Saturday, November 5, 2011

Scientific American Archives 1845-1909 available until November 30, 2011

Scientific American has just opened its archives for the years 1845 to 1909 until the end of November.  Details can be found at

The archives is very useful for the meteorite historian - articles and letters relating to meteorites, meteors, aerolites, etc., can be downloaded for free until November 30.

To use the resource efficiently, click on the link "Advanced Search" in the upper right-hand corner of the web page, which will bring you to the following search page: American.

Enter your search word at the top, for example the word "meteorites", and then scroll down to the bottom of the page, and select sort by "Date - Oldest".  I pulled up 810 hits for this search, and if the articles are between 1845 and 1909, you can just click on the title and download the article for free.

The first item on my retrieval list was entitled "Meteorites - Their Origins", which was published on page 94 of the December 9, 1848 issue of Scientific American and discusses Charles Upham Shepard's views on meteoritic origins.

I haven't done much searching on the archives yet, but I am sure it will turn up some really nice items for those interested in the history of meteorites.  Happy searching!


Friday, October 28, 2011

Weston Revisted: Scholarly Reviews of "A professor, a president and a meteor"

Back in January 2011, I posted a review of Cathryn Prince's book, A professor, a president and a meteor. Up until recently, there have been few, if any, scholarly reviews of the work. The situation has changed with the publication, or upcoming publication, of three new reviews.

Ursula B. Marvin, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has written a detailed nine page review with references which is well worth the read.  It appears in the current issue of Meteoritics & Planetary Science 46, Nr 10, 1608-1616 (2011). For those who are not members of the Meteoritical Society and who do not receive the journal, the article can be previewed and purchased at I found Marvin's discussion of Nathaniel Bowditch's study on the Weston meteor and his relationship with President Jefferson to be particularly insightful in responding to Prince's comment that Jefferson asked Bowditch to "dispute Silliman's work on the Weston Fall."  As Marvin points out, Prince's comment is found on page 234 of the index to book, but the theme runs through the text.

Kristine C. Harper, Florida State University, has written a short two page book review, which offers some  some interesting comments disputing Prince's references to the work of Johannes Kepler. The review appears in the journal History: Reviews of New Books, 39:4, 112-113 (2011). The article can be previewed and purchased at

And lastly, I was honored to be invited to submit a shortened version of my Meteorite Manuscripts book review to Ambix, the scholarly journal of Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry, which should appear in the November issue.  More information on Ambix can be obtained at

As I mentioned in my first review, contrary to Prince, Silliman was not the first American scientist to have his work published in the French journal Annales de Chimie.  Robert Hare, his associate, had his paper on the oxygen-hydrogen blowpipe published in the journal five years before the Weston meteorite fall, and he received an international reputation as a result of his work. In her review, Marvin does not emphasize the importance of this point, initially stating that Silliman's report "was the first scientific paper in America (since Benjamin Franklin’s time) to win the admiration of the learned societies of Europe", but a few paragraphs later describing Hare as "a chemist who had gained international fame in 1801 as the inventor of the oxyhydrogen blowpipe."

In my opinion, all three reviews reach a consensus that Prince has overstated Silliman's contributions in the field of meteoritics.  An earlier biographer of Silliman, Chandros Michael Brown, had no such misconceptions about Silliman's accomplishments, stating at the beginning of his work, “but the bald truth is that Silliman’s contributions to science, as such, were negligible.” Although Prince used Brown's work as a reference, this fundamental perspective on the scientists life was completely ignored (see C. M. Brown, Benjamin Silliman. A Life in the Young Republic. Princeton, 1989, xiv). 

Prince is a well-intentioned author who is on firmer ground when discussing Silliman's real, long-lasting accomplishments. Silliman established the American Journal of Science and a school of chemistry at Yale, and he was an educator and promoter of science in the young American nation.

In the end, there is indeed a very real difference between capturing the imagination of the public and making fundamental scientific discoveries.  

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Royal Society Opens Archives of Publications

The Royal Society has announced that it is providing free access to all its journals 70 years or older.  This is of special interest to all historians conducting research on meteorites, since all of the material in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, first published in 1665, is available. Refer to the press release at for more information and for a link to begin a search of the journals.

Another source of historical information available from the Royal Society is its history of science journal, Notes & Records of the Royal Society. Content is normally restricted for one year, but after that period, the articles are freely accessible.

I was fortunate enough to have an article dealing with the Mooresfort meteorite published in December 2010. Since it was the 7th most-downloaded article for the year, it is freely accessible even though a year has not passed.

If you have not obtained a free copy, go to and scroll down to the link which reads "William Higgins at the Dublin Society, 1810–20: the loss of a professorship and a claim to the atomic theory", by Mark I. Grossman. Click on the link and you can download a pdf copy without charge.

