers had filed the sightings with the United States Navy’s Hydrographic Office [5].  Such reports, published in the HO’s Hydrographic Bulletin varied in astronomical usefulness due to anecdotal content.  Nevertheless, Olivier found those reports useful for his researches into the ‘technical side’ of fireball astronomy and he cited several in his Meteor Notes.  Olivier sometimes quoted the officers’ accounts of fireball pyrotechnics they had seen. One of them, during a Leonid meteor shower on the morning of November 17, 1930 was of a spectacular event [6].  The reporting mariner noted,

The most remarkable meteor of the shower…appeared at 2:50 a.m. in the Milky Way just above the Southern Cross.  The coast of Haiti, 20 miles away, was visible as in daylight.  The phenomenon appeared larger than the sun and lasted nearly a minute.

Olivier found the HO’s cooperation to be so helpful that he agreed to write [7] a manual describing methods that ships’ personnel could use to calculate how high in the atmosphere their fireballs had appeared.  However, height determinations were only possible when the same fireball was observed from two ships that were miles apart. In those situations, the fireball’s path across background stars was slightly different as seen from each ship. Those dissimilar perspectives of the identical fireball allowed a ship's officer or Dr. Olivier to compute the fireballs’ heights in the atmosphere.  Generally, fireball heights were in the 20 to 100 mile range.  Between 1931 when his manual was published and the start of World War 2 Olivier enjoyed complete cooperation from the HO in gathering fireball data.  It only ended when wartime security measures prohibited publication of the two ships’ geographical positions.  Those were necessary information for finding meteor heights, but gave the enemy information that would have doomed Allied vessels.   


[1] Crommelin, A.C.D., 1923.  George Lyon Tupman.  Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS), 83, 247-248.

[2] Tupman, G.L., 1873.  Results of Observations of Shooting Stars, made in the Mediterranean in the years 1869, 1870, and 1871.  MNRAS, 33, 298-312.

[3] Olivier, C.P., 1927.  Meteor Notes.  Popular Astronomy (P,A,), 35, 533-535.

[4] Olivier, C.P., 1929.  Meteor Notes. P.A., 37, 177

[5] Olivier, C.P., 1925.  Meteor Notes. P.A., 33, 240-241

[6] Olivier, C.P., 1931.  Meteor Notes.  P.A., 39, 37 and 41.

[7] Olivier, C.P., 1931.  Methods for Computing the Heights and Paths of Fireballs and Meteors: Supplement to the Pilot Chart of the North Atlantic Ocean for 1931.  Washington, D.C: Hydrographic Office of the United States Navy.
Copyright 2019 Richard Taibi

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Will The Meteors Storm Again?  19th Century American Women Kept Watch

Brief historical background

At the beginning of the 19th century, no one knew that meteor showers were discrete meteor groups arriving on specific calendar dates and that they came from defined regions of the sky.  A meteor storm in November 1833 provoked an inquiry process that developed a knowledge base about showers.  That display filled the sky with thousands of meteors and fireballs that left persistent trains behind.  Its eyewitnesses could readily see that these ‘November meteors’ shot out of the sky from a small region in the Leo constellation.  Professor Denison Olmsted (1791-1859) perused Yale College’s historical astronomical records and learned that there had been bountiful displays the previous two Novembers.  His curiosity about whether 1837 would also see a return led him to organize a hybrid group of New Haven, Connecticut amateur astronomers along with his Yale College students to stand watch and see what happened in November 1837.  Olmstead reconstituted this ‘Yale meteor squad’ in succeeding Novembers and learned that there were returns of the month’s meteors but in much reduced numbers compared to 1833.

            Fast forward to Olmsted’s successor at Yale, Hubert Anson Newton (1830-1896) who performed a second library search in 1863.  He learned that the November Meteors had been giving storm performances for centuries, on about a 33-year cycle.  Newton predicted that November 1866’s sky watchers would see another storm and that good shows might appear for a few years after as well.  Just as Olmsted had done, Newton asked local, national and overseas astronomers to watch Leo and report their results to him.  Newton posted responding observers’ findings in Yale College’s American Journal of Science and Arts, which in the 1860s was a premiere forum for research in the physical and biological sciences.

