The Australian "Fireball" Wave of 1902
Normally I wouldn’t do a blog post on ball-lightening and the like. But when dozens of cases, according to old newspaper articles, occurred in an three or four week period across southern and eastern Australia – some resulting in severe injury and considerable property damage, and some occurring at high noon – I take a bit more notice. Recently, I, plus long-time Adelaide based researcher Keith Basterfield and American researcher Barry Greenwood, have been loitering on the huge digitised newspaper section of “Trove”. Maintained by The National Library of Australia (NLA), Trove is an online library “database aggregator” and “free faceted-search engine”. For UFO researchers, the digitised newspaper zone is invaluable. It already contains more than 100 million newspaper articles, documenting more than 150 years of Australian history. Recently, Keith and I published some new findings:
However, aside from just seemingly “classic” UFO events, Australia’s digitised newspapers contain something stranger still. From mid-November to late December, 1902, Australia’s southern and eastern states were the scene of widespread and focused aerial phenomenon that hardly fits into any category. An explosive outburst – literally – of ball lighting, or “globular lighting”, plus maybe far more complex, electrically charged atmospheric activity, plus traditional “fireballs” of the meteoric type, is one of the oddest manifestations of pre-Arnold aerial peculiarity I have seen in a while. Interestingly, experts of the day were, in fact, already clearly likening the reports to what we now term ball lightning, which was then very controversial.
Barry Greenwood, author of the game-changing UFO blockbuster Clear Intent, very kindly supplied me with dozens of Trove-sourced newspaper clippings on these events, rather than me go and find them all from scratch. Time is precious, and many hands make light work. Some of those clippings are imaged further on in this post. I asked Barry for his thoughts:
“Given that it was scientists were making the statements, this made the events that bit more extraordinary. With reports of meteors tossed into the mix, not necessarily part of the meteorological oddities, fireballs were the talk of the time. It seems like it was one of the greatest ball lightning outbursts ever, seemingly unique to Australia if you will check fireball reports there in other times.”
Unique indeed… But what do the articles of the time say exactly? And what can we deduce from these reports? In the Melbourne Leader, November 22, 1902, readers were greeted with this the headline “FIREBALLS IN AUSTRALIA”, and “PROFESSOR GREGORY’S OPINION” underneath. The article reads:
Professor Gregory, of Melbourne University, was asked for his views on the cablegram indicating that Sir Norman Lockyer, of South Kensington, believed that the fire balls seen in Australia last week were of volcanic origin. “Sir Norman Lockyer,” replied the professor, “is one of the most eminent of living authorities on atmospheric electricity, and his opinion, therefore, is of the greatest weight. I do not for one moment think, however, that he intended, to convey the opinion that the fireballs seen in Australia were of volcanic origin. What he no doubt meant to say, was that the fireballs seen at Mont Pelee and at La Souffriere were of the same nature as those seen in Australia though produced by different causes. The fireballs produced by volcanic action were the result of dust being driven through the air with such force as to cause friction between the particles; the friction producing electricity, and the electricity expressing itself in globular form. The fireballs which were observed during the great dust storm of last week were produced by the same mechanical action, with the exception that it was not volcanic but cyclonic, energy that set the dust in motion. There was no doubt a good deal of organic matter in the dust which found its way into Melbourne, and that of course would readily take fire.”
Some newspapers made it a regular feature titled “THE METEOROLOGICAL DISTURBANCES”. Under this banner, the Sydney Daily Telegraph, 14th November, carried the headline “FIRE-BALLS IN VICTORIA” and sub-headlines “SOME REMABKABLE PHENOMENA” and “SCIENCE AT FAULT”. The article contains the comments from a Mr. Russell, a “government astronomer”, and reads:
“Now seriously Mr. Russell, what about these fire-balls in Victoria?” The government astronomer however had no idea of treating the question flippantly.
“Have you ever been to sea?” he retorted.
“Then you’ve probably heard of what sailors call St. Elmo Fire. It’s exactly the same kind of thing they seem to have had in Victoria.” Now, St. Elmo Fire, though it belongs to the traditions of the sea, is witnessed about once in 10 lifetimes.
But Mr. Russell feels impelled to believe in these fire balls from Victoria. A strong wind ‘passing over a parched country would naturally create curious electrical disturbances – “pockets” of electricity which would travel in irresponsible directions, and burst somewhere in the vicinity of a prominent chimney stack or church steeple. They would always seek the nearest point. There are some remarkable instances on record of these erratic electric balls, but science is at a dead loss to account for them. Francois Arago, the “daddy” of meteorologists in all the ages, says: – “Globular lightning of which I have cited so many examples, and which are so remarkable, first for the slowness and uncertainty of their movements, and next for the extent of damage they occasion in exploding, appear to me to be at present one of the most in explicable problems within the range of physics. These balls or globes of fire seem to be agglomerations of ponderable substances, strongly impregnated with matter of lightning. How are such agglomerations formed? In what region are they produced? What is their nature? Why do they sometimes pass over in their course, and are afterwards precipitated with great rapidity, etc? To all these questions science returns no answer.” But because science cannot explain the phenomena, scientists do not utterly disregard evidence of fact. Arago himself relates many remarkable instances which have been vouched for by reliable witnesses.
Some of the articles deal with phenomena of clearly celestial and meteoric nature, but even some of these are oddities. The Hobart Mercury, December 1st, carried a small article which reads:
ALBURY, November 23. At an early hour yesterday morning members of the police force on duty observed a fire ball in the western sky. The phenomenon was of startling brilliancy, illuminating the sky with almost daylight clearness. It proceeded slowly and then appeared to part in two, one portion falling towards the earth and the other becoming lost in space. The light emitted was of a pale greenish color, and of blinding brilliancy.
I’d like to find someone – at atmospheric physicist I suppose – who may shed some light on all this. Can a “wave” of intense, near-nationwide ball-lightening and plasma occur? Over 4 or 5 weeks? Often in the middle of the day? Barry and I are still finding more of these articles. There may be hundreds. I would challenge others to give it a go. Below are what we have so far.