Another article of mine entitled "Smithson Tennant: meteorites and the final trip to France" can be downloaded for free at

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Early Use of Radium in the U.S. - George Barker's 1903 Columbia Lecture

Chemist and physicist George Frederick Barker (1835-1910) was instrumental in introducing radium to the US, and gave an important lecture entitled  “Radio-Activity in Chemistry” at Columbia University on March 19, 1903 [Columbia School of Mines Quarterly, 24, 267-302 (1903)]. For more information on Barker's life, see Edgar Fahs Smith National Academy of Sciences memoir (NAS Biographical Memoirs, 62).  You can download a copy by going to the NAS Biographical Memoirs webpage and searching the online collection for Barker. Figures 1 and 2 display the front and back on an old cabinet photo of Barker that is in my collection.  Click on each photo to enlarge; click again to enlarge further.

Figure 1.  G. F. Barker.  Copyright © Mark I. Grossman
Figure 2.  Back of Barker Photo. Copyright © Mark I. Grossman

In his talk, Barker showed three vials of radium salts, as well as a radiograph of a mouse, all of which he obtained from W. J. Hammer (1859-1934), author of the 1903 book, Radium and other radioactive substances.  Two radiographs of a mouse (one on a plate and the other caught in a trap) are shown in Hammer’s book (pages 38-39), but only one was used by Barker in his Columbia lecture (p. 290). Hammer worked for Thomas Edison, was an early experimenter with radium having obtained samples from Pierre and Marie Curie in 1902, and developed the infamous radium paint used on watch dials.  

Figure 3 displays a letter in my collection that was written by Barker to Hammer on March 15, 1903 in preparation for his Columbia lecture just a few days away, and is on University of PA Morgan Laboratory of Physics letterhead.  It reads in part:

“Dr. Chandler has asked me to repeat my talk before the Chem. Soc. of Columbia Univ. on Thursday evening (the 19th)… I would like to borrow for that evening your polonium metal & the three most active radium tubes.  Also, can you spare me the slide of the mouse (without the trap)?

Barker to Hammer, 3/15/1903. Copyright © Mark I. Grossman

Never mind the radiation concerns.  Seems like Barker did not want to disturb his audience with pictures of any dead mice caught in traps!

I am particularly fond of this letter because it not only mentions the radiographs that can be viewed in Hammer's book and Barker's lecture, it references Columbia chemist Charles Frederick Chandler (1836-1925) and the behind-the-scenes preparation for Barker's talk.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Radio Interview with Cathryn Prince

Although I disagree with Cathryn Prince about Benjamin Silliman's place in the history of American science, you may be interested listening to a radio interview with the author that aired the other day on Connecticut Public Broadcasting.  You can access the segment at:


Friday, February 25, 2011

Correspondence of the Sydney Mining Museum - Part V - Meteorites

Another well-known correspondent of the Sydney Mining Museum was Friedrich Berwerth (1850-1918), who became head of the Mineralogical-Petrographical Department of the Natural History Museum in Vienna in 1895, and then curator of the Vienna meteorite collection in 1896 when Aristides Brezina (1848-1909) retired from the position in 1896.  A short biography with photo and signature of Berwerth can be found on the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien website and in Brandstätter.

When George Card, curator of the Sydney Mining Museum, read about the fall of the Crumlin meteorite in the October 9, 1902 issue of Nature, he sent a communication to the journal which appeared in the February 12, 1903 issue (Figure 1 - click on image to enlarge, click again to enlarge further).  The note, entitled " A New South Wales Meteorite", reported on the fall of the 25-pound Mt. Browne meteorite on July 17, 1902.

 Figure 1:  Card's Feb. 1903 Mt. Browne Communication in Nature

The communication in Nature caught Berwerth's attention, because he wrote a letter to Card soon after it appeared (see Figures 2 and 3 - click to enlarge, click again to enlarge further).

Figure 2.  Copyright © Mark I. Grossman

Figure 3.  Copyright © Mark I. Grossman

 A rough translation of the German letter reads as follows:

Vienna, 29 March 1903

To Mr. G. W. Card

Dear Sir,

I read your notice about the Mount Browne meteorite that fell on 9 October 1902.  I am very interested in the stone.  Since you will break the stone in order to examine it I am taking the freedom to ask you to give me a sample for our large Viennese meteorite collection.  It is important in this place to receive meteorite material to study it.  I ask you kindly to leave me a sample to discover the value in case of a purchase.  I am sending you the new meteorite catalogue and some of my work about meteorites.

Hoping to hear from you, I am sincerely yours,
Prof. Friedrich Berwerth

Berwerth appears to have mixed up the date of the notice with the fall of the meteorite, which as noted occurred on July 17, 1902.  It is interesting to note the letterhead - Berwerth was definitely conducting official business.  Compare this letter with that of Brezina's in an earlier Meteorite Manuscripts post (Correspondence of the Sydney Mining Museum - Part IV).  Brezina's communication had no letterhead, and he was pursuing samples for his own collection after he retired.

Card published a subsequent communication in September 1903 and indicated that when the meteorite fell, it set a nearby hut on fire, although it did not hit the residence.  In addition, a photograph of the meteorite was included (Figures 4 and 5 - click to enlarge, click again to enlarge further).  A chemical analysis of the meteorite was conducted by H. P. White of the Geological Survey in 1904.

Figure 4:  Card's Sept. 1903 Description of Mt. Browne Fall

 Figure 5:  Main mass of Mt. Browne Meteorite 

Berwerth's letter and the desire to obtain a sample of the Mount Browne meteorite for the famous Vienna collection underscores the importance of the Sydney Mining Museum holdings.   