The debut of American women

By 1866 there were many more American colleges with professors of mathematics and astronomy, including a few institutions which were dedicated to women’s higher education.  Among these were Mount Holyoke College founded in 1837 and Vassar College in 1865. 

One astronomer who heeded Newton’s alert was Vassar’s Professor Maria Mitchell (1818-1889).  Mitchell’s astronomical reputation was established in 1847 when she discovered the first new comet to be found by an American citizen.  In 1866 and 1868, Professor Mitchell assigned her students to stand watch in the after-midnight hours of November 12 and 13.   These young women saw impressive meteor displays.  Mitchell informed Newton that seven students witnessed 354 meteors during a seven-hour overnight watch on November 12/13, 1866. [1]   Two years later, five of her students were thrilled by a better show.  Between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. on November 14, 1868 they counted 900 meteors.  By dawn they had tallied 3,766 during a five hour watch!  Professor Mitchell was on hand for the 1868 meteor surge and reported to Newton that light flashes from distant fireballs exploding beyond Vassar’s local horizon brightened the moonless sky more than was usual. [2]

Another 1860s-era Leonid witness was Sarah Robinson Trumbull (1829-1909) whose social celebrity derived from her marriage to James Hammond Trumbull, a scholarly Hartford, Connecticut man who had been elected to multiple state offices.  She would have only been known in history as ‘Mrs. J.H. Trumbull.’ if it were not for an early morning meteor watch on November 14, 1867.  Her report of that watch in 1868’s edition of the American Journal of Sciences has preserved her identity as a citizen scientist as well.  On that morning she monitored the sky from her home’s east-facing window while her 10-year-old daughter Annie watched through a northwestern-facing one.  From 4:00 to 5:00 a.m. the two counted 500 Leonids.  Trumbull also noted that in one instant she had seen five meteors dart out of Leo. [3]

Undoubtedly there were many more women who witnessed Leonid showers in the 1860s, but did not know who, or how, or whether to report the startling sky spectacles they had seen.  One of these was Caroline Fletcher Dole (1817-1914).  Her eyewitness accounts about the 1833 storm and the 1865 and 1866 showers only surfaced because her grandson Robert M. Dole, a prominent amateur meteor observer in the 20th century, mentioned them in a family history.  

Leonid meteors were not the only ones watched

When the November meteors’ numbers waned in the early 1870s, fewer American astronomers monitored Leo. However, 1872 had a surprise spectacle in store; meteoroids (rocky particles) from disintegrated Comet Biela flooded that particular November’s skies with meteors from the constellation Andromeda.  This Andromedid shower did not prove to be an annual one and so, attention to it lapsed after a while.  Fickle November showers inclined meteor observers to pay more attention to an annually bountiful one which was known to occur since the 1830s.  This shower, the ‘August meteors,’ later renamed the Perseid shower was observed by some young Indianans in 1882.   

D. Eckly Hunter (1834-1892), Washington, Indiana’s High School principal brought his children and a family friend out to keep a four-hour Perseid watch on the night of August 10 to 11, 1882.  Hunter’s daughters were Mary and Nora, 13 and 10-years-old respectively.  Twenty-four-year old Frank, Hunter’s son and 22-year old Naomi Sanford completed the party.  Professor Hunter kept a record of the number of meteors the party counted and arranged the data in 10-minute intervals.  At the end of four hours the group had spotted 521 meteors.  Using the era’s terminology, Hunter reported that “270 were conformable to radiants in Perseus or Cassiopeia and 50 were unconformable.  Two hundred radiants were not determined but most of the number were doubtless Perseids.”  Just as today’s meteor observers report, Hunter noted that the Perseids often appeared in clusters with minutes-long lulls in between. [4]

