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)