The older scientific journals (pre-1900) are filled with many curious and strange eyewitness accounts. By the late 1800s, science had reached a level at which researchers felt confident enough to investigate a wide variety of unusual phenomena, but did not have quite enough knowledge to explain (or discount) every observation that came to their attention. Recording them in the journals for future reference was a very natural thing to do.
With that in mind, some time ago I read a short letter¹ titled, “Curious electrical phenomenon” in an issue of Science Magazine from 1880. Written by one F.T. Mott of “Bristal Hill, near Leicester”, I present the text of the letter in its entirety:
At about 4.30 P. M. this day a severe thunder storm with a deluge of rain came up from the north-west, and lasted about an hour. At 5.30 my wife waas standing at the window watching the receding storm, which still raged in the south, just over Leicester, when she observed, immediately after a double flash of lightning, what seemed like a falling star, or a fire-ball from a rocket, drop out of the black cloud about 25° above the horizon, and descend perpendicularly until lost behind a belt of trees. The same phenomenon was repeated at least a dozen times in fifteen minutes, the lightning flashes following each other very rapidly, and the thunder consisting of short and sharp reports. After nearly every flash a fire-ball descended. These balls appeared to be about one-fifth or one-sixth the diameter of the full moon, blunt and rounded at the bottom, drawn out into a tail above, and leaving a train of light behind them. Their color was mostly whitish, but one was distinctly pink, and the course of one was sharply zig-zagged. They fell at a rate certainly not greater than that of an ordinary shooting star. I have never witnessed a phenomenon of this kind myself, but my wife is a good observer, and I can vouch for the trustworthiness of her report.
This sounds very much like a description of ball lightning, a very rare atmospheric phenomenon that still isn’t well understood to this day — and has even been hypothesized to be a magnetic-field induced hallucination!
Is this observation a real example of ball lightning? Of course, it is impossible to answer this question with certainty from such a short eyewitness account. I’ve got a lot more to say about ball lightning, and I’ll come back to a more detailed discussion of the curious history of ball lightning in a future post.
I have to say, the final sentence of the letter really makes me smile!
¹ F.T. Mott, “Curious electrical phenomenon,” Science 1 (August 7, 1880), 72.