Northern Lights in London

Frederic Edwin Church's 1865 painting "Aurora Borealis"

Frederic Edwin Church’s 1865 painting “Aurora Borealis”

Snippets 87. The Royal Society of London Journal is one of the greatest sources of historical information available. Established in 1665 as the first exclusively scientific journal in the world, it has been in continuous publication ever since. The remit of the journal has been very wide over the years, so there is plenty to interest an historian.

 

The following article was published in 1739 in the journal, and is an eye-witness account of northern lights seen in London, written by Cromwell Mortimer, secretary to the Royal Society. Mortimer was the second secretary, from 1730 until his death in 1752.

On Sunday evening, March 18. 1738-9. about half an hour past seven, the sky to the north was very clear, and the stars shone bright; to the south and south-east, as I was in the skirt of the town on the north-west side, the sky looked obscured, partly from a mist, partly from the smoke of the city. At the same time there appeared a bright column arising somewhat north of the east, or about the east north-east, which reached up with its point near to the zenith, but going a little south of it. This column seemed to be the boundary of the clear and obscure regions of the sky above-mentioned: it had an uniform steady light, without any dartings or shiverings; but it sometimes vanished for a few minutes, and then returned again all at once, not proceeding from the bottom, but from the side next the misty part of the sky, as if it were only the border of the mist illuminated. About eight this column was grown much wider, and all of a breadth, extending in the fame direction beyond the zenith to the west south-west, as far as I could see for the houses; the addition to its breadth seemed to be all on the southern edge of it; this whole band was of a most beautiful pink-colour. A quarter after eight, the phenomena remained the same; but to the north north-west there appeared some whitish clouds about 20º from the zenith: out of these arose three beautiful pyramids of light, which extended very near the zenith; the middle of these pyramids were of a beautiful sea-green, which went off gradually in lighter shades towards the edges, which were of a bright white; the colour of these very much resembled the light of phosphorus. I observed these columns for some minutes, and then, going in a-doors, saw no more of the phenomenon; and was told, half an hour after, that it was all over; but have been informed since, that it returned again about ten; when the redness spread, almost universally, over the southern parts of the heavens.


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