F. Brandstätter, ‘History of the meteorite collection of the Natural History Museum of Vienna’, in The history of meteoritics and key meteorite collections:  fireballs, falls and finds (Geological Society of London Special Publication no. 256), (ed. G. J. H. McCall, A. J. Bowden and R. J. Howarth), pp. 123-133 at 129-130 (Geological Society London, 2006).

G. W. Card, 'A New South Wales Meteorite', Nature 67 (Feb. 12, 1903), 345

G. W. Card, 'Mineralogical Notes, No. 8', Records of the Geological Survey of New South Wales, 7, pt.3 (Sept.1903), 218, Plate 42.

H. P. White, 'Notes and analysis of the Mt. Browne Meteorite', Records of the Geological Survey of New South Wales, 7, pt.4 (Sept.1904), 312-314.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Book Review - Weston Meteorite - A Professor, a President, and a Meteor

A Professor, a President and a Meteor:  The Birth of American Science
Cathryn J. Prince, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2011

Cathryn J. Prince has just written a new book on the Weston meteorite, a stone that fell from the sky in Connecticut in 1807, and one that holds a special place in the hearts of those who study and love the history of meteoritics.  It was the first time fragments from a witnessed meteorite fall were recovered and analyzed by a scientist, Benjamin Silliman (1799-1864), in the new American republic. 

Don’t misinterpret my comments that follow — I admire Benjamin Silliman — just look at the very first Meteorite Manuscripts post — but I was disappointed with the presentation of Silliman as being the new father of meteoritics. Prince lavishes such unfounded praise on his accomplishments, that even in the afterlife, Silliman’s face must be red with embarrassment.  I could cite many examples, but the following will suffice:

“Everything scientists know today about meteorites — the different types, the various minerals, trace elements, and isotopes contained within — began in Silliman’s laboratory.”

Just how groundbreaking was the work that took place in Silliman’s lab?

Different types of meteorites:  Although he may have mentioned or referred to cursory examinations of specimens from one or two other falls in his lifetime, Silliman only published one detailed chemical study of meteorites, and those were from the Weston fall.  The paper was read before the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia in 1808, published in 1809 and then republished with revisions in 1810.  Other scientists, such as Edward Howard (1774-1816), published comparative studies, analyzing meteorites that fell in various parts of the world, or published several chemical studies of meteorites over the years.  Yet no detailed analyses of different types of meteorites ever emerged from Silliman’s laboratory.  His meteoritic fame rests on Weston alone.
Minerals:  As noted in 1806 by André Laugier (1770-1832), “ever since the English chemist Mr. Howard, called the attention of philosophers and naturalists towards the stones called meteoric, all chemists who have repeated the experiments laid down in his interesting memoir, have obtained similar results.”  Silliman did not disappoint in this regard, as he reported the usual silex, iron, magnesia, sulphur and nickel.  His study resulted in no new findings, and all Silliman did was confirm the work of others.  

Trace Elements:  When Laugier reported finding chrome in a study of five different meteorites in 1806, and suggested that all meteorites might have chrome, Silliman responded with addenda to his 1809 and 1810 reports with an analysis showing that Weston didn’t follow suit.   One year later, Warden found the analyte in a Weston sample, and Mason and Wiik confirmed the presence of chromium in 1966.  Silliman never discovered any new elements in meteorites, unlike Proust (1754-1826), Laugier, Klaproth (1743-1817), Vauquelin (1763-1829) and Stromeyer (1776-1835).
Isotopes:  John Dalton (1766-1844) hadn’t even published his atomic theory until 1808, the year after the Weston fall, and the very nature of atoms — never mind isotopes — was under fire.

Meteoritic Origins:  In his 1809 paper, Silliman stated that meteorites might come from comets circling the Earth, a theory proposed by Thomas Clap (1703-1767) and published after his death in 1781. However, Silliman admitted in his 1809 report that even this theory had its problems, so he finally concluded with statements that meteorites were not of this earth and they have a common source which is unknown — conclusions reached by Edward Howard in 1802.  

While others debated extraterrestrial, lunar and atmospheric sources, it was primarily Silliman who kept the terrestrial comet theory alive in his lectures during the 1830s and 1840s, until in the words of Burke, “the terrestrial comet hypothesis passed into oblivion” as a result of John Lawrence Smith’s (1818-1883) research on the size of the Weston fireball. 

I thought Prince presented a muddled picture of Silliman’s terrestrial comet theory versus Chladni’s extraterrestrial belief.  She does note that Clap was wrong about comets orbiting the Earth, but did not emphasize that Silliman adopted an erroneous theory, and there is no mention of Smith’s work that undermined Silliman’s belief.  It was not Silliman who was the groundbreaker regarding meteoritic origins but Ernst Chladni (1756-1827).

Silliman’s Weston study owes a great debt to the chemical work of Edward Howard and other analysts, such as Vauquelin, Fourcroy (1755-1809) and Klaproth, as well as to scientist Jean Baptiste Biot (1774-1862), who interviewed scores of eyewitnesses to the 1803 L’Aigle meteorite shower and documented their reports.  None of these scientists who guided the work of Silliman are mentioned by Prince.    

