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COLLECTION — Box: 1, Folder: 1 Identifier: UAV 630.399

[Observations of Shooting and Falling Stars (Leonids)]


The Leonids are a recurring meteor shower that occurs in November, once every 33 years. The series consists of a volume recording the observations made by Russian astronomers of the Leonids meteor shower in November 1899. The records are written in Russian with occasional translations into English.


  • 1899 November


Researcher access

Open for research; however, the volume is fragile. Handle carefully.


.10 cubic feet (1 folder)

The series consists of a volume recording the observations made by Russian astronomers of the Leonids meteor shower in November 1899. The volume contains a circular requesting assistance in observing the Leonids meteor shower written to Russian astronomers by Sergey Paylovick Glazenap of the Astronomical Imperial Observatory in Saint Petersburg. Also included is a list of locations to which the circular was sent and completed maps and forms that detail the Leonids sightings. In addition, the records note the observer's name, site of the station, address, time of beginning and ending of observations, interruptions by clouds or other causes, and condition of the sky (clear, hazy, passing clouds, etc.)

The records are written in Russian with occasional translations into English in red tint by Nina Subbotina, one of the first Russian women astronomers and a member of the Russian Astronomical Society.

English translation summary of Russian circular

Saint Petersburg, Astronomical Imperial Observatory, St. Petersburg University

Dear Sir!

Based on observations made in previous years, it can be assumed that the meteor shower of falling stars meandering (happening) in the current year since the Earth must approach the center of the cosmic cloud of the named stream. In this case, it would be highly desirable to carry out uniform observations by a large number of observers at various stations, creating (constituting) a complete global circuit as far as possible. Most shooting stars are expected on November 15th in the new style. Observation must begin on November 13th and continue through November 17th.

Professor E. Pickering provided observations in America in the West; this letter invites you, dear sir, to participate in these said observations. Your observations will be sent to the American Cambridge professor E. Pickering, whose brother W. Pickering is busy processing the previous observations of Leonids. Observations need to be sent either to the Nikolaev Main Physical Observatory in St. Petersburg or send same to Prof. Glazenap at the Imperial University in St. Petersburg. Names of observers will be mentioned in the report of Pickering.

Attached here: (1) Sky map with the constellation Leo in the middle; the cross at the very middle indicates where the Leonid radiates. (2) Sheets for writing observations most humbly request to involve other persons interested in the subject in the Leonid observations.

When observing falling stars, it is desirable to keep in mind the following: (A) Observations can only be limited by counting shooting stars; for this, it is necessary each evening to cover the start and end time of the counting of shooting stars. Observers begin with (at) Leo according to the appendix star chart. (B) Observations can be extended to the rest of the sky, but shooting stars in the rest of the sky may not be Leonids. The only shooting stars which belong to Leonids are those whose continued path (in the direction opposite to flight) passes through the constellation Leo – the center of the attached map. If brilliant shooting stars are seen outside the chart, it is advisable to record under the heading "individual shooting stars" the time of their appearance in the first column. In the second column, headed "class," it is noted whether the observed shooting star belongs to the Leonids or not. In the first case, п (L) is noted, and in the second case, н.п [N.L.]. In the third column, under "magnitude," the meteor's brightness is recorded, with the brightest designated as O, the weakest-6. It is useful to remember that Arcturus and Vega have a magnitude of O, Polaris-2, Pleiades 4, and the faintest stars in the sky have a magnitude 6. The last column (color) indicates the color of the shooting star; initials are used for an abbreviation: ґ = blue or cyan 3 = green, ж = yellow, ь = white, and k = red. For example, п 3 ж means that one of the yellow, third-magnitude Leonids is observed.

(3) Paths of individual falling stars may be drawn on the accompanying map: it is necessary to mark the paths with special numbers and make their description on a special sheet.

Professor S. Glazenap

Historical note on the Harvard College Observatory

In 1839, the Harvard Corporation appointed William Cranch Bond, the first Astronomical Observer, to the University, thereby taking the first step in establishing the Harvard College Observatory, after which the first telescope was installed in 1847. Scholars and students had studied astronomy at Harvard since the seventeenth century, but it wasn't until a large comet sparked public interest in 1843 that donors began donating funds to build an observatory. During the tenure of the Harvard College Observatory's first three directors, William Cranch Bond (1839-1859), George Phillips Bond (1859-1865), and Joseph Winlock (1866-1875), the Observatory's research focused on lunar photography and chronometric activities. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, under the direction of Edward C. Pickering (1877-1919), research shifted from celestial mechanics and positional astronomy to astrophysics. As a result, the Observatory developed into a major research institution, focusing on photographic star surveys and spectroscopic analysis, culminating in the publication of the Henry Draper Catalogue, with spectroscopic classifications for 225,300 stars. During Pickering's tenure, many women astronomers, including Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, and Williamina Fleming, performed essential research at the Observatory.