The following year, astronomer Daniel Kirkwood (1814-1895) summarized a report made to him about a brilliant meteor, a ‘fireball’ that was seen by many Indiana villagers on January 3, 1883. One couple, Mary E. (Johnston) Campbell (1836-?) and her husband, John Lyle Campbell (1827-1904) witnessed it from separate locations.  Mary made notes of the circumstances of her own observation which she gave to her husband, a professor of mathematics and astronomy at Wabash College in Crawfordsville. Campbell sent Kirkwood the details of the couple’s independent sightings.  From the Campbells and several other people’s observation notes, Kirkwood determined the fireball’s track over Indiana villages and its altitude and the length of its path through the earth’s atmosphere. [5]

In 1881, Mount Holyoke College was presented with an observatory containing an 8-inch (20-cm) Clark refracting telescope.  At the time, Elizabeth M. Bardwell (1831-1899), was Mt. Holyoke’s professor of mathematics and astronomy and director of the astronomy program. On the evening of November 27, 1885 she witnessed a second Andromedid meteor storm.  She called it “an unusual ‘star shower’” and  reported that “meteors were seen in all parts of the sky, (because the) radiant was near the zenith.”  She estimated the rate of the falling meteors as “two to six per minute.”  Bardwell remained vigilant for more storm activity by holding another watch on the 28th.  On the second watch she saw just a few meteors from the radiant point in Andromeda. [6]

Marking time until the next Leonid storm year

For several years after 1885’s reports about the Andromedid storm there were no meteor accounts in the American astronomical press.  It was as if American shooting star observers had suspended routine watches and were waiting for the next Leonid storm predicted to occur in 1899, 1900 or 1901.  However, the meteor showers of 1866-1868 and storms of 1872 and 1885 had helped increase American interest in astronomy.  The groundswell of interest created an expanded market for new astronomical periodicals.  In 1882 Carleton College’s Professor William Wallace Payne (1837-1928) began a new one, Sidereal Messenger.  After eleven years, he created a successor named Popular Astronomy.  Increasingly, astronomical research and developments began to appear in these two publications.  At the same time, American Journal of Science deemphasized astronomical topics perhaps due to the death of H.A. Newton and the absence of a successor astronomer to influence the journal.

Looking for early signs of the next Leonid storm

It wasn’t until 1895 that the Leonids were mentioned again, this time in Popular Astronomy. [7] They were the subject of a watch by Rose O’Halloran (1843-1930), an indefatigable amateur astronomer who most often monitored the cyclical changes in brightness of variable stars. O’Halloran recalled that she had begun to suspect an early return of the November meteors in 1892 when she noticed, “an unusual number of meteors…observed about the 13th of Nov(ember)…”  So, three years later, on the night of November 13/14, 1895 she decided to keep a “prolonged watch” from 9:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. to check if the Leonids’ hourly rate augured an early return.  It was not until well after midnight that the shower’s radiant was high enough in the sky so she could make a valid estimate of its strength.  When only 18 Leonids appeared between 2:00 and 5:00 a.m., she concluded that the shower was not about to storm imminently.   

O’Halloran followed up her 1895 watch by two more in 1896 and 1897.  The 1896 session revealed a promising moderate increase in Leonids: 44 were seen between 2:00 and 4:30 a.m. on Nov. 14th. [8] In 1897, a brilliant gibbous moon which “glided nearer and nearer each night to the radiant point of the Leonids” impaired an assessment of the shower’s full strength because its fainter meteors were impossible to see.  Nevertheless, O’Halloran estimated that those meteors she could see were about one-quarter the number seen the year before on the same date.  Just as in 1896, this result did not suggest to her that the shower’s meteors were about to storm much before 1899. [9]

In 1898, Mt. Holyoke’s Elisabeth Bardwell returned to meteoric astronomy by watching and sketching Leonid meteors on a map prepared for the purpose and published in Popular Astronomy by Herbert Couper Wilson (1858-1940), the publication’s assistant editor.  Wilson published the maps expressly for academic and amateur astronomers to document the paths November meteors had taken.  When the paths were traced backwards they converged on a mapped sky region that indicated the shower radiant’s location in the sky.  Bardwell’s published map showed 42 meteors and Wilson commented that her results were similar to her male colleagues’.  All of their maps disclosed an unsuspected characteristic of the 1898 shower: the radiant encompassed the entire Leo constellation rather than a smaller defined area which was characteristic of previous returns. [10]

1899: Showtime!

