“On this day in 1719, the first recorded sighting of the aurora borealis took place in New England. Rather than awe, the Northern Lights roused fear and alarm of the Judgment Day in those who witnessed it.
In reports, New Englanders described seeing what looked like a mysterious face looking back at them from the upper atmosphere. The display of green, red, and white lights spread brilliantly—or ominously—across the sky. “”This evening, about eight o’clock there arose a bright and red light in the E.N.E. like the light which arises from a house on fire … which soon spread itself through the heavens from east to west, reaching about 43 or 44 degrees in height, and was equally broad,”” one version reported. Knowing nothing of the science behind the display, they were considerably alarmed and thought the phenomenon was a precursor to Judgment Day.
In fact, an aurora is a natural light display brought about by the collision of energetic charged particles from outside the atmosphere with atoms from the upper atmosphere, generally occurring in the high latitude regions of the Arctic or the Antarctic. The Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, were what the New Englanders witnessed. The lights generally occur in bands, curtains, or streamers of red, green, blue, and violet light. Sunspot activity increases their brilliance.
French astronomer Pierre Gassendi named the phenomenon in 1621. The name aurora borealis comes from the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas. The Cree call it the “”Dance of the Spirits.””
Although 1719 marked the first recorded sighting of an aurora, it wasn’t the first sighting—and it wasn’t the first time witnesses interpreted it as a bad omen. New England denizens had first seen the northern lights in March 1718 and feared it was a sign of dire calamities to come. During the Middle Ages, Europeans who sighted auroras commonly believed they were a sign from god of impending doom. After repeated sightings, however, the fear slowly turned to awe, writes Sidney Perley in his book, Historical Storms of New England.
“”Though at first the people were fearful for the consequences of such sights, the feeling wore off as they became more frequent and it was found that they were without any apparent effect upon the world. They have now (1891) become sights of curiosity merely to most people, who, while they cannot fully explain them, know that they portend no evil; though many have ever since those early times been more or less concerned when any strange cloud appears.”””
Credit: © Stocktrek Images, Inc. / Alamy
Caption: An aurora seemingly bursts through the atmosphere in ribbons of green and blue.