Saturday, November 5, 2011

Scientific American Archives 1845-1909 available until November 30, 2011

Scientific American has just opened its archives for the years 1845 to 1909 until the end of November.  Details can be found at

The archives is very useful for the meteorite historian - articles and letters relating to meteorites, meteors, aerolites, etc., can be downloaded for free until November 30.

To use the resource efficiently, click on the link "Advanced Search" in the upper right-hand corner of the web page, which will bring you to the following search page: American.

Enter your search word at the top, for example the word "meteorites", and then scroll down to the bottom of the page, and select sort by "Date - Oldest".  I pulled up 810 hits for this search, and if the articles are between 1845 and 1909, you can just click on the title and download the article for free.

The first item on my retrieval list was entitled "Meteorites - Their Origins", which was published on page 94 of the December 9, 1848 issue of Scientific American and discusses Charles Upham Shepard's views on meteoritic origins.

I haven't done much searching on the archives yet, but I am sure it will turn up some really nice items for those interested in the history of meteorites.  Happy searching!


Friday, October 28, 2011

Weston Revisted: Scholarly Reviews of "A professor, a president and a meteor"

Back in January 2011, I posted a review of Cathryn Prince's book, A professor, a president and a meteor. Up until recently, there have been few, if any, scholarly reviews of the work. The situation has changed with the publication, or upcoming publication, of three new reviews.

Ursula B. Marvin, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has written a detailed nine page review with references which is well worth the read.  It appears in the current issue of Meteoritics & Planetary Science 46, Nr 10, 1608-1616 (2011). For those who are not members of the Meteoritical Society and who do not receive the journal, the article can be previewed and purchased at I found Marvin's discussion of Nathaniel Bowditch's study on the Weston meteor and his relationship with President Jefferson to be particularly insightful in responding to Prince's comment that Jefferson asked Bowditch to "dispute Silliman's work on the Weston Fall."  As Marvin points out, Prince's comment is found on page 234 of the index to book, but the theme runs through the text.

Kristine C. Harper, Florida State University, has written a short two page book review, which offers some  some interesting comments disputing Prince's references to the work of Johannes Kepler. The review appears in the journal History: Reviews of New Books, 39:4, 112-113 (2011). The article can be previewed and purchased at

And lastly, I was honored to be invited to submit a shortened version of my Meteorite Manuscripts book review to Ambix, the scholarly journal of Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry, which should appear in the November issue.  More information on Ambix can be obtained at

As I mentioned in my first review, contrary to Prince, Silliman was not the first American scientist to have his work published in the French journal Annales de Chimie.  Robert Hare, his associate, had his paper on the oxygen-hydrogen blowpipe published in the journal five years before the Weston meteorite fall, and he received an international reputation as a result of his work. In her review, Marvin does not emphasize the importance of this point, initially stating that Silliman's report "was the first scientific paper in America (since Benjamin Franklin’s time) to win the admiration of the learned societies of Europe", but a few paragraphs later describing Hare as "a chemist who had gained international fame in 1801 as the inventor of the oxyhydrogen blowpipe."

In my opinion, all three reviews reach a consensus that Prince has overstated Silliman's contributions in the field of meteoritics.  An earlier biographer of Silliman, Chandros Michael Brown, had no such misconceptions about Silliman's accomplishments, stating at the beginning of his work, “but the bald truth is that Silliman’s contributions to science, as such, were negligible.” Although Prince used Brown's work as a reference, this fundamental perspective on the scientists life was completely ignored (see C. M. Brown, Benjamin Silliman. A Life in the Young Republic. Princeton, 1989, xiv). 

Prince is a well-intentioned author who is on firmer ground when discussing Silliman's real, long-lasting accomplishments. Silliman established the American Journal of Science and a school of chemistry at Yale, and he was an educator and promoter of science in the young American nation.

In the end, there is indeed a very real difference between capturing the imagination of the public and making fundamental scientific discoveries.  

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Royal Society Opens Archives of Publications

The Royal Society has announced that it is providing free access to all its journals 70 years or older.  This is of special interest to all historians conducting research on meteorites, since all of the material in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, first published in 1665, is available. Refer to the press release at for more information and for a link to begin a search of the journals.

Another source of historical information available from the Royal Society is its history of science journal, Notes & Records of the Royal Society. Content is normally restricted for one year, but after that period, the articles are freely accessible.

I was fortunate enough to have an article dealing with the Mooresfort meteorite published in December 2010. Since it was the 7th most-downloaded article for the year, it is freely accessible even though a year has not passed.

If you have not obtained a free copy, go to and scroll down to the link which reads "William Higgins at the Dublin Society, 1810–20: the loss of a professorship and a claim to the atomic theory", by Mark I. Grossman. Click on the link and you can download a pdf copy without charge.

Another article of mine entitled "Smithson Tennant: meteorites and the final trip to France" can be downloaded for free at

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Early Use of Radium in the U.S. - George Barker's 1903 Columbia Lecture

Chemist and physicist George Frederick Barker (1835-1910) was instrumental in introducing radium to the US, and gave an important lecture entitled  “Radio-Activity in Chemistry” at Columbia University on March 19, 1903 [Columbia School of Mines Quarterly, 24, 267-302 (1903)]. For more information on Barker's life, see Edgar Fahs Smith National Academy of Sciences memoir (NAS Biographical Memoirs, 62).  You can download a copy by going to the NAS Biographical Memoirs webpage and clicking on the Barker, G. F. link.  Figures 1 and 2 display the front and back on an old cabinet photo of Barker that is in my collection.  Click on each photo to enlarge; click again to enlarge further.

