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   Chapter 4 FIREBALLS

Thunder and Lightning By Camille Flammarion Characters: 41432

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Here we penetrate into what is, perhaps, the most mysterious, and certainly the least understood domain of thunder and lightning.

Among all the electrical phenomena to be observed in the atmosphere, there is nothing stranger than those fireballs of which we have already spoken, and which in form and size recall the electric lights in our Paris boulevards. Curious the contrast between electricity tamed and civilized and electricity running wild! Between the arc lights fulfilling their peaceful and useful function as substitutes for the sun, and these dread engines of destruction sowing death and havoc!

It is not long since the existence of these fireballs has been acknowledged by scientists as an actual fact. Until quite recent times they were regarded as the figment of excited imaginations, and wise men smiled at the wild stories of their ravages. Their reality has now been established, however, beyond the possibility of doubt.

In shape they are not always quite spherical, though this is their normal appearance; and although their contours are usually clearly defined, they are sometimes encircled by a kind of luminous vapour, such as we often see encircling the moon. Sometimes they are furnished with a red flame like a fuse that has been lit. Sometimes their course is simply that of a falling star. Sometimes they leave behind them a luminous trail which remains visible long after they themselves have disappeared. They have been described as looking like a crouching kitten, an iron bar, a large orange-so harmless apparently, that you were tempted to put out your hand to catch it. There is record of one being seen as large as a millstone.

One remarkable thing about them is the slowness with which they move, and which sometimes enables their course to be watched for several minutes. In our first chapter we gave several instances of the occurrence of fireballs. Let us look at some more. Here is one taken from Arago's learned treatise upon thunder. The record is from the pen of Batti, a marine painter in the service of the Empress of Austria and resident at Milan.

"In the month of June, 1841, I was staying at the H?tel de l'Agnello in a room on the second floor, overlooking the Corso dei Servi. It was about six in the afternoon. The rain was coming down in torrents, and the darkest rooms were lit up by the lightning flashes better than our rooms generally are by gas. Thunder broke out every now and again with appalling violence. The windows of the houses were closed, and the streets were deserted, for, as I have said, there was a steady downpour, and the main road was turned into a torrent. I was sitting quietly smoking, and looking out at the rain, which an occasional ray of sunlight set flashing like threads of gold, when I suddenly heard voices in the street calling out 'Guarda, guarda!'-'Look, look!' and at the same moment a clatter of hob-nailed boots. After half an hour of absolute silence, this noise attracted my attention. I ran to the window, and looking to the right, in the direction of the clamour, I saw a fireball making its way down the middle of the road on a level with my window, in a noticeably oblique direction, not horizontally. Eight or ten persons, continuing to call out 'Guarda, guarda!' kept pace with it, walking down the street, stepping out quickly. The meteor passed my window, and I had to turn to the left to see what would be the end of its caprice. After a moment, fearing to lose sight of it behind some houses which jutted out beyond my hotel, I went quickly downstairs and into the street, and was in time to see it again and to join those who were following its course. It was still going slowly, but it was now higher up, and was still ascending-so much so that after a few minutes it hit the cross upon the clock tower of the Chiesa dei Servi and disappeared. Its disappearance was accompanied by a dull report like that of a big cannon twenty miles away when the wind carries the sound.

"To give an idea of the size and colour of this globe of fire, I can only compare it to the appearance of the moon as one may see it sometimes rising above the Alps on a clear night in winter, and as I myself have seen it at Innsbrück-that is to say, of a reddish yellow, with patches on it almost of red. The difference was that you could not see the contours of the meteor distinctly as you could the moon, and that it seemed to be enveloped in a luminous atmosphere of indefinite extent."

This fireball was an innocuous one. We may take next, by way of contrast, the case of one which wreaked terrible damage and loss of life.

On July 27, 1789, at about three o'clock in the afternoon, a fireball of about the size of a cannon-ball, fell in a great hall at Feltri (Marche Trevisane) in which six hundred people were seated, wounded seventy and killed ten, putting out all the lights.

