I’m still quite busy finishing off my book, and a grant proposal in the meantime, but I thought I’d share a very odd paper from the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 13 (1884), 23-24, entitled, “Extraordinary occurrence at House No. 7 York Place”.
One of the fun things about old journals are the miscellaneous “reports” sent in about unusual phenomena seen in the field, often by non-scientists. Perhaps my favorite example of this comes from the very first volume of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1665, “An account of a very odd monstrous calf,” by Robert Boyle. This was the fifth paper ever published in a scientific journal, a fact that I find very amusing for some reason.
The paper I want to describe carries the sub-heading, “(The following notice was sent to the General Secretary, from the Office of Messrs Hunter, Blair and Cowan, W.S.)”. I can’t really do it justice without quoting it in its entirety:
An occurrence of an extraordinary nature took place in the kitchen of this house on Monday evening, the 8th inst. The kitchen is in the area, and whilst the office-keeper and his wife and servant girl were seated in front of the fire, suddenly, about twenty minutes past eight, a terrific rumbling sound was heard in the chimney. Fearing that something was about to topple about their ears, they all sprang aside, and no sooner had they done so than a large sheet of flame issued from the chimney, and without disturbing the ashes in the grate, or touching the grate itself, swept close past the office-keeper, who was standing nearest to the fire-place, and extinguished the gas. Upon the gas being relit, an extraordinary state of matters was revealed. The apartment was filled with smoke and dust, while the brick wall partition opposite the fireplace, and which would be 12 to 14 feet distant from it, was so greatly injured that had it not been for the shelving with which it was lined in front, and which held it together, it would have fallen right out. As it was it stood greatly off the perpendicular, and was cracked and wrenched from its holdfast along the ceiling, and at one part it was bulged out as if it had been forcibly struck by some soft heavy bulky article. There was no appearance of scorching, as is generally the case when any object of an inflammable nature is struck by lightning. The vent, which is swept at regular intervals, was swept shortly before, and was therefore comparatively clean. There is no iron bracketing at the top of the chimney. With the exception of the partition, no other article in the kitchen was injured, or apparently touched. The gas pipe runs across the roof or ceiling from the opposite wall towards the fire-place, and the pendant is about the centre of the apartment, rather nearer the fireplace than otherwise, but neither received any injury, although the gas was extinguished. The evening was wet and boisterous, the wind having been from the west or north-west, but a little before the occurrence the rain had passed off, and later on it became quite clear, although there was evidently a good deal of moisture in the air.
I really don’t know what to make of this “occurrence”, other than to be relieved that nobody was hurt! There isn’t any reason to think that the story was fabricated, so there must be a physical explanation. Anyone care to speculate?