Popular Astronomy’s index of articles for the year 1900 listed 11 astronomers who had submitted observation results for the 1899 Leonids. These men had watched the Leonids from New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Missouri and Colorado and one observer reported from Lisbon, Portugal.  Stripped of all their observational details, their reports supported and concurred with W.W. Payne’s assessment of the year’s shower, in an article he entitled ‘Failure of the Leonids in 1899.’ [11] Too late, an Irish astronomer had published a warning to colleagues that the planet Jupiter’s gravity had diverted the Leonid meteoroid stream away from a full collision course with earth: compared to 1833’s flood of meteors, the 1899 Leonids would be only a trickle.

Although they did not make a summary judgment like Payne’s in their reports, several female astronomers’ results mirrored their male colleagues’: the 1899 Leonids’ numbers were meager.  Anne Sewell Young (1871-1961), Mt. Holyoke’s new observatory director and an assistant, Ella Cecilia Lester (ca. 1874-?) saw only 21 Leonids during a two-hour vigil on the morning of November 15. [12]

As it turned out, the Leonid meteor rate per hour on the night of November 14/15 was better far to the east, in India.  There Mary Etta Moulton (1865-1933), an American missionary and former astronomy student of Payne and Wilson’s kept a Leonid watch 75 miles southeast of Bombay (now Mumbai).[13]  Moulton watched the sky for almost seven hours beginning at 11:00 p.m. on the 14th until 5:45 a.m. on the 15th.  During the interval from 1:00 a.m. to 5:27 a.m., she saw 84 Leonid meteors, for an hourly rate of 19, almost twice her Massachusetts peers’ rate of 10 Leonids per hour. 

Farther west in Colorado the University of Denver’s Professor Herbert A. Howe’s students fared no better even though their watch was held on the date of the predicted storm, November 16, 1899. Howe (1858-1926) had divided four coeds into two dyads. The first pair, Mary C. Traylor and Grace M. Sater counted five Leonids between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m.  Nearby them the second team, Bertha Brooks and Elise C. Jones, saw 14 between 1:00 and 5:00 a.m. [14]  Clearly none of them witnessed a much hoped-for meteor storm with thousands of shooting stars per hour.  The same story prevailed all around the United States and abroad.

No better on the cusp of the 20th century

Even though 1899’s shower was such a debacle, some astronomers believed it was possible that 1900 or 1901’s could be splendid.  Vassar College astronomy students made a maximum effort to detect a storm if it was to occur in 1900.  Groups of them kept watch from 1:00 to 5:00 a.m. on the mornings of November 14 and 15.  The young women counted 42 Leonids on the 14th and 50 on the 15th for average hourly rates of no more than 13 shower meteors. 1900’s shower had been a dud just like 1899’s. [15]

I will close this historical summary with an account of one other American’s enterprising and intrepid effort to report on 1901’s Leonid shower.  Dorothea Klumpke-Roberts (1861-1942) was born in San Francisco but moved with her family to Paris, France where she earned a Doctor of Science degree for a mathematical study of Saturn’s rings. [16] She became such a renowned scientific contributor in Paris that a local aeronautical club offered her a unique observational platform from which to view the Leonids: the car of their lighter-than-air balloon.  She was given last minute pointers about meteoric observation methods by the Meudon Observatory’s director just before the balloon ascended at midnight on November 15, 1901.  She had been alerted by an astronomer colleague who viewed the Leonids the night before that she was not to expect a great number of Leonids and in fact she only recorded eight Leonids seen between 1:20 and 5:10 a.m. on the 16th.  However the few that appeared were dramatic members of the meteoric species.  She wrote that they “were generally brilliant, showing an undulating, iridescent trail, varying in brightness and changing from blue to green, then to red.”  Because the Leonid activity was so sparse and because the moon was nearly full, she had ample time between meteors to survey the landscape and landmarks 500 meters (1600 feet) below. Toward dawn the aeronaut-pilot began a descent.  Her adventure ended safely on a French meadow when the pilot finally “threw out the anchor with one hand and with the other opened the great valve” allowing gas to escape the balloon.  “We felt a slight jolt as the car touched the Earth,” Klumpke-Roberts reported. [17]

