History of meteorological science


The oldest reliable noticed meteorite fall in Europe happened at november 7th 1492 in the vicinity of the village of Ensisheim in Elsass, at the same yearTafelberge when Columbus discovered the "New world". With a big noise, a 127 kgs heavy, wedge-shaped stony meteorite went down and bored itself into the ground. Many curious people streamed by and knocked off pieces from the wonderful stone to take them home as luckbringing talismans or strange souvenirs. The country constable, who rushed along, stopped the hustle and bustle of his subjects and had the meteorite brought into his castle. The happening aroused such a large public interest that only 15 days later emperor Maximilian 1st appeared in Ensisheim to hold court over the "Thunder stone of Ensisheim". Although the openminded emperor was fascinated by the meteorite, he made it hung up in the local parish church so that it could cause no further damage.

Most meteorites in the Middle Ages had the same fate as the "Thunder stone of Ensisheim". They were banned as devils work and if possible were put in chain on holy ground or in churches. Not earlier than end of 18th century meteorites aroused attention of the enlightened scholars. Unfortunately most of them shared the opinion of Sir Issac Newton, who had declared the interplanetary space to be free of matter, for not to disturb the course of planets and comets. So as explanation for the origin of meteorites, at that time only remained atmospheric phenomena or earthly origin of these strange stones and irons. The followers of the first doctrine had the idea that meteorites develop from "tough and coarse vapors of the lower air" and that they crystalize very similar as hail or snow. The representatives of the second thesis assumed volcano and similar phenomena as real origins - a view that, after a meteorite fall in Italy, which occured only few hours after an outbreak of the Vesuv, found numerous followers.

A change in thinking only started to develop, when German explorer Peter Simon Pallas who, on behalf of Czarina Katharina 1st explored southeastern Russia and Siberia, in the year 1772 got aware of an iron mass of about 700 kg in the vicinity of the city Krasnojarsk, about which the Tartares told, that it had fallen there from the sky. The iron was strange in many regards, for it possessed not only an external, black crust, but in it also uniformly Olivine-crystals (Peridotes) were imbedded- something, that until then had not been seen anywhere on earth. Pallas had, without knowing it, discovered a new meteorite class, a variant of the Stony-iron-meteorites, which after him became named Pallasites.

In 1794 this find encouraged the German scholar Friedrich Chladni in his writing "about the origin of finds by Pallas and other similar ironmasses, and about some natural phenomenom standing therewith in connection" to oppose the valid doctrine and to suppose a cosmic origin of the meteorites. A writing, that brought its author first of all only mockery and would have been probably forgotten soon, if not the chance - say the case of a meteorite fall- had not come to aid. So on december 13th 1795 in bright daylight and in clear sky, a meteorite fell in the English Wold Cottage- an event that at least silenced the representatives of the atmospheric origin theory of meteorites.

The meteorite of Wold Cottage was examined soon by the open and esteemed British chemist Edward Howard. Howard found in this stone similar iron-nickel-alloys, as before in the Pallas-iron and other iron meteorites - alloys that had been unknown in earthly stones and ores. The publication of his results in 1802 still was received with large scepticism, but Chladnis views this time found more and more encouragement also in conservative circles of science at that time. And as on april 26th 1803 in L' Aigle, 120 km west of Paris, in bright daylight a powerful meteorite shower went down (of more than 3.000 stones!), which was observed by numberless persons, the ban finally was broken. Now there was public interest in the meteorite question that forced the scientists to deal more detailed with the matter.

Thus in the 19th and 20th century the science of meteorites blossomed to an independent science that began to subdivide the different meteorites in types - Iron-meteorites, Stony-iron-meteorites and Stony-meteorites - and further Classes, and to test their chemical and mineralogical compound as well as their physical characteristics. Numerous important collections emerged in different museums and institutes in the whole world. Yet only the age of space travel and atomic physics brought the modern meteorites scientists to a point, when they increasingly succeed to coax the meteorites their secrets and to clarify the quest of their individual Origin. At the same time the involved researchers did not realize yet, that they hereby also would formulate totally new the question of our origin as well as of our position in the cosmos (see sensations).