On July 11, 1809, about eleven o'clock in the morning, a fireball penetrated into the church of Chateauneuf-les-Moustiers (Basses-Alpes) just as the bell was ringing and a large congregation had taken their seats. Nine persons were killed on the spot and eighty-two others were wounded. All the dogs that had got into the church were killed. A woman who was in a hut on a neighbouring hill saw three fireballs descend that day, and made sure they would reduce the village to ashes.

Müsschenbroek recounts the following incident which took place at Solingen in 1711. M. Pyl, the Pastor at Duytsbourg, was preaching one Sunday, when in the middle of a storm a fireball fell into the church through the clock tower and exploded. The sanctuary was set on fire and became thick with smoke. Three persons were killed and more than a hundred were wounded.

From the Bulletin of the Société Astronomique de France the following narrative contributed to it by Mlle. de Soubbotine, a member of this society, has been taken:-

"A terrible storm broke out at Ouralsk on May 22, 1901. It was a fête day and the streets were thronged with people. Towards five in the afternoon some young men and girls, twenty-one in all, had taken refuge in the vestibule of a house, and a girl of seventeen, Mlle. K., had sat down on the threshold, her back turned towards the street. Suddenly there was a violent clap of thunder, and in front of the door there appeared a dazzlingly brilliant ball of fire, gradually descending towards where they were all grouped. After touching Mlle. K.'s head, who bowed down at once, the fireball fell on the ground in the middle of the party, made a circuit of it, then forcing its way into the room of the master of the house, whose boots it touched and singed, it wreaked havoc with the apartment, broke through the wall into a stove in the adjoining room, smashed the stove-pipe, and carried it off with such violence that it was dashed against the opposite wall, and went out through the broken window.

"After the first feeling of fright, this is what transpired. The door near which Mlle. K. was seated had been thrown back into the court, and in the ceiling there were two holes of about 18 centimetres each.

"The young girl, still seated with her head bowed down, looked as though she were asleep. Some of the people were walking in the courtyard, having seen and heard nothing, and the others were all lying in the vestibule in a dead faint. Mlle. K. was dead. The fireball had struck her on the nape of her neck and had proceeded down her back and left hip, leaving a black mark all along. There was a sore on one hand, with some blood on it, and one of her shoes was torn completely off, and there was a small hole in one of the stockings.

"All the victims became deaf."

On September 10, 1845, at about two in the afternoon, in the course of a violent storm, a fireball came down the chimney into a room in a house in the village of Salagnac (Creuse). A child and three women who were in the room suffered no harm from it. Then it rolled into the middle of the kitchen, and passed near the feet of a young peasant who was standing in it. After which it went into an adjoining room, and disappeared without leaving any trace. The women tried to persuade the man to go in and see whether he could not stamp it out, but he had once allowed himself to be electrified in Paris, and thought it prudent to refrain. In a little stable hard by, it was found afterwards that the fireball had killed a pig. It had gone through the straw without setting fire to it.

On July 12, 1872, a new form of fireball made its appearance in the Commune of Hécourt (Oise). It was of the size of an egg, and it was seen burning upon a bed. Efforts were made in vain to extinguish it, and presently the entire house, together with the neighbouring dwellings and barns, became a prey to the flames.

On October 9, 1885, at 8.25 p.m., during a violent storm, a globe of fire of the size of a small apple was seen coming into a ground-floor room in a house at Constantinople through an open window, the family being at table in this room at the time. It first played round a gas-jet, then, moving towards the table, it passed between two guests, went round a lamp hanging over the centre of the table, and then precipitated itself into the street, where it exploded with an appalling crash, but without having caused any damage or hurt anybody. Not far from the scene of this phenomenon there are a number of buildings provided with lightning conductors. The fireball left no trace of smell behind it.

Here is another curious narrative of a fireball.

A party of five women took refuge during a storm in the entrance to a house in order to escape from the rain and the lightning.

They had scarcely gained the doorway when there was a tremendous thunderclap which sent them flying backward-and two girls who had joined them-knocked senseless by lightning in the form of a fireball. One of the girls remained unconscious for a long time; all the others were more or less seriously injured, but all recovered. The strangest circumstance in connection with this affair, however, still remains to be told.