A tradition was inaugurated

The preceding sketches amply illustrate the energy and determination that American women have devoted to meteoric study, in particular to investigating reoccurrences of meteor showers.  They began a tradition in observational astronomy that succeeding generations continued to practice and still do today.                                                      
Copyright 2017 Richard Taibi 


[1] Newton, H.A., American Journal of Science, Series 2, Volume 43, p. 78.
[2] Newton, H.A., American Journal of Science, Series 2, Volume 47, p.118.
[3] Newton, H.A., American Journal of Science, Series 2, Volume 45, p.78
[4] Kirkwood, D., The August Meteors, Sidereal Messenger, Volume 1, 1882, p.141-2.
[5] Kirkwood, D., A Large Meteor, Sidereal Messenger, Volume 2, 1883, pp. 8-11. 
[6] Bardwell, E.M., A Star Shower, Sidereal Messenger, Volume 5, 1885, p. 29.
[7] O’Halloran, R., The Meteors of the 13th of November, Popular Astronomy,
Volume 3, 1895, p. 213.  See her biography earlier in this blog.
[8] O’Halloran, R., The Leonids, Popular Astronomy, Volume 4, 1897, p. 453
[9] O’Halloran, R., The Leonids, Popular Astronomy, Volume 6, 1898, p. 51
[10] Bardwell, E.M., Leonid Meteors Observed at Mt. Holyoke College Observatory, Popular Astronomy, Volume 7, 1899, p. 49-50
[11] Payne, W.W., The Failure of the Leonids in 1899, Popular Astronomy, Volume 8, 1900, p.15
[12] Young, A.S. and Lester, E.C., Observations of Leonids at Mt. Holyoke College, South Hadley, Mass.  Popular Astronomy, Volume 7, 1899, p. 532  
[13] Moulton, M.E., The Leonids in India, Popular Astronomy, Volume 8, 1900, pp. 104-105.
[14] Howe, H.A., Leonids at University Park, Colorado, Popular Astronomy, Volume 8, 1900, pp. 21-24
[15] Editor, Leonids at Vassar College, Popular Astronomy, Volume 8, 1900, p. 566
[16] Bracher, K., Klumpke-Roberts, Dorothea, in Hockey, T., et al., Eds., Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomy, Volume 1, New York: Springer, 2007, p. 646.
[17] Mrs. Dorothy Klumpke-Roberts Observed the Leonids from a Balloon, Popular Astronomy, Volume 11, 1903, pp. 220-222.

Sunday, December 4, 2016



After years of research and writing, my book, entitled as above has been published by Springer Publishing in its Springer Biographies series.

Springer Biographies has provided links to three portions of the book on its website that can, in early December 2016, be accessed at:

The reader may especially be interested in the second PDF download link which gives a preview of pages 41-97, a chapter entitled Enrollment Began.  The website also contains a list of the book’s eleven chapter titles.

Charles Olivier and the Rise of Meteor Science provides a reader with several biographical and historical topics.  Among them are a biography of Dr. Olivier from 1884-1936, a history of his American Meteor Society from 1911-1936, accounts of the Society’s accomplishments, detailed biographies of 90 amateur astronomer-colleagues who collaborated with Olivier, and the sagas of meteor research organizations and astronomers, in the U.S.A and abroad, that were Olivier’s contemporaries. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Dear Skywatchers readers

Dear readers of Skywatchers

I want to thank you for visiting my blog, and especially the considerable number of you who return more than once.  I am also gratified that many new readers find this site.  Both groups add about 100 visits a month to the tally of people who have looked in on these biographies since I first posted one in 2012.

