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)


  1. Wikipedia lacks an article on Steplng. Perhaps you could start one?

  2. There is actually a German Wikipedia article on Stepling as well as a Czechoslovakian article:
    You can get a rough translation using Google Translate. I also found a few web pages on his life. Stepling was an astromomer, mathematician and a physicist, wrote several other books - not on meteorites - so I am afraid I will have to leave the initiation of an English Wikipedia article to a scholar in one of those disciplines. But thanks for the vote of confidence! Mark