The Ensisheim Fall
Five weeks after Christopher Columbus stepped foot onto the "New World", on the morning of November 7th, 1492, a large explosion happened over upper Rhineland, France and a meteorite fell from the sky into the fields of Ensisheim. The only witness, a young boy, led a group of the city council to the hole two meters deep were the stone laid at the bottom. With great excitement the city council took the stone out from its bed and numerous pieces removed for good luck charms. Fortunately, the town magistrate stopped the stone from being broken down to nothing. He ordered it be taken into town and put in local church.
On November 26th, 1492, Maximilian, Emperor of Austria, stopped at Ensisheim. One of his advisors declared the stone a symbol of divine grace towards him and his kingdom and a sign of God's wrath against the Turks. With this "omen", he convinced the King to declare war against the French. Alliances and territorial disputes already had the King of France and Maximilian on opposite sides of the fence. The advisors persuasion was all it took. After removing a few pieces himself, the King then ordered it preserved in the church as evidence of a miracle. It was chained from vault of the choir, where many people came to examine it. Nobody could explain or identify the stone. Since it came from the sky, it must be something super-natural. Divine enlightment or not, Maximilian and his army took to the battlefield. When the King of France signed the Treaty of Senis, the following spring, Maximilian had enlarged his empire by three provinces, and his daughter was engaged to the King of France. The stone remained in the church for close to three hundred years and up until the French Revolution, when it was taken from the church by French revolutionaries and placed in a museum nearby Colmar where pieces were first removed for analysis. In 1803, ten years later, it was returned. Currently rounded from sampling with just small specks of fusion crust still attached. It is at its final destination, the town hall of Ensisheim in a place of honor. Protected by a group of guardians, it is sure to survive another 500 years.
The Ensisheim fall was not the first meteorite to be recorded in our history books, but it is the best known of the early falls. (Both Elbogen and Nogata are older and in still in collections). Recorded history tells us of many others, while many of these cannot be proved now; there is likely some truth in most if not all of them.
Until the time of the Renaissance, no one doubted that stones fell from the sky. Then came the Age of Enlightment. It was noted that scientific knowledge of the day was filled with superstition and beliefs that were unfounded. No scientific mind had ever witnessed a meteorite fall. Like dragons and fairies they were things the uneducated thought. How could a stone fall from the sky? Scholars had nothing to go by to reason that meteorites did exist. After all, heaven was perfect, and was not heaven above them? If stones fell from heaven it could hardly be perfect. Most scientists believed in Isaac Newton's view that no small object could exist in the interplanetary space. This view left no room for meteorites. It would take the world close to two hundred years to believe their existence and numerous falls in Europe backed by undeniable evidence.
The Siena Fall
June 19, 1794 around 7 p.m., a dark cloud approached Siena, Tuscany, Italy from the north. More than two hundred meteorites were found from a shower near the city and once again many eyewitnesses were collected. The fall created a lot of debate among scientist. It was hard to write off all these accounts as ignorance. Perhaps stones did fall from the sky. Two well-known Italian scholars published accounts of the fall and it created a change in scientific discussion. It was no longer wondered do the stones fall, but where do they come from. Some thought they were condensations from clouds. It was understood that oceans evaporated into clouds that would condensate and form rainwater. Maybe dirt or debris was carried along with the water and after conversation, fell as meteorites. Mount Vesuvius erupted and spayed the skies with ash shortly before the fall at Siena. Perhaps ash from volcanoes gets carried through the air and condensates into meteorites.
One man had a different theory. Ernest Freidrich Chladno, a German scientist, came to the conclusion that meteorites were celestial bodies from space. Chladno studied reports of fireballs and meteorites from the last several centuries and noted several key similarities. Fireballs were reported at traveling at great speeds, they got bigger and brighter as they came closer to the ground, and they exploded right before stones were dropped from the sky. These points were expressed in a short book with a long name he wrote entitled, On the Origin of the Mass of Iron Discovered by Pallas and Others Similar to It, and Some Natural Phenomena Related to Them. Chladno noted that the trajectories of "fire-balls" showed they were under the affect of gravity. He agreed that earlier observations that these must have a firmer texture than gas and that they must be some dense, heavy material. Since any known earthly force, such as wind or storms, could not raise these stones they must therefore come from outside of the earth. In his book he summarized that fireballs and meteorites were directly related and that meteorites were the left over product of the fireball. This book marked the beginning of science of meteorites, meteoritics.
Chladno was well respected at this time because of his pioneer work on sound waves, so while several read his book, his logic found very few ears. The French Academy of Science had recognized meteorites at this time but they decided they were just "thunderstones", rocks that were struck by lightning. The last few years had continued to bring reports of new meteorites, but when examined. All the stones appeared to be of rocks similar to earth rock, many of them did seem to contain a high amount of iron and were therefore identified as pyritical stones. All the meteorites showed that only their outsides were charred. It these "thunderstones" showed them anything, it was that lightning was somehow drawn to pyritical stones.
The Wold Cottage Fall
On December 13, 1795 a thunderstorm raged over Wold Newton, a small village about 10 miles from Scarborough in Yorkshire, England. The claps of thunder and flashes of lightning hid a meteor until it arrived. Several people heard a hissing noise passing through the air and noises "like pistols, or distant guns at sea". This object landed in Edward Topham's field, the local magistrate. The meteorite landed about 10 yards from a farmhand and burrowed through 1 foot of top soil, creating a pit over 3 feet across, before embedding itself into the chalk bedrock the area is known for. While digging out this pit it threw dirt in the air and some of this dirt struck one of Topham's farmhand. The farmhand found the stone warm and smelling of sulphur. After Topham heard about the fall and looked at the 25 kg stone mass that it left, he recorded the following statement: "All these witnesses that saw it fall agree perfectly in their account of the manner of it's fall, and that they saw a dark body moving through the air, and ultimately strike the ground: and though from their situations and characters in life, they could have no possible object in detailing a false account of this transaction. I felt so desirous of giving this matter every degree of authenticity that as a magistrate, I took their account on oath immediately on my return into the country. I saw no reason to doubt any of their evidence after the most minute investigation of it." It was noted that the nearest volcano, Hekla, was in Iceland.