They were seen to descend in this way upon the lightning conductor above the Palais Royal electric-power station. This engraving, after a sketch made at the time by M. Rudaux, appeared in La Science Illustrée, for August, 1905.

On the same side of the street as the passage, in a neighbouring house, nine or ten yards away, in a ground-floor room of which the door was shut, a young woman was working at a sewing-machine. At the moment of the thunderclap, she experienced a violent shock throughout her whole body, and a fierce burning sensation in the hollow of her back. It was found afterwards that between the shoulder-blades and also on her leg, she had been badly scorched, but the wounds quickly healed. Now, in the room of this victim, no trace was to be found of the passing of the fireball, neither on the ceiling, nor on the floor, nor on the walls. There was absolutely nothing to show how the electric fluid could have made its way in from the spot in which the fireball had exploded in the neighbouring house, separated from it by two thick walls.

Mysterious, is it not? The fireball seems to dwindle out of sight. In some cases, it seems to reduce itself into vapour in order to pass from one place to another.

With animals these fireballs seem deadlier and more merciless than with human beings.

Thus, on February 16, 1866, a thunderstorm descended upon a farm in the Commune of Chapelle-Largeau (Deux-Sèvres), and the circumstances attending its explosion are too remarkable to be overlooked. After a tremendous thunderclap, a young man who was standing near the farm saw an immense fireball touch the ground at his feet, but it did him no damage, but passed, still harmlessly, through a room in the farmhouse in which there were nine persons. The only effect it produced was the flaring up of some matches upon the chimney-piece.

It proceeded towards the stables, which were divided into two compartments. In one there were two cows and two oxen: the first cow, to the right of the entrance, was killed, the second was uninjured; the first ox was killed, the second was uninjured.

The same effect was found to have been produced in the other compartment, in which there were four cows; the first and the third were killed, the second and fourth were spared: the odd numbers taken and the even numbers left.

Similar freaks have been recorded in connection with piles of plates struck by lightning-holes being found in alternate plates. How are these things to be explained?

The following story is very extraordinary, though it does not help to clear up the mystery of lightning's strange ways:-

On August 24, 1895, about ten in the morning, in the midst of a storm of wind and rain, several persons saw descending to the ground a whitish-coloured globe of about an inch and a half in diameter, which, on touching the ground, split into two smaller globes. These rose at once to the height of the chimneys on the houses close by and disappeared. One went down a chimney, crossed a room in which were a man and a child, without harming them, and went through the floor, perforating a brick with a clean round hole of about the size of a franc. Under this room there was a sheepfold. The shepherd's son, seated at the doorway, suddenly saw a bright light shining over the flock of sheep, while the lambs were jumping about in alarm. When he went up to them, he was startled to discover that five sheep had been killed. They bore no trace of burning, or of wound of any kind, but about their lips was a sort of foam, slightly pink in colour.

In the adjoining house, the second fireball had also gone down a chimney, and had exploded in the kitchen, causing great damage.

In 1890, a young farmer was working on a plot of ground, two or three miles from Montfort-l'Amaury. A storm breaking out, he stood up against his horses to take refuge from the rain; moving away a few yards in order to get his whip, there was seen, when he returned, a ball of fire almost touching the ear of one of his horses. A moment later it exploded with a deafening noise. The two horses fell-one of them unable to get up again. The farmer himself was dashed to pieces.

On other occasions the meteor is hardly more devastating than the ordinary bomb.

On April 21, at Lanxade, near Bergerac, a storm had been raging already for some hours, when suddenly-simultaneously with a small thunderclap-a ball of fire, of the size of the opening of a sack of corn, fell slowly on one of the banks of the Dordogne, spoiling some fruit trees, and then crossing the river, it raised a waterspout several yards high as it went.

It disappeared finally on the other side of a field of corn.

On November 12, 1887, a very curious instance of a fireball was noticed on the Atlantic.

It was at midnight, near Cape Race. An enormous fireball was seen to rise slowly out of the sea to the height of sixteen or seventeen metres. It travelled against the wind, and came quite near the vessel from which it was being watched. Then it turned towards the south-east and disappeared. The apparition lasted about five minutes.

