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.


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