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