Regarding the birth of American science, that honor belongs not to Silliman, but to Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), who was held in such high esteem as a scientist abroad, that he was awarded the British Royal Society’s greatest scientific honor — the Copley medal — in 1753 for his work on electricity.  And as Ambassador to France during the 1770s and 1780s, Franklin literally sat at the table with the father of modern chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) — he was a frequent guest at the Lavoisier salon.

Nor was Silliman’s the first to have his work published in the French journal Annales de Chimie.  Robert Hare (1781-1858), his associate, had his paper on the oxygen-hydrogen blowpipe published not only in Annales de Chimie in 1802, but the British Philosophical Magazine as well — five years before the Weston meteorite fall  — and he achieved an international reputation. Silliman held Hare in high regard, and published several papers on the use of Hare’s blowpipe.  Hare received the first Rumford Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston in 1839, one of the oldest scientific awards established in the Unites States — an honor that was not bestowed on Silliman.  

I wish Prince had presented a more balanced examination of the relationship between James Woodhouse (1770-1809) and Benjamin Silliman.  Woodhouse performed his own analysis of the Weston meteorite, published in 1808, with Silliman’s published version following in 1809.  According to Greene and Burke, both Woodhouse’s and Silliman’s analyses were inaccurate due to the limitations on the analytical techniques available at the time, for example, both men reported very high silex results.

Woodhouse beat out Adam Seybert (1773-1825) for a professorship of chemistry resulting in bad feelings between the two, but Prince does not mention the soured relationship between the men when she refers to  Seybert's denigrating words about Woodhouse’s ability to analyze a meteorite.  Nor does she mention that Seybert attacked Woodhouse’s 1808 publication dealing with the Perkiomen zinc mine, something which had nothing to do with meteoritics, and which is treated is some detail by Smith.  However, the author does state that Silliman thought Woodhouse was “overbearing and stodgy”, and he “had not the gift of a lucid mind, nor of high reasoning powers, nor a fluent diction.”  Silliman also objected that Woodhouse didn’t mention God or religion in his lectures.
 “No doubt a certain degree of vanity was involved,” states Prince, “but a greater sense of purpose drove Silliman — his idea that shared knowledge would elevate the nation.”  Vanity apparently overshadowed sharing when it came to Woodhouse.  For although Woodhouse acknowledged the work of Silliman and Kingsley in his paper, the favor was not returned by the two men in their 1809 and 1810 reports, even though a comparison of the two sets of results would have been useful scientifically.  Woodhouse died in 1809, and became, more or less, a footnote to the history of the Weston meteorite.

Silliman was a man who published more than 60 scienfitic papers on topics such as mineralogy, geology and chemistry.  As Prince points out, he started a school of chemistry at Yale, and one of his students was the noted chemist Charles Upham Shepard (1804-1886), who made such important contributions to meteoritics.  The American Journal of Science was also founded by Silliman in 1818.  

When discussing these accomplishments, Prince is on firmer ground.  But regarding the Weston meteorite, the author  makes no clear distinction between Silliman’s accomplishments in capturing the imagination of the public versus the quality of his scientific work on the fragments, which was professional but certainly not exceptional.  In fact, the key deficiency of the book is its failure to acknowledge the truly groundbreaking work of others who preceded – and guided – Silliman in his meteoritic endeavors.  Prince is selective in the research that she quotes to cast Silliman as a trailblazing scientist who rides into town to restore law and order to everything that preceded him in the world of meteoritics, and to provide guidance and inspiration to eveyone that followed him.  In this respect, in reads more like a "Western" than about "Weston".
If you want a brief but informative account of Silliman’s and Woodhouse’s work on the Weston meteorite, I highly recommend that you  obtain a copy of Greene’s and Burke’s work, “The science of minerals in the age of Jefferson”.  For some reason, Burke did not include the Weston information in Cosmic Debris, and only mentions the publication in a footnote.  I was able to buy a used copy for $10, and it should be accessible at many libraries. 



J. G. Burke, Cosmic debris, meteorites in history, pp. 23-24, 56-58, 65-66 (Berkeley:  University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986).  

J. C. Greene and J. G. Burke, ‘The science of minerals in the age of Jefferson’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 68, no.4, 24-26, 96-98.

A. Laugier, ‘Abtract of a memoir on a new principle in meteoric stones’, A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, and the Arts 105, 147-149 (1806).

U. B. Marvin, ‘Meteorites in history: an overview from the Renaissance to the 20th century’, in The history of meteoritics and key meteorite collections:  fireballs, falls and finds (Geological Society of London Special Publication no. 256), (ed. G. J. H. McCall, A. J. Bowden and R. J. Howarth), pp. 51-52 (Geological Society London, 2006)

B. Mason and H. B. Wiik, ‘The composition of the Forest City, Tennasilm, Weston and Geidam meteorites’, American Museum Novitates 2220, 10-14 (1965).

A. F. Noonan and and J. A. Melen, ‘A petrographic and mineral chemical study of the Weston, Connecticut chondrite’, Meteoritics 11, 111-130 (1976), at p. 124.