In July, 1902, in the course of a violent storm, and immediately after a loud peal of thunder, a fireball of about the size of a toy balloon was seen to make its appearance suddenly in the Rue Veron at Montmartre. After moving along, just above the ground, in front of a wine-merchant's shop, it exploded like a bomb, most fortunately without hurting any one, or doing any damage.

The little village of Candes, situated by the confluence of the Vienne and the Loire, was the scene of the appearance of a fireball in June, 1897. Three persons were sitting in the verandah of a house during a storm, when they suddenly saw a fireball travelling past them through the air for a distance of thirty yards or so. Then it exploded with a loud noise, striking sparks from the ironworks of the verandah. At the same moment, the servants saw another fireball cross a garden at the other side of the house, and drop into a small pond. A gardener was knocked over, but not hurt.

On March 6, 1894, M. Dandois, professor of surgery at the University of Louvain, went to the neighbouring town of Linden, by railway, to see a patient. On his return, on foot, the sky suddenly so darkened over, that he made for the nearest dwelling-place, avoiding, as he did so, the telegraph poles along the road. Suddenly a ball of fire came against him and threw him over a ditch into a field, where he lay unconscious.

A quarter of an hour later, having regained his senses and finding himself undamaged save for a numbness in one arm and one leg, the doctor set out again, congratulating himself on the fact that his umbrella had acted as a sort of portable lightning conductor, for the steels were all twisted, and showed signs of having borne the brunt of the fray. Had the handle been of steel also, the electric current would have run down it into his hand, doubtless, and killed him.

On another occasion a fireball fell upon the door of a house, pushed it violently open, and made its way into the kitchen.

At the sight of this strange visitor, the cook bolted from the room. A sempstress, who was at work near the window, received a small burn on her forehead, of about the size of half a franc, with a slight weal a couple of inches long-like the tail of a comet.

After bursting, the fireball made its way up the chimney, from which it removed a mass of soot, smelling somewhat of sulphur.

Here is an instance more curious still-

A violent storm was raging near Marseilles, when seven persons, seated together in the ground-floor drawing-room of a country house, saw a fireball as big as a plate appear in their midst.

It directed its course towards a young girl of eighteen, who, frightened out of her life, had fallen on her knees. Touching her shoes, it rebounded to the ceiling, then came down to her feet again, and so on two or three times, with mysterious regularity, the girl experiencing, it seems, no other sensation than that of a slight cramp in her legs. Eventually the fireball made its exit from the room through a keyhole!

The girl could not get up at once after it had gone. For a fortnight or so she could not walk without assistance, and it was two years before she got over a liability to sudden weakness in her legs, causing her suddenly to fall.

It is strange to reflect that these diminutive fireballs, produced by the actual atmosphere we breathe, are less understood by us than that enormous globe which we call the sun, and to which is due the flowering of the entire life of our planet. If we are still in doubt as to the nature of the sun's spots, at least we have been able to analyse its own elements. And we know its dimensions, its weight, its distance from us, its rate of rotation, etc., etc.

Yet these electric spheres that make their escape from the clouds in times of storm, baffle our investigations altogether.

According to records which seem authentic, fireballs have been seen actually to come into existence upon the surface of a ceiling, at the mouth of a well, and upon the flagstones of a church.

In 1713, at the chateau of Fosdinaro, in the neighbourhood of Massa Carrara, in the course of a storm and heavy downpour of rain, there was seen to appear suddenly upon the ground a very vivid flame, white and blue in colour. It seemed to flare fiercely, but did not move apparently from the one spot, and after growing quickly in volume it suddenly disappeared. Simultaneously with its going, one of the observers felt a curious sort of tickling behind his shoulder, moving upwards; several bits of plaster from the ceiling under which he stood fell upon his head, and there was a sudden crash quite unlike an ordinary thunderclap.

In 1750, on the 2nd of July, at about three in the afternoon, the Abbé Richard happened to be in the church of St. Michel at Dijon during a storm. "Suddenly," he tells us, "I saw between two pillars of the nave a bright red flame floating in the air about three feet above the floor. Presently it rose to a height of twelve or fifteen feet, increasing in volume. Then, after having moved some yards to one side, while still rising diagonally to the height almost of the woodwork of the organ, it disappeared at last with an explosion like the report of a cannon."