Even though no new biographies have been posted in months, I have not abandoned writing about astronomical personalities.  I’ve been ‘on hiatus’ from this blog while writing a book-length biography of Charles Pollard Olivier, founder of the American Meteor Society; the book will include a history of his organization to 1936, its 25th anniversary.  It will include almost 100 biographies of amateur meteor astronomers who assisted him from 1911-1936. The book does not yet have a title that satisfies me, but in this short description of it you have some idea of its contents.  Closer to the time the book is complete I will post an excerpt from it here.

It has been interesting to note which of the biographies here have been most popular with readers from around the world.  By far, Rose O’Halloran’s is a run-away favorite.  ‘Lewis Swift and Son’ and ‘Rev. Glanville’ are tied for second place.  Of course, all the biographies are my favorites and it has been my privilege to bring these deserving people to the attention of a world-wide audience.

Thanks again for reading ‘Skywatchers.’  Best wishes,

Richard Taibi

Sunday, May 19, 2013

F.W. Russell, Meteor Watch Organizer

F. W. RUSSELL, Meteor Watch Organizer 

Born: 29 January 1845, Winchendon, Massachusetts
Died: 20 November 1915, Dallas, Texas

Frederick William Russell watched meteors from 1861 to 1867, often with the cooperation of other teen-aged observers in Natick, Massachusetts.  Russell and his friends watched meteors in an era when there were many facts still unknown about meteors and meteor showers.  Observers’ assignments were to gather basic data about them. 

Today we are accustomed to near certainty about the dates when meteor showers will recur.  This was not the case in the early to mid-19th century and meteor watchers scheduled their observations to identify these dates and determine from where in the sky meteors emanated. Their hope was to identify meteor showers that repeated their appearances from year to year.  Watches were often made by observers who concentrated on opposite sides of the sky so that meteors’ points of origin, called radiants, would not be missed and the total number of meteors seen all over the sky could be counted per hour or per night.  Even in the early 1860s it was not certain that the ‘August meteors,’ now known as the Perseid meteor shower, were an annual occurrence or not. 

Fred Russell’s earliest published meteor report was made when he was 16 years old.  His report to the American Journal of Science (AJS) revealed that he was a sophisticated observer and data reporter.  He and Edmund L. Pray, another 16-year-old, performed a seven-hour meteor watch on the night of 10 August to 11 August, 1861.  The two apparently watched the sky while back-to-back and saw 397 different meteors.  Additionally, their report to AJS’ meteoric investigator, Edward Herrick (1811-1862), specified the number of meteors seen each hour they watched the sky that night.  The teenagers also kept notes about the brightness of the hundreds of meteors seen.  Along with other observers’ reports, Russell and Pray’s comprehensive account allowed Herrick to conclude that the August meteor shower had returned in 1861 as it had in previous years. 

Astronomers were not content to know that a shower returned annually; they also wished to learn the date the greatest number of shower members appeared.  In order to accomplish this, observers planned watches on consecutive nights when showers had been seen in previous years.  Their nightly watches revealed which night in the series yielded the greatest hourly meteor rate.  Over succeeding years, astronomers were able to clarify the calendar date of the shower “maximum,” the day when the shower’s meteors were most numerous.   

Fred Russell and his young associates participated in this maximum-identifying exercise too, by systematically monitoring the sky during a meteor shower.  As an example Russell performed a series of observations for the nights of 11 through 14 November 1861 in order to identify the night when the most ‘November (Leonid) meteors’ appeared.  His watches’ data helped to pinpoint the morning of 14 November as having the peak meteor rate of the 1861 shower. 

