First Recorded Observation of Rare Ball Lightning

First Recorded Observation of Rare Ball Lightning

On this day in 1638, as a Sunday afternoon service was taking place in the Church of St. Pancras, the Great Thunderstorm of 1638 swept through Widecombe-in-the-Moor in Dartmoor, England, and struck the church with the first episode of ball lightning ever to be observed.

According to eyewitness accounts published after the thunderstorm, the Church had been packed with some 300 worshippers listening to priest George Lyde’s afternoon sermon when darkness fell over the entire town and booming claps of thunder rung. Suddenly, an 8-foot-wide “great ball of fire” barreled through a church window and tore open part of the roof. It rebounded through the church, smashing windows and pews and filling the building with a thick, black smoke and sulfurous odor. When it was over, four parishioners had been killed and some 60 injured. Among those injured was the priest’s wife, whose body was burned “in a very pitiful manner.” Another parishioner’s skull shattered when he was thrown up against a pillar by the force of the lightning.

According to local legend, the thunderstorm and resulting deaths were a visit from the devil, who had made a pact with card player and gambler Jan Reynolds, that if the gambling parishioner ever fell asleep in church, the devil could have his soul. Reynolds had nodded off with a pack of cards in his hands when the lightning struck. Another version states the devil arrived to collect the souls of four people playing cards during the service.

In fact, it was the first recorded instance of the unexplained atmospheric electrical phenomenon known as ball lightning. Ball lightning is typically described as a burning sphere associated with thunderstorms, ranging from pea-sized to several yards in diametre, and lasting from a few seconds to more than a minute. The ball eventually explodes or dissipates, often with fatal consequences, leaving behind a whiff of sulfur.

Scientific data on natural ball lightning is scarce and the phenomenon remains largely a mystery. Because it is so rare and unpredictable, its existence is based almost entirely on reported public sightings.

However, a 1972 study identified some characteristics of a typical ball lightning. Among its findings were that ball lightning usually occurs almost simultaneously with cloud-to-ground lightning discharge; it is usually spherical with fuzzy edges; it is as bright as an indoor lamp; it burns in a range of colors, most commonly red, orange, and yellow; each event lasts from one second to over one minute; it moves with a rotational motion; its disappearance is rapid and explosive or rapid and silent; it typically leaves behind a sulfur-like odor.

Modern visitors can still find a record of the first reported sighting of ball lightning, at the Church of St. Pancras. The village schoolmaster of the town, Roger Hill, recorded the incident in 1638, in a rhyming narrative that is still, to this day, displayed on a public board in the church.

Credit: Alamy ANJM11
Caption: An illustration of ball lightning, a rare phenomenon not yet filmed or photographed.