On July 21, 1745, a violent storm broke out in Boulogne, and the tower of a convent was struck by a fi

reball. It was of great size, and was seen to emerge from one of the sewers of the town and to move along the surface of the road until it hit against this tower, of which a part subsided. No one was hurt. A nun affirmed that some years before she had seen just such another fireball emerge from the same spot and precipitate itself with a crash against the summit of the tower without doing any damage.

In the middle of a violent storm, Dr. Gardons saw several fireballs flying in different directions, not far from the ground, making a crackling sort of noise. One of them was seen by witnesses to come out of an excavation full of stagnant water. They killed one man, several animals, and did much damage to the trees and houses in the vicinity.

In February, 1767, at Presbourg, a blue, conical flame escaped suddenly with a detonating noise from a brasier, breaking it to pieces, and scattering the glowing cinders all around. It then went twisting about the room, burnt the face and hands of a child, escaped partly through the window, partly through the door, broke into a thousand pieces a second brasier in another room, and disappeared finally up a chimney, carrying up with it and discharging from the chimney-top into the street several hams which had been hung under the chimney-piece. For several days afterwards the atmosphere of the house retained a smell of sulphur.

In some cases, fireballs have been seen to come down from the sky apparently, and then, after almost reaching but not actually touching the ground, to ascend again. Thus on a hot day in summer 1837, M. Hapoule, a landed proprietor in the department of the Moselle, standing in front of the entrance to his stables under the shelter of a porch during a storm, saw a fireball about the size of an orange moving in the direction of a dung-heap not far from him. But instead of going right into it, it stopped about a yard off, and changing its route, it went off at an angle, keeping the same level for some distance, when it suddenly seemed to change its mind again, and rose perpendicularly till it disappeared in the clouds.

These sudden changes, as we have seen, are strangely characteristic of the habits of fireballs.

The Garde Champêtre of the village of Lalande de Libourne (Gironde) was traversing the country one evening about half-past ten, engaged in organizing a garde de surveillance, when he suddenly found himself surrounded by a bright and penetrating light. Astonished, he looked behind him, and saw a fireball, just broken loose from a cloud, descending quickly to the ground.

The light vanished presently, but he made his way towards where the fireball seemed to be falling. When he had gone about two hundred yards, he saw another brilliant light breaking out from the top of a tree and spreading itself into a sheaf of rays, every point of which seemed to emit electric sparks.

At the end of a quarter of an hour the light became weaker, and then disappeared. The tree was afterwards cut down, and it was found that the lightning had gone down the centre to a distance of three yards, and had then passed down outside to the soil, leaving trace of a semi-circular route; and finally, after rising again on the opposite side of the tree to a height of four yards, tearing off two narrow strips of bark, had disappeared. At the foot of the tree a small hole, about an inch and a quarter in diameter, retained a certain degree of warmth for an hour and a half afterwards.

Fireballs often keep within the frontiers of cloud-land. They may be seen passing sometimes from one cloud to another in the high regions of the atmosphere.

On September 22, 1813, at seven in the evening, M. Louis Ordinaire saw a fireball leave a cloud at the zenith-the sky being very much lowering at the time-and go towards another. It was of a reddish-yellow and extremely brilliant, lighting up the ground with a bright radiance.

He was able to follow its movements for at least a minute, and then saw it disappear into the second cloud. There was an explosion followed by a dull sound like the firing off of a cannon in the distance.

After a violent storm which broke out near Wakefield on March 1, 1774, there remained only two clouds in the sky, just above the horizon. Balls of fire were observed gliding from the higher of the two into the lower, like falling stars.

In high mountainous districts-in the Alps, for instance-you may often look down from above upon a storm. It is fascinating thus to watch the grandiose spectacle of the elements at war. Here from the pen of Père Lozeran du Fesch is a striking picture of such a scene-

"It was on the 2nd of September, 1716, about three o'clock in the afternoon. A traveller was making his way down towards Vic from the summit of Cantal, accompanied by a guide.

"The weather was calm and very warm, but down below, about the middle of the mountain, a vast sea of mist stretched out in wavelike clouds.