Meteor astronomers also watched during moonless nights that were not previously known to produce great numbers of shooting stars.  Here, the goal was to determine the average number of meteors that could be expected to occur per hour on a non-shower night. Knowing an average, non-shower meteor rate was important because a real meteor outburst could be confirmed by comparing the suspected outburst rate with the non-shower rate. Russell participated in this base-rate type of data gathering too.  In the fall of 1861, he and two other 16-year-olds, Edmund L. Pray and George W. Hanchett, watched the skies from September 23 to 29 and again from 1 to 7 November so that an average number of meteors could be calculated from the hourly counts of their watch. As a result, Russell was able to report an average of five meteors per hour, per observer, for the September nights and five per hour for the November ones too.  Sometimes, in the process of keeping a careful multi-night watch, new annually recurring showers were discovered.  Russell and his friends witnessed a brief meteor surge on one of the September nights but it was not confirmed in subsequent years.  However, had the surge repeated, their 1861 sighting would have been the first observation of a new, recurring shower.    

Russell’s observations were interrupted from September 13, 1862 until May 1, 1863 while he accompanied his father Ira, a Union Army surgeon, to the senior Russell’s new assignment: managing military hospitals in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  While in Arkansas, Fred served as a Union Army Hospital Corps clerk; this war-time exposure to medical facilities, their management and clinical practices was a preview of what a medical career might be like. 

When he returned from Arkansas, Fred Russell appears to have learned some manpower management skills from his father’s hospital administration.  Russell filed a meteor report of observations made from 4 August to 13 August 1863 in which four others assisted.  As a practical matter, it would have been physically impossible for him to personally carry out all watches on the nine dates mentioned in the report.  His assistants were, J.H. Wilson, F.W. Harwood, and E.H. Wolcott and Walter G. Bryant.  The first three men watched with Russell from Natick, Massachusetts (MA) while Bryant, a 15-year-old, kept watch in Winchendon, MA.  An 1874 fire destroyed city records for the years 1860-1870, so Wilson, Harwood, and Wolcott’s ages remain unknown but all were likely adolescents like Fred.  

Russell’s report of the 1863 August meteors was filed with Hubert Anson Newton (1830-1896), Yale College’s 33-year-old professor of astronomy who continued to compile observers’ meteor reports after E.C. Herrick died in 1862.  The report shows that Russell organized his observer corps to combine forces on the nights of 10, 11 and 12 August so that the hours of 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. were manned by observers each night.  The group’s meteor counts on those nights showed the highest count on the 10th (197 August meteors) and dramatically fewer on the 11th and 12th (35 and 43 respectively).  The meteor counts gave Professor Newton one indication that the night of August 10th/11th was likely the meteor shower’s maximum.  
The most complete observer coverage was for the night of 10th August when all four Natick observers watched from 9 p.m. to 12 a.m.; and three watched from 12 midnight to 2 a.m. on the 11th.  Russell impressed upon his helpers the importance of not counting the same meteor twice and it is likely that the men watched different quarters of the sky.  Throughout the night Russell paid attention to the meteors’ radiant: they came from Perseus.  The group’s published data showed a steady rise in the hourly rate of observed meteors, as would be expected from a radiant that rises higher in the sky as the night progresses.  By 2 a.m. the Natick observers had seen 580 August (Perseid) meteors and 81 others which did not issue from Perseus (called ‘sporadics’ today).   Walter Bryant saw an additional 41 meteors between 8:30 and 10 p.m. the same night from Winchendon.  When all the figures were compiled and the procedures used to count them were described, the Massachusetts teens under Russell’s leadership had done a very creditable job for meteoric studies.

Fred Russell became a Yale College freshman at age 19 and continued to file meteor watch reports with Professor Newton, including one of the November (Leonid) meteors in 1865, which is in Newton’s Yale correspondence file.  On 17 October 1866, Russell wrote Newton that he had transferred to Harvard College and asked Newton to supply him with star charts upon which Russell could record meteor paths.  Drawing meteors’ paths on a chart was a more accurate way to communicate the locations of shower meteors seen.  This procedure was regarded as the most useful and least ambiguous way to record an observation session.  Russell sent his last watch report to Newton on 14 August 1867 concerning Perseid meteor observations from 7 to 13 August at Winchendon, MA.  The last written record of Russell’s astronomical efforts was a report from Benjamin Apthorp Gould (1824-1896) to Newton describing an 1867 Leonid meteor watch. Gould, a prominent astronomer, wrote that Russell had contacted him and “offered his services” to record Leonids.  Russell joined Gould and Seth Carlo Chandler (1846-1913) in a two-and-a-half hour meteor watch on the night of 13/14 November 1867.  The three saw 23 meteors and Russell accounted for 15 of them. 

