14 April 2010

The Stars They Saw – April 14, 1865 & April 14, 1912

Posted by Dan Satterfield

Being a history and science buff, I have often wondered what the weather and the sky looked like at great moments in history.

Today is one of those dates. At 13 minutes past 10 PM on Friday April 14, 1865, a gunshot rang out in Fords Theatre at Tenth and E street in Washington.

Forty seven years later, almost to the minute, a lookout shouted “ice berg, dead ahead!” on the Royal Mail Ship Titanic.

I’ve been researching the weather on the day Lincoln was shot, on and off, for quite a few years. It was a beautiful spring day that started with some fog and a heavy due. At the moment John Wilkes Booth fired the fatal shot, it was mostly cloudy with temps. likely in the 50’s.

Jim Bishop in the book THE DAY LINCOLN WAS SHOT reports a full moon rising at the time. This is incorrect. The moon was nearly full, but in the gibbous phase.

It IS possible to show the exact position of the stars at the moment the shot rang out in Washington. I used Stellarium to set the date and time along with the location of Washington. The pictures below are where the stars, the moon and the planet were at that moment, when viewed from the street out front of Ford’s Theatre.

The sky over Washington at 10:14 pm Friday April 14 1865. Notice the moon low in the East-Southeast. Click image for a bigger image.

Looking North at 10:14 PM in Washington April 14th 1865. Notice the big dipper high in the sky. Clouds were likely obscuring the stars somewhat at the time. Image from Stellarium.

The Moon phase at the moment President Lincoln was shot. Click image for higher resolution.

The weather for the Titanic’s sinking is well known.

A large polar high was right on top of the ship that night. The sea was described by many witnesses as like glass. It’s thought this had something to do with not seeing the berg until it was too late. Waves would have splashed against the ice berg and made it more visible.

There was no moon that night and the air temperature was a little below freezing. Unfortunately the water was just above freezing.

Below is the sky that was visible at the moment the ship hit the iceberg. Skies were completely clear with no wind.

View of the sky from the position of the RMS Titanic at 11:40 pm local time 14 April 1912. No trees of course. Just ocean, in all directions. Notice the North Star and Big Dipper. The Milky Way was clearly visible in the Northeast.

Cold stars in a cold sea.