Historic Meteorite Falls

Last update: 8 October 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. The 1969 Allende meteorite game-changer
From Mexico to the United States of America

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

The start of a new era, from Mexico collecting trips to state-of-the-art 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 (1935-1998) of 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), The Smithsonian shared its specimens 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. 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! It should be noted that the NASA program was not positvely perceived by everyone. Oscar E. Monnig (1902-1999), who built one of the most important private meteorite collections of the 20th century, gives a bitter and critical opinion of the NASA space program in a letter to King, dated 1963 [4]. An interesting exchange followed in 1964 between the two men, involving also J. Eggleston, Assistant Chief at NASA [5] (see also the Monnig-King exchange of 1974).

Figures: [1] Allende slice (E.A. King) | [2] Allende stone (NMNH) | [3] Allende stones (CMS) | [4] Letter (O.E. Monnig - E.A. King, 1963) | [5] Correspondence (O.E. Monnig - E.A. King, 1964)

Sikhote-Alin meteorite, Soviet Academent of Sciences, Krinov and Fesenkov, Regmaglypts, shrapnel, collection label and fabric sticker

2. The Meteoritical Society
United Statss of America
Mid-20th century

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. It is worth noting that despite the high of Cold War, Meteoritics did not have frontiers as attested by the friendship between LaPaz and E.L. Krinov of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (SAS) [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] Postcard (E.L. Krinov - L. LaPaz, 1959)

3. 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). 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)

Holbrook strewnfield reconstitution Foote, art

4. 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) | [4] Correspondence (G.P. Merrill - G.L. English, 1920)

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

5. Hectic meteorite collecting in Italy
Lombardy region, Italy
Second half of the 19th century

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] (see also Bombicci's connection to politician G. Tacconi who participated to the Italian unification [2]).

Figures: [1] Alfianello correspondence (D. Rabajoli - G. Gallia, 1883) | [2] Alfianello cut fragment w. catalogue (L. Bombicci / UBB) | [3] Trenzano slice (IGMI)

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

6. Museum collections in European capitals
Vienna, Berlin, London, Paris & Roma
Mid-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: Berlin's Krasnojarsk fragment | Haidinger's Rokitzan meteorwrong sample

Early meteorite movements (trades, purchases, donations) at European museums

Paul M.J. Partsch (1791-1856), curator of the Vienna Imperial Natural History Cabinet and at first working under the direction of Carl von Schreibers (1775-1852), published the first ever stand-alone meteorite collection catalogue, which included 94 localities with 258 specimens (Partsch, 1843) [1]. The practice of von Schreibers, Partsch and the next curators (M. Hörnes, W. von Haidinger, Gustav Tschermak [2]) 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; Brandstaetter, 2006). Other museums followed this trend, such as the Berlin museum (see e.g., their earliest catalogue by G. Rose in 1864 [2] or the 1889-1906 C. Klein orange book series [3]). Museum specimens were obtained from dealers (e.g., Ochansk specimen obtained by HUB from C.F. Pech [3]), colonies (e.g., Khanpur specimen obtained by the British Museum from India [4]), etc...

Figures: [1] Partsch, 1843 | [2] Manuscripts & catalogues (G. Tschermak / H. Winbeck) | [3] Ochansk fragment & catalogues (Pech / Klein, HUB) | [4] Khanpur endcut (H. Minson / BM)

Weston meteorite, Shepard, Yale, Amherst collection

7. The most collectible meteorite books
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.

Before meteorite collections could exist, "meteorites" had first to be defined

Meteorites have long been considered curiosities of Nature. They were first collected as sacred stones from prehistory to antique times, and later included as odd rocks in the wunderkammers of European Renaissance (a sacred origin remained in the folklore long after, see e.g., the Alfianello meteorite "divine palm print"). However dedicated meteorite collections only appeared in the early 19th century. First, the field of Meteoritics had to be founded: 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). Interest in Troili's work died out and E.F.F. 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, arguing that debris from planetary collisions entered the atmosphere at cosmic velocities forming fireballs with some landing 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) [3-4], 1795 Wold Cottage (King, 1796) [4], and finally 1803 L'Aigle with a shower of nearly 3000 stones (Biot, 1803) [5]. Those books are the oldest, rarest and most historically significant references on meteorites (with some coming from historic libraries [3-4]), making them desiderata for the bibliophile. They all predate the first meteorite collections catalogues (Lucas and Haüy, 1813; von Schreibers, 1819; Chladni, 1825).

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