O. R. Norton, Rocks from space, meteorites and meteorite hunters, 2nd ed., pp. 35-41, 419-420 (Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1998).

D. W. Sears, ‘Sketches in the history of meteoritics 1:  the birth of the science’, Meteoritics 10, 215-225 (1975).

D. W. Sears, ‘Sketches in the history of meteoritics 2:  the early chemical and mineralogical work’, Meteoritics 12, 27-46 (1977).

E. F. Smith, James Woodhouse: a pioneer in chemistry, 1770-1809, pp. 65-66, 242-255, 272-275 (Philadelphia:  John C. Winston Company, 1918).

D. B. Warden, ‘Description and analysis of the meteoric stone which fell at Weston, in North America, the 4th December 1807’, Philosophical Magazine 36, 32-34 (1810)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Joseph Stepling and the Tabor meteorite – final thoughts

I finally received my copy of  Stepling’s De pluiva lapidea from the University of Olomouc Library the other day.  It only took a couple of days from start to finish — very efficient operation and cost was only about $38.  

If you would like to purchase a copy, go the Olomouc Library webpage for the book, then click on the British flag in the upper right corner to proceed in English and you’re on your way.  You will get an estimate emailed to you in a day or so, and then you can use Google Translate to help you translate any Czech words to English that you need to finish your order and download the book.  The file is an approximately 120 MB, fully searchable, and in addition, one can cut and paste the type into Google Translate to come up with a rough translation of the Latin, if that is not one of the languages you can read.

There are actually two books in one.  The first deals with the fall of the Tabor meteorite and possible causes which takes up the first 33 pages, and the remainder of the 79 pages addresses meteorological observations.  Chapter I runs from page 3 to 6 and covers the history of the Tabor fall.  The remaining five chapters of the first book deal with various possibilities for the stones falling from the sky, such as having been swept up by a storm, or formed in the atmosphere.  

From his book and early references (see previous blog post), it is clear that Stepling believed that the stones were the result of volcanic action.   For example, the final Chapter VI is entitled “Lapides Strkomenjes videntur ructu quodam terrae, & vomitione in auras ejecti, inde rursum decidisse”, that is, the Strkow stones appear to have been cast into the air from the belching and vomiting of the earth, only to fall back down to the surface of the earth.  Stepling uses the term “violenta terrae vomitione” to describe volcanic eruptions.  He discounts lightning, because he notes that no one observed a lightning strike to the earth. Thus his basic conclusions are those of Domenico Troili (1722-1792) who wrote a book on the Albareto fall and its volcanic origin 12 years after Stepling.  See Marvin, pages 22-26 and Burke, pages 14, 16 and 35.

But were Stepling’s volcanic beliefs wavering when he wrote his letter on April 15, 1755 to James Short — almost two years after the fall?  His letter says nothing about the origin of the stones. 

Here the Journal Book of the Royal Society provides important insight, because it shows that another Stepling letter to James Short dated January 30, 1756  was read at the beginning of the February 26, 1756 Royal Society meeting, before the meteorite letter was communicated at the closing.  See the two images of the pages below (click once to enlarge and again to enlarge further). My thanks to Nichola Court and The Royal Society Centre for History of Science for their kind permission to allow quotations and display of copyrighted JBRS images on the Meteorite Manuscripts blog.

©Royal Society Centre for History of Science (JBO/23/289)

©Royal Society Centre for History of Science (JBO/23/290)

The January letter discusses the sudden overflow of the main spring that supplied the hot baths at Toplitz, about nine mile from Prague, in November 1755, and mentions that the spring subsequently provided a greater quantity of hotter water.  Stepling implies that this may be associated with an earthquake in Portugal. So his strong belief in the power of the earth’s internal activity to affect springs lends support to his continued belief that volcanic activity is the origin of meteoritic activity.   

When Stepling wrote his April 15, 1755 letter on the 1753 Tabor fall, he raised the possibility that information about the meteorite may have already reached England, and he may have just considered it to be old news, not worthy of much additional comment.   So there is nothing to support the belief that Stepling had changed his views on the volcanic origin of the Tabor meteorites in the years between 1753 and 1756. 

Although the summary of the translation of the April 1755 letter in the JBRS left out place names that were included in the original letter and translation, the fact that the JBRS contains information about Stepling’s thoughts on volcanic activity and hot springs allows us to read between the lines of his letter on meteorites, and conclude that he still believed in a volcanic origin.

There is one final question to ponder.  If Stepling had similar ideas to Troili, why is the latter’s work more known?  As described by Marvin, pages 22-26, Troili became involved in a controversy with Giusepe Fogliani about whether the origin of meteorites was due to volcanic activity, or as Fogliani believed, electricity from lightening, a view that was expressed at a time when Benjamin Franklin’s findings on electricity were becoming popularized.  Troili even wrote a response to Fogliani a year after his book.  A little controversy never hurt anyone to establish their place in history.  Unfortunately for Stepling, his book was published and his report was read without controversy, and he essentially became a footnote in the history of meteoritics.

However, it was neither Troili nor Stepling who first came up with the idea of meteorites being ejected from volcanoes.  According to Burke, page 16, Nicolas Frérét proposed that idea in 1717.