"These clouds were furrowed continually by lightning flashes, some going quite straight, some zigzag, some taking the shape of fireballs. When the two men came near this region of clouds, the mist grew so thick they could hardly see the bridles of their horses.

"The air became gradually more cold and the darkness more dense as they proceeded downwards. Now they were in the midst of the fireballs flying in every direction all round them, revolving as they went, reddish in colour, like saffron lit up.

"They were of all sizes-some quite small on their first appearance, seeming to grow immensely in volume in a few moments. Drops of rain fell when they passed. Up to this point the sight had been curious but not terrifying, but suddenly now, one of these fireballs, about two feet in diameter, burst open near the traveller and emitted streams of a bright and beautiful light in every direction, and there was a dull report followed by a tremendous crash. The two men were much shaken and the air all round them seemed polluted. After a minute or two, however, all trace of the explosion had been dissipated, and they proceeded on their way."

On January 6, 1850, near Merlan, about six in the afternoon, a fireball burst above the heads of two men, enveloping them in a bluish light, without hurting them or even damaging their clothes, but giving them a momentary thrill as from an electric battery. It left no traces of any kind, not even a smell.

Mr. G. M. Ryan records an instance which he witnessed at Karachi in Scinde. While in his drawing-room one day with two friends who were taking refuge from a storm, he rose from his chair and went to the door to open it, the windows as well as the door being shut at the time. Returning, he saw in the air and between his friends, a ball of fire of about the size of a full moon. At the same time there was a terrible clap of thunder. Two of the spectators were slightly wounded; one felt a sharp pain on the left side of the face, the other, a sensation in one arm with a feeling as if his hair were burning. There was a strong smell of sulphur. In the next room there were two rifles in a case; one was intact but the other was broken, and there was a hole in the wall at the point where the muzzle leant against it, and there were two holes in the same wall a story higher.

On Sunday, August 19, 1900, several people were assembled in a room in the chateau of the Baron de France at Maintenay (Pas-de-Calais), when there was a violent storm raging over the country.

Suddenly there appeared in the midst of the eleven people who were there, a globe of blue fire about the size of an infant's head, which quietly crossed the room, touching four people on its way. None of them were injured. An awful explosion was heard at the moment when the electric ball disappeared through an open door in front of the great staircase.

On August 3, 1809, a fireball struck the house of a Mr. David Sutton, not far from Newcastle-on-Tyne. Eight people were having tea in the drawing-room when a violent clap of thunder knocked down the chimney.

Immediately after they saw on the ground, at the door opposite the fireplace, the brilliant visitor which announced itself in the sonorous voice of Jupiter the thunderer. It remained discreetly at the entrance of the room, no doubt waiting for the sign to advance. No one making a move, it came into the middle of the room, and there burst with a crash, throwing out fiery grains like aeroliths.

The spectacle must have been magnificent-but, we must acknowledge, rather disquieting.

On September 27, 1772, at Besan?on, a voluminous fireball crossed over a corn-shop and the ward of a hospital full of nurses and children. This time again the lightning was merciful-it spared nurses and children, and went and drowned itself in the Doubs.

Nearly thirty years before, in July, 1744, it showed the same regard for an honest German peasant woman. She was occupied in the kitchen superintending the family meal, when, after a terrible clap of thunder, she saw a fireball the size of a fist come down the chimney, pass between her feet without hurting her, and continue on its course without burning or even upsetting the spinning-wheel and other objects on the floor.

Much frightened, the young woman tried to escape; she threw herself towards the door and opened it, when the fireball at once followed her, played about her feet, went into the next room, which opened out-of-doors, crossed it, and through the door into the yard.

It went round the yard, entered a barn by an open door, climbed the wall opposite, and reaching the edge of the roof, burst with such a terrific noise that the peasant woman fainted. The barn at once took fire and was reduced to cinders.

Towards the middle of the last century, March 3, 1835, the steeple of Crailsheim was set on fire by lightning. The guardian's daughter, aged twenty years, was at this moment in her room and had her back turned to the window, when her young brother saw a fireball enter by the window-sill and descend on to his sister's back, giving her a sudden shock all over her body. The young girl then saw at her feet a quantity of small flames, which went towards the kitchen, the door of which had been opened, and set fire to a pile of mossy wood. There was no further damage than this attempt at incendiarism, which was easily extinguished.