During the next several years, the Observatory became an important center for astronomical training and research. Harlow Shapley, director from 1921 to 1952, inaugurated a graduate study program in astronomy. Mandating that public education be a part of the Observatory's mission, Shapley required students in the Harvard program to present lectures on astronomy to public school children. Donald H. Menzel (1952-1966) arranged a cooperative relationship with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (founded in 1890) and its relocation to Cambridge in 1955. Financial support for the Observatory expanded under Leo Goldberg (1966-1970), and in 1973 George B. Field (1972-1983) created an administrative umbrella organization, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, to coordinate the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory's programs. Today, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics continues studies in astronomy, Earth and space sciences, and science education, while the Harvard College Observatory supports Harvard's Department of Astronomy.

The Leonids meteor shower of November 1899

The Leonids are a recurring meteor shower that occurs in November, once every 33 years. The meteor shower originates in the constellation Leo. It is associated with the comet 55P/Temple-Tuttle, whose orbit includes a meteor stream, which is observable when the Earth passes the comet's orbit. Millions of meteorites touch the Earth's atmosphere and become ignited by the speed of their flight, appearing red, white, orange, green, and other colors. The weights of the meteorites range from a few grains to many pounds. The first documented Leonids' meteor shower was recorded in 902 CE.

Professional and amateur astronomers, as well as the public were prepared to witness the Leonids meteor shower in November 1899, when the Leonids were scheduled to appear between November 7 and 20, with clear skies favoring observation between November 13 and 15. The Harvard College Observatory had long emphasized the analysis of meteors to learn more about the Earth's atmosphere. Observatory directory Edward C. Pickering mailed yearly circulars with blank forms to record the time, color, brilliance, etc., of meteors observed, including the Leonids, at observatories in the United States and Europe.

To secure the best results of the November 1899 Leonids meteor shower, Pickering established a uniform plan of work with maps and forms to record observations of astronomers viewing the meteor shower. A series of stations at various longitudes were solicited to fulfill the conditions necessary to measure the meteor storm or stream. Each observer was asked to complete Pickering's forms, including the name of the observer, location of the station, post office address, time of beginning and end of observation, interruptions by clouds or other causes, and condition of the sky (clear, hazy, passing clouds, etc.). The most desired comments solicited were the frequency of the meteors while the meteor's path was marked on companion maps. In Russia, astronomer Sergey Paylovick Glazenap of the Astronomical Imperial Observatory in Saint Petersburg made a Russian translation of Pickering's circular, printing 1200 copies distributed to members of the Russian Astronomical Society, observers of astronomical stations, newspapers, university students, and other interested persons.

The Leonids were observed in Europe, including in London, France, Austria, and Germany; in India and China; and the United States, including at the naval observatory in Washington, D.C., the Harvard College Observatory, and the Yale and Lick observatories. Telescopes equipped with cameras captured the meteor display at the Harvard College Observatory and in collaboration with the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory in Milton, Massachusetts. It was hoped that if the conditions were favorable, the observations would reveal results of great value to astronomical science. Unfortunately, the meteor shower did not produce as many meteors as expected, and visual observations and photography produced unsatisfactory results. Astronomers conceded that the anticipated spectacle of the meteor shower was a failure. Between November 13 and November 15, 199 meteors were spotted at the Harvard College Observatory, including 71 Leonids. These results contrasted with the Observatory's observation of 800 Leonids in the same period in November 1898. Few sites in Russia experienced clear skies for the whole viewing time, making it difficult for observers to see the Leonids. According to press reports, some areas in Russia experienced panic because of the meteor shower. Due to the widespread belief that the end of the world would bring earthquakes and other natural disasters, churches remained open all night, and hundreds of thousands of people spent their entire nights outside.

Astronomers and the public were both disappointed by the Leonids' meteor shower's failure. Even though Leonids were seen, the display in November 1899 was little compared to the thousands of meteors in 1866 and 1867 or the millions in 1833. As a result, for the next thirty years, meteors lost their appeal to the public. There were several explanations as to why the meteor showers did not occur as predicted, including disturbances caused by Jupiter and Saturn and a change in the comet's orbit which removed it off the Earth's path and rendered the meteor shower invisible. While William H. Pickering, an astronomer at the Harvard College Observatory, hypothesized that the Leonids would finally appear in 1901 and that the period at which they were predicted to come had been incorrectly computed, his brother Edward C. Pickering was unable to explain why the Leonids failed to appear in 1899.

Acquisition Information

[Observations of Shooting and Falling Stars (Leonids)] received by the Harvard University Archives before 1980.

Related Material

In the Harvard University Archives
  1. Papers of Annie Jump Cannon, 1863-1978 (HUGFP 125):
  2. Records of the Harvard College Observatory Director Edward Charles Pickering, 1854-1926 (UAV 630.14):

Processing Information

[Observations of Shooting and Falling Stars (Leonids)] was processed in December 2022 by Dominic P. Grandinetti. Ginny Leightner translated the Russian circular into English.

Processing included rehousing materials in appropriate containers and creating this finding aid.

The collection title was transcribed from Russian and translated into English.

Alma ID


Harvard College Observatory. [Observations of Shooting and Falling Stars (Leonids)], 1899 November: an inventory
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Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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