First recorded U.S. meteorite blazes back for bicentennial
Connecticut towns celebrate a 'thunder stone' of significance.
Darkness clung to the early morning sky on Dec. 14, 1807, as Judge Nathan Wheeler started out on his morning constitutional along a country road near here. Suddenly the heavens exploded as a fireball raced across the horizon – whizzing sounds and three sonic booms cracked the quiet as rock rained down.Skip to next paragraph
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Judge Wheeler ran back to his home, and, for a brief moment, thought Armageddon had arrived.
At the same time, 30 miles down the road, Isaac Bronson, a former field surgeon in the American Revolution, dozed in a speeding stagecoach. Suddenly the cab rattled and shook, and the inside lit up like daylight. Nearby houses shuddered.
Dr. Bronson urged the terrified driver to continue, even though he, too, feared the end of the world was nigh. He'd seen horrible things on the battlefield, but nothing had prepared him for this.
Both learned men, Wheeler and Bronson were sought by journalists and scientists for testimony of the event. According to their accounts, the two were positively stumped about what had zoomed before their – and much of New England's – eyes.
Though scientific understanding of what happened would not jell for decades, the awesome event is considered a scientific turning point: It was the first recorded meteorite fall in America.
What became known as the "Weston Fall" was the last in "a triumvirate of well-documented and analyzed falls that conclusively swayed acceptance of their extraterrestrial origin," says Richard Binzel, chairman of planetary sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Preceding Weston were falls in Wold Cottage, England, in 1795 and L'Aigle, France, in 1803.)
The bicentennial is being commemorated here Dec. 14. At 6 a.m., history buffs, space enthusiasts, and interested locals will gather with the historical societies of Weston and nearby Easton (the actual ground zero spot) to bury a time capsule containing the history of scientific knowledge gained since the sonic boom shook the towns. In this way a forgotten piece of history is being reintroduced to this bucolic town. A panel of scientists from the likes of MIT and Yale University – who are still parsing the significance of the Fall – is planned. Local students are writing essays on the scientific strides since the Fall; and throughout the year schools are incorporating meteor-themed science, math, and language arts in the curriculum.
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The way news of the Weston Fall ricocheted around the young nation offers telling – if quaint – hindsight, considering today's great scientific speculations about asteroids hitting the earth.
Upon hearing of the Weston Fall, President Thomas Jefferson was rumored to have said: "I would more easily believe that two Yankee professors would lie than that stones would fall from heaven." Although no evidence exists that he uttered those words, "It typifies the thinking of the day," Dr. Binzel says. "It was the turn of the century and it was a turning point in understanding meteorites. Until then, meteorites were thought to be a weather phenomenon. Another name for them was actually thunder stones."
Indeed, most people scoffed at the notion that meteorites came from outer space – a belief not far removed from those held as long as three centuries earlier in Europe. Accounts from 1492 detail a meteorite falling on Eisenheim, Germany. Locals hauled it into a church where they kept it chained, lest it fly away.