J. G. Burke, Cosmic debris, meteorites in history (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986).  

U. B. Marvin, ‘Meteorites in history: an overview from the Renaissance to the 20th century’, in The history of meteoritics and key meteorite collections:  fireballs, falls and finds (Geological Society of London Special Publication no. 256), (ed. G. J. H. McCall, A. J. Bowden and R. J. Howarth), pp. 15-71 (Geological Society London, 2006)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Handwritten Letter by Joseph Stepling Describing Tabor Fall Discovered

As noted in the last post, a letter written in Latin by Joseph Stepling describing the Tabor meteorite fall was found at the Royal Society Centre for the History of Science along with an English translation prepared by a Dr. Parsons.  It was the translation that was read to the Royal Society on February 26, 1756 and which was summarized in the Journal Book of the Royal Society.  The summary was subsequently quoted by Burke in his book Cosmic Debris.

Two pages of Stepling's letter and the corresponding translated pages are displayed below.  Click on each image once to enlarge, and again to enlarge further.  Note Stepling's signature on the bottom of page 2 of the letter written in Latin.  My thanks to Nichola Court and The Royal Society Centre for History of Science for their kind permission to allow the following quotations and display of the copyrighted images of the letters on the Meteorite Manuscripts blog.

Stepling's letter beginning description of Tabor meteorite fall. 
©Royal Society Centre for History of Science (L&P/III/117/2)

End of Stepling's letter.  Note signature in bottom center. 
©Royal Society Centre for History of Science (L&P/III/117/3)

Parsons's translation of Stepling's letter beginning with Tabor fall. 
©Royal Society Centre for History of Science (L&P/III/117c/2)

 End of Parsons's translation of Stepling's letter. 
©Royal Society Centre for History of Science (L&P/III/117c/3)

Stepling wrote his letter to James Short, F. R. S. on April 15, 1755 and Dr. Parsons's translation reads as follows:

I begin my correspondence with last winter, which was a very hard one... 

Stepling than talks about taking temperature readings with a thermometer and comparing the cold weather to that of Paris in 1709.  When he gets around to talking about the meteorite, Stepling continues:

The other phenomenon I am to inform you of is a shower of stones, but know not whether an account of it had reached England.  It happened on the third day of July 1753 when about 8 o’clock in the evening, the air being calm, and scarce any clouds appearing, there happened three great claps of thunder; which a continual lightening, that held longer than usual, terminated; this being over a shower of stones of a blackish colour on the outer surface, and ash colour within, fell from the air with great force.  One of the Shepards seeing four stones fall from the air, ran to them, for he was not above thirty paces from them, and took up one of them and kept it.  This, as I understood, happened beyond [Piscinam?] at the village of Strkow about a bohemian mile from Taborium.  
Besides this, another countryman in the village of Plan in the jurisdiction of Strkow, called to mind that he saw, in the fields, stones fall from the air, at about 50 paces from him; that he fixed his eyes upon two of them, which he observed raised the dust, and shook the ground by the fall, and that he found one of them pretty hot when he handled it.  This was the account I had from the illustrious de Wratislaw — governor of the Territory of Prague of the Supreme Council &….

He then finishes up his letter stating:

I had also an inclination to make observations upon the eclipses of the satellites [of Jupiter], whereby the longitude of our city might be better understood, but it was not in my power to observe either these or the late lunar eclipse because of the constant extreme cloudy weather we had here. 

It's fascinating how the meteorite fall is described is such a "matter-of-fact" manner by Stepling, sandwiched in between references to the weather and a lunar eclipse!  And it was written at a time when the very idea of stones falling from the sky was generally discredited. 

We'll try and sort some of this out in the next post.


Monday, January 10, 2011

The Journal Book of the Royal Society and the Tabor Meteorite Fall

In my quest for more information on the Tabor meteorite fall, I mentioned in an earlier post that I was unfamiliar with the reference quoted for Tabor in Burke’s Cosmic Debris, that is: Journal Book of the Royal Society of London (1754-1757), XXII, 290-300.  I knew about the Philosophical Transactions, the journal of the Royal Society, but not the JBRS.

So I made a virtual trip over to London, and contacted my colleague Nichola Court, Archivist, Royal Society Centre for the History of Science in London, for some advice.  Nichola told me that the JBRS volumes are the manuscript minutes of the Society meetings that date all the way back to the very first meeting of the Royal Society on November 28, 1660.  Perhaps “account” is a better term than “minutes”, because the manuscripts give an overall picture of what transpired at the Society meetings and in what order the events took place, which allows one to place them in context.  Letters and reports were read, gifts and donations were made, and summaries were entered in the JBRS.  In some cases, the reports or letters might have been subsequently published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which was first issued in 1665, but they may have further condensed or altered.  So the JBRS and associated documentation provide the best picture for the historian as to what actually transpired at a Society meeting.

The first thing that was discovered was that Burke’s citation of volume and page range are a bit off.  The correct citation is JBRS (1754-1757), XXIII, 288-299, and the entire account of Stepling’s Tabor report is given on pages 298 and 299.  Images of the JBRS are displayed below (click once to enlarge and again to enlarge further) — this is the source material used by Burke for Cosmic Debris.  My thanks to Nichola Court and The Royal Society Centre for History of Science for their kind permission to allow the following quotations and display of copyrighted JBRS images on the Meteorite Manuscripts blog.

