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Connecticut 1807: Famous Meteorite Strike!

The Russian meteorite strike this week brings back memories of the first documented meteorite strike in North America — right here in Connecticut!

 

Before entertainer-politician Sonny Bono skied into a tree and died in 1998, he initiated changes in intellectual property rights law that have revolutionized the publishing business. Formerly hard-to-find, interesting publications such as the Memoirs of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences were difficult to access. Now, many of them have been reprinted or scanned online as public domain documents—i.e., they were published before 1923 and have no more copyright restrictions. While browsing online recently, I found an interesting account of the first-known, documented meteorite strike in North America. It occurred over 205 years ago on December 14, 1807, in Weston and raised quite a stir. Yale Professors Benjamin Silliman and James Kingsley collected eyewitness testimony and written accounts of the extraordinary phenomenon, obtained numerous samples of the meteorite, and Silliman subjected the specimens to chemical analysis. They published their findings in 1810 in the Memoirs of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences Vol. XV.

According to Silliman and Kingsley, the Weston Meteorite apparently entered the atmosphere about 6:30 a.m. near Rutland, VT, and within 30 seconds or so streaked south over western Massachusetts and western Connecticut until finally striking the ground in modern day Easton, which at the time was well within the boundaries of Weston—hence the name of the incident. The distance between Weston and Rutland is just over 200 miles. Assuming about a 30 second line of flight time, the velocity of the meteorite approached at about eight miles per second, close to 30,000 mph—that's about 15x faster than the fastest supersonic jet and very close to the estimated speed of the Russian meteorite which struck the earth on Feb. 15.

In the context of the time, most people still doubted that rocks could fall from extra-terrestrial sources. German physicist, Ernst Chladni (1756-1827) had published a book 13 years prior to the Weston incident (1794) in which he put forth the then controversial idea that meteorites originated in outer space. Subsequent meteorite strikes in Yorkshire, England (1795) and in Normandy (1803), both of which were well documented and witnessed by many, lent support to Chladni's thesis. The Weston Meteorite, very well documented and analyzed by Silliman and Kingsley, continued this trend. So skeptical of the extra-terrestrial origin of meteorites were people at the time, that President Thomas Jefferson is reported to have said of Silliman's and Kingsley's article, "It's easier to believe that two Yankee professors would lie than the stones would fall from heaven." Though some now regard Jefferson's alleged comment as apocryphal, nevertheless, its attribution well reflects the skepticism of the time regarding the extra-terrestrial origin of meteorites.

Silliman and Kingsley note that when the meteorite passed through or by clouds, "it flashed with a vivid light, yet not so intense as the lightning in a thunderstorm but rather like what's called heat lightning." Seen by someone riding a horse in Colchester — some 50 miles east of the impact site — the meteorite seemed to be "about one half as large as the moon." Closely following its appearance were three loud and distinct explosions, likened to a report made by the firing of a 4 lb. cannonball. The explosions, according to Silliman and Kingsley

…succeeded each other with as much rapidity as was consistent with distinctness, and altogether did not last three seconds. Then followed a rapid succession of reports less loud, and running into each other, so as to produce a continued rumbling, like that of someone rolling a cannonball over a floor, sometimes louder, and at other times fainter: some compared it to the noise of a waggon (sic), running rapidly down a long and stony hill; or, to a volley of musketry, protracted into what is called, in military language, a running fire.

 

The "explosions" were undoubtedly sonic booms followed by the disintegration of the meteorite by collision with ground objects or from the heat of re-entry, or both. Silliman and Kingsley detail the retrieval of six large specimens by various residents in the Weston/Trumbull area. The authors describe the specimens as having a "dark ash" or "leaden colour" with a "granular and coarse " texture. The scientists go on to note the similarity of the specimens: "The specimens obtained from the different places are perfectly similar. The most superficial observer would instantly pronounce them portions of a common mass."

One resident, a Mr. Elijah Seeley, found a large fragment in a field near his cattle. In fact, Seeley noted that some of his cattle "had leaped into the adjoining enclosure, and all exhibited strong indications of terror." After finding a "strange looking stone," Seeley summoned his wife to examine the violent effects on their pasture.

Here were exhibited the most striking proofs of violent collision. A ridge of micaceous schistus lying nearly even with the ground…was shivered to pieces...by the impulse of the stone…and forced itself into the earth to the depth of three feet, tearing a hole of five feet in length and four and a half feet in breadth, and throwing large masses of turf and fragments of stone and earth to the distance of 50 and 100 feet.

The Yale scientists note that the largest of the found specimens was about 36 lbs. The vast majority of specimens were "less than half a pound and from that to a fraction of an ounce." Silliman and Kingsley speculate that the total weight of the meteorite before disintegration "could not have fallen much short of 200 lbs." Furthermore, after subjecting the specimens to extensive chemical analysis, Silliman draws a conclusion regarding the high iron content of the meteorite: "No such iron is found in iron mines and there can now be little doubt that these masses of native iron are really of meteoric origin." The professors gathered as many specimens as possible. These and others later acquired became the core of the meteorite collection that is still on exhibit at the Peabody Museum in New Haven. (Click here to read more about that collection and the Weston Meteorite)

Hungering for your own "pet" meteorite? There are many sites on the internet to satisfy your needs. Start with Ebay. There are dozens of meteorites for sale there at any given time. Peter Marmet maintains another popular site. Marmet's collection of meteorites includes a 6.3 gram sample of the Weston meteorite. You can see his collection here. Marmet also has meteorites for sale but beware: The value of a historically significant meteorite can approach $100 per gram. There are 28.3 grams to an ounce, placing the value of an ounce of the Weston Meteorite at more than $2,800! That's more than twice the going rate for gold!

Extra-terrestrial strikes vary in size and importance. Many people believe that a huge, cataclysmic strike brought an end to the dinosaur era, changing the course of Earth's history in a huge way. The Weston Meteorite, appearing in Connecticut 205 just over years ago was a rock of great historical importance. Its fall to earth was not a cataclysmic event, but it was the first documented meteorite strike in North America. Its appearance helped nudge humanity forward in our understanding that planet Earth is a constant target for rocks from who-knows-where in the universe's shooting gallery.

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