Occasionally a fireball seems to take a malignant pleasure in hurling itself like a fury against lightning conductors; but instead of quietly impaling itself like the linear lightning, and breathing its last sigh in a prolonged roar, it struggles, and comes forth victorious from this curious contest.

There are many cases of fireballs playing about the lightning conductors without being caught.

In 1777, a fireball shot from the clouds on to the point of the lightning conductor on the Observatory of Padua. The conductor, which consisted of an iron chain, was broken at its junction with the stem. However, it sent on the discharge.

Some years later, in 1792, a huge ball of lightning struck one of the two conductors on the house of M. Haller at Villiers la Garenne. This conductor was much injured by the audacious assailant, and so was the framework of the house; the keen fluid had damaged the metallic gutters.

At this point I must add that lightning conductors are of recent creation. Nor would it be surprising if there were defective ones which could not assure an efficient protection.

However, much later, on December 20, 1845, the same phenomenon was observed at the chateau of Bortyvon, near Vire. There, again, the fireball, ignoring the danger to which it was exposing itself, flung itself on a lightning conductor placed in the centre of the chateau. It was spared, but the chateau suffered greatly. The electric ball descended from both sides of the metallic stem, causing a great deal of damage along its path. On touching the ground it expanded, and many persons affirm that they saw what was like a huge cask of fire rolling along the ground.

In truth, ball lightning seems in a certain measure to escape the influence of lightning conductors.

On September 4, 1903, towards ten o'clock in the evening, M. Laurence Rotch, director of the Observatory of Blue Hill (U.S.), happening to be in Paris, made the following curious observation from the Rond-point of the Champs Elysées.

Looking in the direction of the Eiffel Tower, he saw the summit of the edifice struck by white lightning coming from the zenith. At the same moment a fireball, less dazzling than the lightning, slowly descended from the summit to the second platform. It appeared to be about one yard in diameter, and to be situated in the middle of the tower, taking less than two seconds to cover a distance of about 100 yards. Then it disappeared. The next day the observer ascertained, on visiting the tower, that it had actually been struck by lightning twice on the previous day.

It is to be noted that the meteor did not follow the conductor; but, after all, is not the whole tower itself the most powerful conductor imaginable? Would not the enormous masses of iron used in its construction neutralize the attraction of the thin metallic rods, effectual for the protection of ordinary buildings, but incapable, one would think, of competing with the attractive force of this immense metallic framework?

Here are some cases where globular lightning has struck bells or telegraph wires, which it has followed with docility.

Several times it has been seen poised like a bird on a telegraph wire near a railway-station, and has then quietly disappeared.


Photograph taken June 3, 1902, at 9.20 p.m., by M. G. Loppé. Published in the Bulletin de la Société Astronomique de France (May, 1905)

We see that it is not absolutely inimical to points, nor to metals, but it prefers its independence, and he must get up early who would catch it in a snare.

It is an anarchist-it acknowledges no rule.

But we must confess that if spheroidal lightning seems particularly capricious, it is because we are still ignorant of the laws which guide it. Our ignorance alone is the cause of the mystery.

We try to discover the enigma in the silence of the laboratories, where physicians question science without ceasing; we try to reproduce fireballs artificially, but the problem is complicated, and its solution presents enormous difficulties.

Hypotheses are not wanting. Some years ago, M. Stéphane Leduc recorded an interesting experiment, producing a moving globular spark.

When two very fine and highly polished metallic points, each in affinity with one of the poles of an electro-static machine, rest perpendicularly on the sensitive face of a gelatine bromide of silver photographic plate, which is placed on a metallic leaf, the two points being 5 to 10 centimetres the one from the other, an effluvium is produced round the positive point, while at the negative point a luminous globule is formed.

When this globule has reached a sufficient size, you can see it detach itself from the point, which ceases to be luminous, begin to move forward slowly on the plate, make a few curves, and then set off for the positive point; when it reaches this, the effluvium is extinguished, all luminous phenomenon ceases, and the machine acts as if its two poles were united by a conductor.