©Royal Society Centre for History of Science (JBO/23/298)

©Royal Society Centre for History of Science (JBO/23/299)

The above account of the February 26, 1756 meeting shows that Stepling's report was read at the end of the session, for it is described on the last two pages of the minutes, pages 298-299.  The letter was written by Stepling in Latin on 15th April 1755 and sent to Mr. James Short, F.R.S.  It  was subsequently translated by Dr. Parsons, and it was the translated letter that was summarized in the minutes of February 26, 1756.  [The JBRS contains some transcription errors, because it mistakenly lists the date of the letter as April 15th, 1753 and the fall as July 3, 1755].  Stepling’s translated letter first describes the cold winter and then continues:

Father Stepling further informs Mr. Short that on the 3rd of July 1755 [sic 1753] about eight in the evening, the air being still and but few clouds appearing there were three violent claps of thunder, the noise of which continued longer than usual, which being over, there fell from the air with great force, a shower of stones blackish without, and ash coloured within.  A Shepard seeing four stones coming from above at about 30 paces from him, ran and took up one of them, which he kept.  And another Shepard remembered to have seen the like at about 50 paces distance from him, he fixed his eyes upon two of them, which he observed raised the dust and shook the ground by its fall, and he found one of them pretty hot when he handled it.

This account Father Stepling had from Count Wratislaw, Governor of the Territory of Prague, &.

The meeting then concluded:

Thanks were ordered for this communication.

This information was fascinating to begin with, but then Nichola provided me with even more exciting news – The Royal Society Centre for the History of Science had Stepling’s original handwritten letter in Latin and Dr. Parsons's English translation in its Archives.  This provided a unique opportunity to see how the JBRS handled the original communications, which were never published in the Philosophical Transactions.

The chance to see Stepling’s account of the Tabor fall — in his own handwriting — is certainly worth waiting for.

So, we'll wait until the next post to keep the suspense running high!


Sunday, January 9, 2011

In the interim - older references on Stepling volume

As noted in the previous post, the Berlin State Library no longer has the Stepling volume, so the description of it containing 79 pages cannot be viewed as certain.  In the interim, until the electronic version of Stepling's work is received from the University of Olomouc (I hope!), Mike Bandli provided the following early references to Stepling's volume.  It will be interesting to compare the original to the older references.  

H. Brown, Bibliography on Meteorites (University of Chicago Press, 1953), 6.  Mention is made that Stepling's book is 33 pages.  Bibliography not available for view on Google Books.   

Ward-Coonley Collection of Meteorites (Chicago, 1900), p. 75 mentions that Stepling's work is 33 pages and that Tabor is covered on pp. 3-6.

Prof. Maskelyne and Dr. Lang's Mineralogical Notes, Philosophical Magazine 25 (1863), p. 451.

Časopis Českého museum, 9 (1835),197-198. 

J. Mayer, Beytrag zur Geschichte der meteorischen Steine in Böhmen (1805), 5-10.

So what do Mike's references tell us?  Only a few pages of Stepling's work deal with the Tabor 1753 fall, and the remainder of the book apparently deals with earlier falls, for example in 1723 and 1743.  It appears that Stepling compared a Tabor sample to a sample of a 1723 specimen he had saved.  

And last but not least, Stepling's volume is extremely rare!

All should become clearer if the University of Olomouc Library comes through.

And then of course, there is the Royal Society.


New Hope to Obtain Stepling Volume

After I posted the notice that the Berlin State Library had lost the Stepling volume during World War II, Martin Altmann did quite a bit of detective work and located another copy in Czechoslovakia, just as Robert van Gent has guessed.  Martin went through the sites of the Bavarian National Library, University of Regensburg,  Austrian National Library, Charles Univeristy in Praha, British Library, and when he decided to check some additional Czech universities, the first one he investigated, the University at Olomouc, had the volume.  As noted in the previous post,the Karlsruher Virtueller Katalog KVK search engine covers most of the European libraries and universities, but only the Czech National Library is included.

Martin made some suggestions as to people to contact to obtain a copy, but I took a closer look at the Stepling entry in the Vědecká knihovna v Olomouci: HLAVNÍ KATALOG (The Library Catalogue entry), and it looks like the book can be purchased as a pdf download.  After taking a few minutes to translate the form via Google Translate, I think I ordered a copy!  Should be about $20 I guess due to the exchange rates.  The Library is going to send me an estimate, and then I should be able to download the book if my calculations are correct.  I'll let everyone know how it turns out.

So thanks to Martin Altmann for locating the volume when it looked like all was lost!

The story continues...


Joseph Stepling and the Tabor Meteorite - The Berlin State Library

Well it looks like it's back to square one in trying to find Stepling's book.  A closer look at the Berlin State Library catalogue shows the Stepling volume entered under the title De Pluvia Lapidea Anni 1753 ad Strkow et ejus causis Meditatio and states "Kriegsverlust" and "keine Benutzung möglich", which according to Google Translate means "war loss" and "not possible to use". 