After 1867 Russell’s available time for meteor watches vanished under the demands of his academic studies and professional career.  He graduated from Harvard College in 1869 and went on to the University of the City of New York to earn a medical degree. After graduation in 1870, he joined his father’s medical practice in Winchendon and together they established a sanitarium, called ‘The Highlands’, in which they treated patients with “nervous diseases and the drug habit.”  After his father’s death in 1888, Russell directed the Highlands until 1912 when ill health forced him to retire.  His memberships in the following professional and avocational societies suggest the breadth of his interests: the Boston Society of Neurology and Psychiatry, Society of Medical Superintendents of Insane Hospitals, Psychological Society of New England, Society for the Suppression of Inebriety and the Cambridge Entomological Club.  The last membership reveals that Russell had an ardent lifelong interest in insects.  He was credited with gathering and donating to science a highly regarded collection of moths.  He married Caroline Marvin on 11 June 1872 and the couple had two daughters and a son.  His eldest daughter, Rowena, married Frank J. Hall, a Dallas physician in 1901 and in 1912, Russell and his wife went to live with them.  After Dr. Russell died on 20 November 1915, he was buried in a family plot in Winchendon.  Russell was described as being genial and sociable and he contributed his time and leadership skills to local civic organizations and several medical professional organizations. 

Copyright 2013 Richard Taibi 

REFERENCES databases were consulted for ages of Russell’s watch confederates. 

Eastman, John Robie.  The Progress of Meteoric Astronomy in America.  Bulletin of Philosophical Society of Washington, 1890, vol. 11, pp. 328-333.  Eastman’s catalog of 19th century meteor investigators and their writings is an invaluable insight into the state of meteoric astronomy before 1890.  Accessed 19 May 2013. 

Hall, Frank J.  Obituary, Frederick William Russell.  Typewritten copy from Russell’s biographical folder.  Harvard University Archives, Cambridge, Massachusetts  

Harvard College Class of 1869, Frederick William Russell.  Report of the Secretary of the Class of 1869 of Harvard College, Eighth Report, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary.  1894.  Boston: Rockwell and Churchill Press.  Russell signed his class portrait ‘Fred W. Russell’ 

Harvard College Class of 1869, Frederick William Russell.  Eleventh Report of the Class of 1869 of Harvard College, Fiftieth Anniversary.  June 1919.  Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press. 

Dr. Frederick William Russell.  Psyche, 1916, vol. 23, no.1, p. 25.

Herrick, E.C.  Meteoric Observations, August 10, 1861.  American Journal of Science and Art, second series, vol. 32, November 1861, p. 295.

Ira Russell Papers Inventory.  Library University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Manuscripts Department.  Webpage:,Ira.html  Accessed 19 May 2013.

Ira Russell Letters.  University of Arkansas Libraries, Special Collections.  Webpage:  Accessed 19 May 2013 

Hubert Anson Newton correspondence, Yale University Library, Manuscripts and Archives, Record Unit 274, Series I, Box 1, folders 1-4.  New Haven, Connecticut.  Letters cited are from F.W. Russell to H.A. Newton, as follows:
Nov. 1865, this date was handwritten by Newton.
October 17, 1866
August 14, 1867
B. A. Gould to H. A. Newton, 1867, Nov. 14

Newton, Hubert Anson, Summary of observations of shooting stars during the August period, 1863, American Journal of Science and Arts, second series, vol. 36, November 1863, pp. 302-306.

Prescott, Jan, President of the Natick Historical Society; e-mail correspondence to the author on 14 October 2004.  This address was accurate on 19 May 2013. 

Twining, Alexander C.  Report on the Meteors of November 1861, Addendum.  American Journal of Science and Arts, second series, vol. 33, May 1862, p.148.