As fate would have it, days after the World Cottage fall, another meteorite to earth. This one fell in Benares, India on December 19, 1975. This time, a shower of stones fell and was witnessed by many people, including a few educated Europeans. Witnesses reported a ball of fire that lasted only an instant followed by an explosion like thunder. The stones showed black crust and looked nothing like the country rocks. Inside the meteorites were spherical globules and tiny particles of iron, mixed throughout. It was noted, that none of India's volcanoes were active at the time.
After the Wold Cottage meteorite fell it was put on display in London, and the usual objections were made. But not by all. The president of the Royal Society of London, Sir Joespeh Banks became curious. This meteorite was very similar to a sample from the Siena fall he had. After acquiring a sample of the Benares fall, Banks had the two meteorites examined by Edward Howard, a young and open-minded British chemist. In the meteorites Howard noticed grains of nickel-iron, similar in composition to the iron meteorites that Chladno described in his book. He found they were different in certain chrematistics, such as proportions of the spherical globules and iron they contained. But it was their similarities that amazed him. He concluded, "These stones, although they have not the smallest analogy with any of the mineral substances already known, either of a volcanic or any other nature, have a very peculiar and striking analogy with earth other." While he did not accept Chladno's theory of extra-terrestrial origin, he published his results and did convince a number of scientists. Even presented with this evidence, many members of the French Academy of Science continued to deny the obvious facts. Their mockery would soon be answered.
The L'Aigle Fall
On April 26, 1803 over 3000 meteorites fell in the populated L'Aigle in Normandy, France. Eyewitnesses were certain that other then a few ordinary clouds, the sky was completely clear. Jean-Baptiste Biot, a respected French scientist, investigated this fall. Biot did a fantastic job at gathering eyewitness statements and mapped the location of 100's of meteorites. This mapping resulted in the first recognition of the distribution ellipse of fallen meteorites. He presented with his findings the following passionate statement: "The meteor did not burst at L'Aigle, but at the distance of half a league from it. I saw the awful traces of this phenomenon: I traversed all the places where it has been hard; I collected and compared the accounts of the inhabitants; at last I found some of the stones themselves on the spot, and they exhibited to me the physical characters which admit of no doubt of the reality of their fall...In this account I have confined myself to a simple relation of facts...and I shall consider myself happy of...I have succeeded in placing beyond a doubt the most astonishing phenomenon ever observed by man." The French Academy of Science was forced to recognize and acknowledge that stones did indeed fall from outer space.
The Weston Fall
Word of this finding was not widespread. On December 14, 1807, in Wentham, Mass., Mrs. Gardner was doing her daily weather observation. As she watched through her window, a bright globe of light race through the sky. Her first thought, "Where was the moon going to?"
A few seconds later, William Page in Rutland, Vermont, saw the moving the moving moon only now it was a "vivid red" and watched as it disappeared behind the Green Mountains to the south.
Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, Nathan Wheeler, was on an early-morning walk near his home in Weston, Connecticut, when he noticed the fireball moving from the northern horizon. The fireball disappeared in a cloud and left a train of sparks and smokes for 30 seconds. A minute later, Wheeler heard three loud explosions followed by a rumble that made him think of a "cannon ball rolling across the floor."
The rumble was felt across the city, William Prince and his family in Weston was awakened from their sleep and blamed the cause on lightning. Prince later discovered the lightning had made a fresh hole in his yard. After hearing reports of stones falling in other parts of town he investigated the hole and found a 35-pound fragment, which he broke up and gave away as souvenir pieces.
North of the Prince homestead, Merwin Burr was on the road in front of his house when a meteorite fell and struck a piece of granite in his yard.
Yale University investigated the fall. Professors Benjamin Silliman and James Kingsley collected 330 pounds of meteorites and many witness statements. This was the New World's first witnessed fall of a meteorite, with subsequent recovery of specimens, after the arrival of the European settlers. Silliman's description of the fall and his chemical analysis of the stone meteorite, the first performed in this country, received much attention in the national and international press.
The President at this time was Thomas Jefferson, a scientific minded person. It is rumored that when he first heard of this fall, he said, "I would more easily believe that two Yankee professors would lie that that stones would fall from heaven." In another version of the story, Jefferson was having dinner with a senator and examining a specimen from the fall. His feelings were expressed in one short sentence. "It is all a lie." Neither of these statements has been proved to be true. Jefferson was interested in the fall and ordered a careful investigation by Nathaniel Bowdith of Salem. His findings supported those of the Yale Professors.
It is often said that Biot's work on the L'Aigle strewn field brought about the recognition of meteorites. But it should be noted that because of the chemical analyses of the men before him, many people had already started to believe. The pioneering efforts of these men combined created an interest in the collecting and study of meteorites. Major museums and institutions around the world begin to build collections. The middle of the 19th century brought advances in chemistry, understanding of mineralogy and the invention of the petrographic microscope. Now more then 200 years after the acceptance of cosmic stones, the science of meteoritics, is a highly diverse and growing field. Developments continue to make news anf have added to other sciences, such as cosmochemistry, nuclear science and planetology to name a few. In this process we have recognized common and uncommon minerals in certain meteorites and now have a complex classification system that is ever changing.
Copyright 2004, Mark Bostick, www.MeteoriteTimes.com, www.MeteoriteArticles.com.