A Brief History of the Leonids

No one knows for sure how long the Leonid meteor shower has been visiting the earth but it has been around for hundreds or not thousands of years. The earliest know historical evidence dates back to 901AD according to the research of noted author Gary Kronkon. He writes:

The historian Eutychius of Alexandria (877-940) included an interesting account in his text Annals. The accounts sounds like what would be expected for the Leonids, although the date is about 12 days later than would be expected (dating error?). He said, "In Egypt in the morning of Wednesday, 9 Dhu al-Qa`da (Oct. 26) during the latter half of the night until the morning, the stars were very disturbed--which are called shooting stars. The heavens were filled with starry shooting stars scattered east and west, south and north. No one was able to gaze at the heavens because of the numerous starry shooting stars."

There have been hundreds of other recordings throughout the world that correlate with the time and general description of a Leonid meteor shower. However, not until the great Leonids of 1833 did scientists begin to really study the nature and predictability of meteors. Of all the known annual meteor showers, the Leonid is the only one to have had the spectacular showers describe by witnesses as a "storm".


A South Carolina plantation worker wrote this dramatic account in a letter, later published in the book Our First Century by R. M. Devens (1876):

"I was suddenly awakened by the most distressing cries that ever fell on my ears. Shrieks of horror and cries of mercy, could be heard from most of the negroes of three plantations, amounting in all to some six or eight hundred. While earnestly and breathlessly listening for the cause, I heard a faint voice near the door calling my name. I arose and, taking my sword, stood at the door. At this moment I heard the same voice still beseeching me to rise, and saying, 'O, my God, the world is on fire!' I then opened the door, and it is difficult to say which excited me most -- the awfulness of the scene, or the distressed cries of the negroes. Upwards of one hundred lay prostrate on the ground, some speechless, and others uttering the bitterest moans, but with their hands raised, imploring God to save the world and them. The scene was truly awful, for never did rain fall much thicker than the meteors fell toward the earth; east, west, north, and south, it was the same."

No other known Leonid meteor storm has been recorded that had a wider distribution and intensity than that of 1833. Some historians mark this event as the beginning of a general interest in Bible prophecy in America. Over the next few years a spiritual revival and awakening grew, particularly in the Eastern United States.


Don Peason was an astronomy student at the University of Arizona in Tucson in 1966. He sent this account to account to Professor Gary Kronkon in 1998:

"Thirteen of us, mostly students, drove to observe and record the Leonids atop Kitt Peak on the night of Nov. 16-17, 1966. We formed a circle of chairs and began to study our assigned areas of the sky for meteors. It started off slowly, about 30/hour. After 3 hours it picked up dramatically, and we observed a peak of about 40/second that lasted for 10 to 20 minutes. This was 24,000 in a ten minute period, a rate of144,000/hour. We stood in awe as the sky seemed filled with meteors. With this number of meteors falling simultaneously, and all from the same radiant, the shortening of their paths near the radiant was quite obvious. I was fortunate to have a 35 mm camera and tripod with me, and had several pictures of the shower printed on the cover of Sky and Telescope shortly after. I doubt I'll ever witness anything in the sky as spectacular as the Leonids of 1966."

2001 was one of the best Leonids of this generation. The cold, clear, moonlight-free skies of North America were covered in often dozens of meteors per minute.