Yale science professor Denison Olmsted used crowdsourcing to gather observations from across the United States of the unexpected deluge of meteors on 13 November 1833 – more than 72,000/h. He used these observations (and newspaper accounts and correspondence from scientists) to make a commendably accurate interpretation of the meteor storm, overturning 2100 years of erroneous teachings about shooting stars and establishing meteor science as a new branch of astronomy. Olmsted’s success was substantially based on his use of newspapers and their practice of news pooling to solicit observations from throughout the country by lay and expert observers professionally unaffiliated with Yale College and him. In today’s parlance, Olmsted was a remarkably successful early practitioner of scientific crowdsourcing, also known as citizen science. He may have been the first to use mass media for crowdsourcing in science. He pioneered many of the citizen-science crowdsourcing practices that are still in use today: an open call for citizen participation, a clearly defined task, a large geographical distribution for gathering data and a rapid response to opportunistic events. Olmsted’s achievement is not just that he used crowdsourcing in 1833 but that crowdsourcing helped him to advance science significantly.