Historic Meteorite Falls

Last update: 15 April 2017

The Gallery of Historic Meteorite Falls displays a selection of aesthetic and rare meteorite specimens from falls observed within the 1492-1969 period. All specimens displayed in the gallery have an exceptional historical provenance, as they come from the principal investigators in the recovery of these meteorites in the early days after their fall or from dealers and curators who played an important role in their preservation. The period considered spans from the Middle Ages with the fall of the Ensisheim meteorite in 1492 to the dawn of the space age and modern meteoritics with the fall of the Allende meteorite in 1969. Collection catalogues, as well as manuscripts and letters about meteorite trading, complete this gallery.

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first meteorite auction 2007 Bonhams, Historic Meteorites and Related Americana, Holbrook peas from AMNH

1. National Aeronautics and Space Administration
And associated institutional laboratories in the USA
Formed in 1958

Allende stone deaccessioned from the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and found or purchased by the NMNH 1969 recovery team (45 grams).

See also: Vigarano CV type meteorite

The 1969 Allende game-changer, from Mexico collecting trips to NASA experiments

On 8 Feb. 1969, a brillant fireball was observed over much of northern Mexico and in some neighboring U.S. states. Thousands of stones rained down over a large area of rural Mexico after tremendous detonations were heard. One stone weighing 15 kg fell in the town of Pueblito de Allende. The same day, it was broken up and pieces taken to the office of the newspaper El Correo del Parral. In the evening, the news of a meteorite fall was published. Dr. Elbert A. King from NASA was the first U.S. researcher on the scene (see his personal account in King, 1989) [1]. Scientists from the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) followed within the week after the fall, leading to the recovery of very fresh meteoritic material [2] (Clarke et al., 1970). With the tremendous amount of material collected (and a perfect timing), specimens were used to benchmark NASA's state-of-the-art equipment, which had been distributed all across the country in preparation of the return of lunar samples with the Apollo 11 mission. The Smithsonian also shared its Allende stones with other institutions for further laboratory experiments. Others, such as the Center for Meteorite Studies (CMS) of the Arizona State University (ASU) [3], obtained Allende stones via dealers or directly on the field (by the end of the 20th century, ASU became a node of the NASA Astrobiology Institute). Important findings followed about the formation of the early solar system, overshadowing the lunar rocks themselves!

Figures: [1] Allende slice (E.A. King) | [2] Allende stone (NMNH) | [3] Allende stones (CMS)

NASA negative opinion, Oscar Monnig, Elbert King, meteorite trade, lunar space program, taxes, company

2. The Meteoritical Society
Previously The Society for Research on Meteorites
Founded in 1933

Prof. LaPaz with the Norton County Furnas stone, pictured in the UNM student newspaper Lobo (1948); a source of great tension with H.H. Nininger (see Marvin, 1993).

Scientists collecting meteorites: from personal collections to institutional ones

The Society for Research on Meteorites was founded at the Field Museum, Chicago, in 1933. The inspiration originated with Frederick C. Leonard (1896-1960) [1] and the idea was supported by Harvey H. Nininger, making them the Founding Fathers of the Society. The Society published, with Leonard as Editor, the Contributions of the Society for Research on Meteorites [2]. Lincoln LaPaz (1897-1985), who founded in 1944 The Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico (UNM) [3], contributed significantly to the Society. In 1946, the name of the Society was changed to The Meteoritical Society. Tensions between LaPaz and Nininger culminated with the 1948 fall of the largest ever achondrite stone, the Norton County meteorite [3], as both claims rights to the stone. LaPaz outbid Nininger and the Furnas stone driven to the UNM [left] (caption reads: "Home at last: Dr. Lincoln LaPaz, sparkplug of the UNM searching party, looks on with affection as the now-famous meteorite arrives safely on the UNM campus."). Leonard gave a detailed account of the Norton County meteorite at the Society without mentioning Nininger. When Nininger asked UNM for specimens, LaPaz sent him a form for loan, which contained a clause that forbade dealers to apply. As indicated in the Society's historical notice by Marvin (1993), "LaPaz evidently felt deeply that meteoritics should be raised from the realm of dealers, hobbyists, and amateur collectors and established as an academic discipline [...] Not only did he deplore Nininger's selling of meteorites at his museum, he was scandalized when Nininger brought specimens to Society meetings and offered them for sale". With Leonard on LaPaz's side, Nininger resigned from the Society in 1949, which almost destroyed it. It would however be revitalized by a new generation of meteoriticists (replacing the "Old Meteoritics" described in this gallery). Officers and councillors of the Society included other renowned meteorite collectors, e.g., Oscar E. Monnig [2] and John D. Buddhue [4].