The speed with which the luminous globe moves is very slight. It takes from one to four minutes to cover a distance of 5 to 6 centimetres. Sometimes, before reaching the positive point, the globe bursts into two or more luminous globules, which individually continue their journey towards the positive point.

On developing the plate, you will find traced on it the route followed by the globule, the point of explosion, the routes resulting from the division, the effluvium round the positive point. Also, if you stop the experiment before the arrival of the globule at the positive point, the photograph will only give the route to that point.

The globule makes its course the conductor. If during its journey you were to throw powder on the plate-sulphur, for example-the course it followed will be marked by a line of little aigrettes, looking like a luminous rosary.

Of all the known electric phenomena, this is the most analogous with globular lightning.



But the really complicated part of the question is when ball lightning loses part of its fluidity and becomes a semi-solid body, as in the following instance:-

On April 24, 1887, a storm burst over Mortrée (Orne), and the lightning literally chopped the telegraph wire on the route to Argentan for a distance of 150 yards. The pieces were so calcinated that they might have been under the fire of a forge; some of the longer ones were bent and their sections welded together. The lightning entered by the door of a stable in the form of a fireball, and came near a person who was preparing to milk a cow; then it passed between the legs of the animal, and disappeared without causing any damage. The terrified cow raised itself on its hind legs with frantic bellowing, and its master ran away, frightened out of his wits, but there was no harm done.

The inexplicable phenomenon was that at the precise moment when the lightning crossed the stable, a great quantity of incandescent stones fell before a neighbouring house. "Some of these fragments, of the size of nuts," wrote the Minister of Post and Telegraphs at the Academy, "are of a not very thick material, of a greyish-white, and easily broken by the fingers, giving forth a characteristic odour of sulphur. The others, which are smaller, are exactly like coke.

"It would perhaps be useful to say here, that during this storm the thunderclaps were not preceded by the ordinary muttering, they burst quickly like the discharge of musketry, and succeeded one another at short intervals. Hail fell in abundance, and the temperature was very low."

It is only by a semblance of disbelief that one can get the peasants to tell us the stories of what they pretend to have seen of the fall of aeroliths during storms. They have christened the uranoliths "thunder-stones."

These substances have evidently no relation to uranoliths, but they prove none the less that ponderable matter may accompany the fall of lightning.

Here are two more examples-

In the month of August, 1885, a storm burst over Sotteville (Seine-Inférieure); lightning furrowed the sky, the thunder muttered, and the rain fell in torrents. Suddenly, in the Rue Pierre Corneille, several small balls, about the size of a common pea, were seen to fall; these burned on touching the ground, sending out a little violet flame. People counted more than twenty, and one of the spectators, on putting her foot on one of them, produced a fresh flame. They left no trace on the ground.

On August 25, 1880, in Paris, during a rather violent storm, in broad daylight, M. A. Trécul, of the Institute, saw a very brilliant voluminous body, yellowish-white, and rather long in shape, being apparently 35 to 40 centimetres in length, by about 25 in width, with slightly conical ends.

This body was only visible for a few seconds; it seemed to disappear and re-enter a cloud, but in departing-and this is the chief point-it dropped a little substance, which fell vertically like a heavy body under the sole influence of gravity. It left a trail of light behind it, at the edges of which could be seen sparks, or rather red globules, because their light did not flash. Near the falling substance the luminous trail was almost vertical, while in the further part it was sinuous. The small substance divided in falling, and the light went out soon after, when it was on the point of reaching the tops of the houses. When it was disappearing, and at the moment of the division, no noise was heard, although the cloud was not far away.

This fact incontestably proves the presence of ponderable matter in clouds, which is not violently projected by an explosion in the bolis, nor accompanied by a noisy electric discharge.

We are still far from understanding the interesting problem of the formation and nature of ball lightning. Instead of denying it, men of science ought to study it, because it is certainly one of the most remarkable of the curiosities of atmospheric electricity.

We must begin by finding out the exact facts, which are extraordinary enough to captivate our attention. The theories will follow.

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