So Robert van Gent's hunch about the availability of the book was correct.  Now it's up to our Czechoslovakian readers to see if they can locate the volume in a library within the country.  If anyone gets lucky, please advise, and I'll post to the list.

More to come...


Saturday, January 8, 2011

Father Joseph Stepling and the Tabor Meteorite Fall

Recently there were some posts on the metlist about the lack of contemporary documentation on the Tabor meteorite fall.  Martin Altmann noted that astronomer Joseph Stepling (1716-1778) described the 1753 event in the following publication issued in 1754:

De pluvia lapidea anni MDCCLIII ad Strkov pagum uno milliari Taborio Bohemiae urbe dissitum, et ejus causis meditatio, Pragae 1754

Martin translated the title as:  On the stone rain of the year 1753 at the village Strkov, situated one mile away from the Bohemian town Tabor, and thoughts about its causes.

I posted a message to the list that J. G. Burke referenced the Journal Book of the Royal Society of London (1754-1757), XXII, 290-300 for the Tabor fall.  On page 35 of his book Cosmic Debris (University of California Press, 1986), Burke mentions that Father Joseph Stepling’s report was read before the Royal Society on February 26, 1756 and was accepted without discussion.  Ursula Marvin repeats Burke’s reference in ‘Meteorites in history’, in The history of meteoritics and key meteorite collections: fireballs, falls and finds (eds. G. J. H. McCall, A. J. Bowden and R. J. Howarth), p. 31 (Geological Society, London, 2006).

Two questions arose.  First, where could a copy of Stepling’s 1754 book be obtained, and second, what was the Journal Book of the Royal Society?  I was familiar with the Society’s Philosophical Transactions, but not with the JBRS.

Regarding the location of the book, I made some inquiries, and Robert van Gent, a Dutch historian of astronomy, responded that a search of the Karlsruher Virtueller Katalog KVK site indicated that the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin reportedly had a copy.  I repeated the search, and indeed the Berlin State Library has a listing for the 79 page book.  However, Robert van Gent noted that the Library may have suffered losses during World War II, and it is possible that the book is no longer present despite being listed, but there may be some copies in Czechoslovakian libraries that were not picked up by the KVK search. 

If anyone has easy access to the Berlin State Library and can take a quick look to see if Stepling’s book is present, I am sure I can speak for all of the blog readers, as well as myself, that any information would be most appreciated. Let me know, and I will be happy to post any news about the volume.

Now, about the second item — the quite intriguing Journal Book of the Royal Society — this required a visit to the Royal Society in London, virtually speaking, and what I found out was fascinating, to say the least. You see…..

But wait… I better save this for the next post!


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Correspondence of the Sydney Mining Museum - Part IV - Meteorites

Aristides Brezina (1848-1909) was one of the most famous curators of the Vienna meteorite collection, a position which he obtained in 1878 on the retirement of Gustav Tschermak (1836-1927).  He considerably expanded the meteorite collection through his connections with other scientists such as Sir Lazarus Fletcher (1854-1921). A short biography of Brezina can be viewed on The Naturhistoriches Museum Wien website.

A 1905 letter from Brezina to George W. Card, which was found in the correspondence of the Sydney Mining Museum, shows that a trading relationship between the two men had been established.  It is interesting to note that Brezina had retired from the Vienna Museum in 1896, so in 1905 he was continuing to trade with Card as a private collector.  This is evident because there is no letterhead on his note to Card.  In his letter, Brezina is interested in exchanging samples for specimens of the Barraba and Bendock meteorites.     The letter is transcribed as follows:

Inf: Bingera
& Barraba regarded
as identical.  The
latter not cut.  
16-11-05                                                                               Vienna 11/10/05

Curator Mining and Geological
Museum Sydney

Dear Sir

I should be glad to exchange again with the museum; Barraba hexahedrite and Bendock mesosiderite are not yet represented in my collection, perhaps other meteorites have been found since 1902 and would be welcomed in exchange against other meteorites not represented in your collection. 

Yours most faithfully,

Dr. Aristides Brezina

Images of the letter are listed below.  Click on the image once to enlarge, and again to enlarge futher.

Copyright © Mark I. Grossman

Copyright © Mark I. Grossman

A handwritten note on the upper left hand corner of the letter is especially informative.  It states that the Bingera and Barraba meteorites were considered identical by Card, and the Barraba sample was not cut for Brezina.

Preliminary note on the Bingera meteorite, New South Wales, was read before the Royal Society of New South Wales on December 8, 1880 and was included in A. Liversidge, The Minerals of New South Wales (London: 1888), pp. 218-220.  The meteorite was found by some gold miners in the Bingera region of Australia and weighed 241 grams, and is pictured in the image below (click once to enlarge, and again to enlarge further).   

According to J. Mingaye, Records of the Geological Survey of New South Wales, VII (1904), pp.308-310, a small fragment of the Barraba meteorite was presented to the Geological Survey by a Mr. H. Porter of Hillgrove, but as noted, George Card considered this meteorite identical to Bingera.  An illustration of the Barraba meteorite is displayed below (click once to enlarge, once more to enlarge further).


The Brezina letter is a further example of the notable scientists and collectors who corresponded with the Sydney Mining Museum.