Figures: [1] Holbrook peas (F.C. Leonard / UCLA) | [2] Journal & letter (O.E. Monnig) | [3] Norton Co. fragments & documents (L. LaPaz / UNM, see half-stone) | [4] Signed offprint (J.D. Buddhue)

LaPaz Krinov friendship, Iron Curtain, postcard, envelopes, meteoritics, meteorite

3. The Committee on Meteorites
Soviet Academy of Sciences (SAS)
Established in 1939

Complete sheet of commemorative postage stamps for the 10th anniversary of the Sikhote-Alin meteorite shower, showing the much-celebrated painting by P. I. Medvedev.

Investigations of bombardments from outer space by the Soviet Academy of Sciences

The Committee on Meteorites of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (SAS) was set up in 1939 on the initiative of V. I. Vernadsky. He became the first chairman, followed by V.G. Fesenkov in 1945-1972 and then by E.L. Krinov in 1972-TBD. The scientific secretary at the time of the Committee's foundation was L.A. Kulik, followed by Krinov in 1942-1970. The Committee possessed the largest collection of meteorites in the Soviet Union, the major part being exhibited in the Mineralogical Museum of the SAS (Krinov, 1974). Two major celestial events occurred in the first half of the 20th century in the USSR, the 1908 Tunguska airburst [1], the largest impact event in recorded history, and the 1947 Sikhote-Alin iron shower [2-5]: On 30 Jun. 1908, a giant blast occurred over the Tunguska River basin, in a remote part of Central Siberia, leveling trees over a large area. If a similar event occurred over New York City, millions of people would perish (Mignan et al., 2011). In 1927, Kulik led the first research expedition to the site, following local witnesses [1]. He circled the region where the trees had been felled but no meteorite was ever found. On 12 Feb. 1947, inhabitants of the Khabarovsk and Primorsky districts of Russia witnessed a dazzingly bright bolide, accompagnied by a multi-coloured tail which lasted for hours [2]. After the bolide disappeared behind the hills in the western outskirts of Sikhote-Alin, loud bangs were heard. The strewnfield was located in the following days by a reconnaissance plane, from which a series of round craters was noticed. The craters were reached on February 24 by local geologists. The first expedition by the SAS, delayed by heavy snowfalls, took place two months after the fall. Other expeditions followed in the following years leading to more meteorite recoveries (Krinov, 1966; Fesenkov & Krinov, 1959-1963 [3]). Specimens include regmaglypted individuals [4] and shrapnels [5].

Figures: [1] Tunguska stamp | [2] Sikhote-Alin stamp | [3] Fesenkov & Krinov, 1959-63 (presentation copy: D.P. Cruikshank) | [4] Regmaglypted S-A individual (SAS) | [5] S-A shrapnel (SAS)

(1) Merrill, G. P. (1916), Handbook and descriptive catalogue of the meteorite collections in the United States National Museum; (2a) Letter from Merrill to George Letchworth English, 1920, exchange of Cumberland Falls meteorite specimens for other meteorites, preposterous price

4. American Museum of Natural History (AMNH)
New York City
1907-1937 period

Photograph of the Forest City meteorite on display in the Foyer Collection of the AMNH. A cropped version of this photograph was published in Hovey (1907).

See also: The Willamette meteorite at the AMNH

Meteorite curation & display at the AMNH in the early 20th century

In 1900 the Bement collection was purchased and presented to the AMNH by J.P. Morgan (1837-1913), which immediately catapulted the Museum into the forefront of meteorite collections (with almost 600 specimens, many originally purchased from Ward). This stimulated the curators in building a world-class meteorite collection. The next major acquisitions were the ones of the great irons Cape York and Willamette in the early 1900s. Edmond Otis Hovey (1862-1924), first Assistant Curator (1894-1900), then Associate Curator (1901-1909) and finally Curator (1910-1924) described the largest specimens part of the collection, displayed in the Foyer on 77th Street (Hovey, 1907), including the great irons and e.g. a 165 kg specimen from the 1890 Forest City fall [1]. In 1912, many other significant specimens were obtained, including c. 2,000 pieces of the Holbrook [2] fall. Chester A. Reeds (1882-1968) was hired the same year as Assistant Curator, initially to sort out the labels ans specimens of the Bailey collection (incl. almost 300 specimens, acquired through the generosity of J.P. Morgan, Jr (1867-1943)). He became Acting Curator (1916-1917), then Associate Curator (1917-1927) and Curator (1927-1938). Hovey and Reeds added a large number of specimens during their tenures, described in the catalogue by Reeds (1937) [2]. By that time, the AMNH collection remained one of the largest in the world. The Reeds catalogue contained 3744 specimens, corresponding to 548 individual falls and finds. Reeds was assisted by Adam Bruckner, who started a card system in 1914. Joseph Tyson (assistant 1918-1925) and George Pinkley (assistant 1928-1932) re-weighed all the smaller specimens in grammes [2]. On 1 Oct. 1935 the new Hayden Planetarium opened [3], and the entire collection was transferred to the new Astronomy Department and Planetarium, under Curator Clyde Fisher (1878-1949) [4]. Before that, the specimens of the "study collection", kept in drawers, moved from the 77th Street AMNH main entrance to the 4th floor Mineralogy Hall after 1902, to the adjacent Geology Hall in 1906 (main source: Ebel, 2006).

Figures: [1] Forest City photograph (AMNH, 1923) | [2] Holbrook oriented stone (AMNH) | [3] Hayden Planetarium card (signed by C. Hayden) | [4] Letter (C. Fisher - A.M. MacMahon, 1930)

Holbrook strewnfield reconstitution Foote, art

5. Ward's Natural Science Establishment
Rochester, New York
Turn of the 20th century

Sketch of the Ward's Natural Science Establishment and its employees running outside to chase a meteorite, pictured in the rare 1892 Ward Collection catalogue.

Summary coming later

Figures: [1] Ward, 1892 with letter (E. Cohen) | [2] Pultusk & Forest City stones, with catalogues (Ward-Coonley / FNHM) | [3] Pultusk stone (F. Krantz / G.L. English / WNSE / Monnig-TCU)

de Mauroy meteorite collection, Catalogue de la Collection de Météorites de l'Observatoire du Vatican, Specola Astronomica Vaticana, Ausson (or Montréjeau) meteorite, meteorite trading, labels, antique glass vial

6. Main European museum collections (excl. Vienna)
Berlin, London & Paris
Late 19th to early 20th century

Fragment of the Ochansk meteorite originally sold by dealer C.F. Pech of Berlin to curator C. Klein for the meteorite collection of the Humboldt University.

See also: HUB's Krasnojarsk fragment

Summary coming later

Figures: [1] Rose, 1864 (G. Tschermak? / H. Winbeck) | [2] Ochansk fragment & catalogues (Pech / HUB-Klein) | [3] Khanpur endcut (H. Minson / BM)

Mocs meteorite stone deaccessioned from the Mineralogical Museum of the Babeş-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania, accompanied by a modern UBB label, Coasta, near Mociu, Gyulatelke (former name of Coasta), UBB catalogue of Koch (1882), Bedelean et al. (1979), strewn field map

7. Hectic meteorite collecting in Italy
Lombardy region, Italy

Alfianello cut fragment deaccessioned from the Babeş-Bolyai university, Cluj-Napoca, and originally obtained from L. Bombicci of the University of Bologna (57 grams).

The Brescia sisters Trenzano & Alfianello, their cursed paths seen by Luigi Bombicci

On the afternoon of 16 February 1883, a strong detonation was heard in the province of Brescia in Italy. This was due to the fall of a meteorite near Alfianello. The priest of the village, D. Rabajoli, gives the following account of that fall [1]: The detonation lasted a second and was followed by a noise of wheeling wagons on rails; it made the windows shake and frightened the villagers. We learn from the priest that the Alfianello meteorite had the shape of a truncated cone, convex like a cauldron at the bottom. The "divine palm print" claimed to have been perceived by the priest (read more in [1]) suggests the presence of regmaglypts. The oriented beauty then met an unfortunate end at the hands of a man who, "for unfair fate, came by with an iron pole, and together with other villagers, dug and pulled the stone breaking it." It was then taken away in various parts by the curious and uninitiated as indicated by the priest. Luigi Bombicci (1833-1903), renowned Professor of Mineralogy at the University of Bologna, also came to the site and took some samples (The Stevens Point Journal, 1883) [2]. While we do not know how Bombicci reacted to the destruction of the Alfianello meteorite, we learn from Agostini and Fioretti (2013) that he had another misfortune with the Trenzano meteorite, which had fallen on 12 November 1856 only a few kilometres away from the future Alfianello fall. In this case, the drama was of political nature at a time when the region was passing from Austrian rule (Kingdom of Lombardy–Venetia) to a Pietmontese control. Despite this change, the management team of the Bologna university (or university of Brescia, TBD) apparently pushed Bombicci to sell a large piece of the Trenzano meteorite to an Austrian dealer already known of them, which angered the professor who found it unpatriotic and damaging to the Italian collection [3]. Noteworthy also are the fates of the Renazzo and Vigarano meteorites [4-5], the types CR and CV of carbonaceous meteorites, of which little remains.

Figures: [1] Alfianello correspondence (D. Rabajoli - G. Gallia, 1883) | [2] Alfianello cut fragment (L. Bombicci / UBB, see label) | [3] Trenzano slice (IGMI) | [4] Renazzo correspondence (R. Bianchi - E.A. King, 1982) | [5] Vigarano slice (Uni. Roma)

Knyahinya meteorite, ex. Masaryk University, Haidinger chromolithographs, meteorite falls, Hraschina

8. Naturhistorisches Museum Wien
Vienna, Austria
First half to mid-19th century

The first ever stand-alone meteorite collection catalogue by Partsch (1843).

See also: The Tricottet Collection at the NHMW | Haidinger's Rokitzan meteorwrong

The first institutional meteorite collection in the world

Soon after the foundation of the Imperial Natural History Cabinet in 1748, the Viennese curators began to collect meteorites. Owing to the efforts of von Schreibers and his successors, the NHMW collection became the largest and most extensive in the course of the 19th century (Brandstaetter, 2006). The first meteorites to enter the collection were from Hraschina and Tabor, transferred from the Imerial and Royal Treasury to the Natural History Cabinet by "mine inspector" Ignaz von Born in 1778. During Abbot Andreas Xavier Stuetz directorship, the number of meteorites increased to 7. After Stuetz's death in 1806, Carl von Schreibers (1775-1852) was appointed director; he became an avid collector of meteorites and proposed to have them in a separate display room. Paul Maria Partsch (1791-1856) worked as a voluntary clerk at the Imperial Natural History and became curator in 1835. Chladni came to Vienna in 1819 to study the collection and to finish his treatise (Chladni, 1819) in which von Schreibers published as appendix a catalogue of 36 meteorites for the Vienna collection [1]. Later on, Partsch published the first ever stand-alone meteorite collection catalogue, which included 94 localities with 258 specimens (Partsch, 1843) [2]. The practice of Partsch and the next curators to actively encourage collectors and dealers to propose exchanges was the major reason why the Vienna meteorite collection became the largest and most extensive in the course of the 19th century (Burke, 1986). After a fire which destroyed von Schreibers' library and notes, he retired and devastated, died in 1851. Partsch became director and Moriz Hörnes, head of the cabinet. During his tenure, the collection grew quickly, in part thanks to Whilhem Haidinger who became joint custodian. Together they published in several meteorite listings in the 1860s. Haidinger retired in 1866 and Hörnes died in 1868, replaced by Gustav Tschermak (1836-1927). In 1878 Tschermak resigned to become head of a new Institute at the University of Vienna. During his 8-year tenure, he added 55 localities to the collection, bringing the total to 299 [3].

Figures: [1] von Schreibers' catalogue in Chladni, 1819 | [2] Partsch, 1843 | [3] Manuscripts & catalogues (G. Tschermak / H. Winbeck)

Weston meteorite, Shepard, Yale, Amherst collection

9. Meteoritics incunable
Mid-18th century to turn of 19th century

The first book in English on meteorites by Edward King, published in 1796, from the library of Lord Brownlow (John Cust, 1st Earl Brownlow, 1779-1853) of Belton House.

The founding of the new science of Meteoritics

The Jesuit Domenico Troili (1722-1792), custodian of the library of the ruling family of Este in Modena, is credited as having written the first description of the fall of a meteorite. He collected reports from many individuals about the fall of a stone in Albareto in 1766 [1]. However Troili could not himself imagine that the stone fell from the sky, much less from space, and concluded that a "subterranean explosion [had] hurled the stone skyward" (e.g., Marvin, 2001). Noteworthy, Troili lamented that the stone had been hacked to pieces by the spectators who carried fragments away (Marvin & Cosmo, 2002 - see the similar fate of the Alfianello meteorite). Interest in Troili's work died out and Erns Florenz Friedrich Chladni (1756-1827) was unaware of it when he wrote his seminal book, published in 1794 [2]. Chladni, now considered the Father of Meteoritics, was the first to propose an extraterrestrial origin. Chladni argued that debris from planetary collisions enter the atmosphere at cosmic velocities, form fireballs and some land on Earth as meteorites (hence contradicting Newton's view of an empty interplanetary space). His work, first criticised, was rapidly vindicated by the fortuitous occurrence of several witnessed and publicized meteorite falls, such as 1794 Siena (Soldani, 1794) [3], 1795 Wold Cottage (King, 1796) [4], and finally 1803 L'Aigle with a shower of nearly 3000 stones (Biot, 1803) [5].

Figures: [1] Troili, 1766 | [2] Chladni, 1794; 1974 | [3] Soldani, 1794 (Hermitage of Camaldoli / R.M. Lawley) | [4] King, 1796 (Lord Brownlow / H. Faul) | [5] Biot, 1803; 2003

WANTED: Chladni's 1794 monograph | Biot's 1803 report on the L'Aigle meteorite

Ensisheim meteorite, fragment Woelher, J. L. Smith, Harvard, label and painted inventory number