Figure 1.  G. F. Barker.  Copyright © Mark I. Grossman
Figure 2.  Back of Barker Photo. Copyright © Mark I. Grossman

In his talk, Barker showed three vials of radium salts, as well as a radiograph of a mouse, all of which he obtained from W. J. Hammer (1859-1934), author of the 1903 book, Radium and other radioactive substances.  Two radiographs of a mouse (one on a plate and the other caught in a trap) are shown in Hammer’s book (pages 38-39), but only one was used by Barker in his Columbia lecture (p. 290). Hammer worked for Thomas Edison, was an early experimenter with radium having obtained samples from Pierre and Marie Curie in 1902, and developed the infamous radium paint used on watch dials.  

Figure 3 displays a letter in my collection that was written by Barker to Hammer on March 15, 1903 in preparation for his Columbia lecture just a few days away, and is on University of PA Morgan Laboratory of Physics letterhead.  It reads in part:

“Dr. Chandler has asked me to repeat my talk before the Chem. Soc. of Columbia Univ. on Thursday evening (the 19th)… I would like to borrow for that evening your polonium metal & the three most active radium tubes.  Also, can you spare me the slide of the mouse (without the trap)?

Barker to Hammer, 3/15/1903. Copyright © Mark I. Grossman
Never mind the radiation concerns.  Seems like Barker did not want to disturb his audience with pictures of any dead mice caught in traps!

I am particularly fond of this letter because it not only mentions the radiographs that can be viewed in Hammer's book and Barker's lecture, it references Columbia chemist Charles Frederick Chandler (1836-1925) and the behind-the-scenes preparation for Barker's talk.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Radio Interview with Cathryn Prince

Although I disagree with Cathryn Prince about Benjamin Silliman's place in the history of American science, you may be interested listening to a radio interview with the author that aired the other day on Connecticut Public Broadcasting.  You can access the segment at:


Friday, February 25, 2011

Correspondence of the Sydney Mining Museum - Part V - Meteorites

Another well-known correspondent of the Sydney Mining Museum was Friedrich Berwerth (1850-1918), who became head of the Mineralogical-Petrographical Department of the Natural History Museum in Vienna in 1895, and then curator of the Vienna meteorite collection in 1896 when Aristides Brezina (1848-1909) retired from the position in 1896.  A short biography with photo and signature of Berwerth can be found on the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien website and in Brandstätter.

When George Card, curator of the Sydney Mining Museum, read about the fall of the Crumlin meteorite in the October 9, 1902 issue of Nature, he sent a communication to the journal which appeared in the February 12, 1903 issue (Figure 1 - click on image to enlarge, click again to enlarge further).  The note, entitled " A New South Wales Meteorite", reported on the fall of the 25-pound Mt. Browne meteorite on July 17, 1902.

 Figure 1:  Card's Feb. 1903 Mt. Browne Communication in Nature

The communication in Nature caught Berwerth's attention, because he wrote a letter to Card soon after it appeared (see Figures 2 and 3 - click to enlarge, click again to enlarge further).

Figure 2.  Copyright © Mark I. Grossman

Figure 3.  Copyright © Mark I. Grossman

 A rough translation of the German letter reads as follows:

Vienna, 29 March 1903

To Mr. G. W. Card

Dear Sir,

I read your notice about the Mount Browne meteorite that fell on 9 October 1902.  I am very interested in the stone.  Since you will break the stone in order to examine it I am taking the freedom to ask you to give me a sample for our large Viennese meteorite collection.  It is important in this place to receive meteorite material to study it.  I ask you kindly to leave me a sample to discover the value in case of a purchase.  I am sending you the new meteorite catalogue and some of my work about meteorites.

Hoping to hear from you, I am sincerely yours,
Prof. Friedrich Berwerth

Berwerth appears to have mixed up the date of the notice with the fall of the meteorite, which as noted occurred on July 17, 1902.  It is interesting to note the letterhead - Berwerth was definitely conducting official business.  Compare this letter with that of Brezina's in an earlier Meteorite Manuscripts post (Correspondence of the Sydney Mining Museum - Part IV).  Brezina's communication had no letterhead, and he was pursuing samples for his own collection after he retired.

Card published a subsequent communication in September 1903 and indicated that when the meteorite fell, it set a nearby hut on fire, although it did not hit the residence.  In addition, a photograph of the meteorite was included (Figures 4 and 5 - click to enlarge, click again to enlarge further).  A chemical analysis of the meteorite was conducted by H. P. White of the Geological Survey in 1904.

Figure 4:  Card's Sept. 1903 Description of Mt. Browne Fall

 Figure 5:  Main mass of Mt. Browne Meteorite 

Berwerth's letter and the desire to obtain a sample of the Mount Browne meteorite for the famous Vienna collection underscores the importance of the Sydney Mining Museum holdings.   

F. Brandstätter, ‘History of the meteorite collection of the Natural History Museum of Vienna’, in The history of meteoritics and key meteorite collections:  fireballs, falls and finds (Geological Society of London Special Publication no. 256), (ed. G. J. H. McCall, A. J. Bowden and R. J. Howarth), pp. 123-133 at 129-130 (Geological Society London, 2006).

G. W. Card, 'A New South Wales Meteorite', Nature 67 (Feb. 12, 1903), 345

G. W. Card, 'Mineralogical Notes, No. 8', Records of the Geological Survey of New South Wales, 7, pt.3 (Sept.1903), 218, Plate 42.

H. P. White, 'Notes and analysis of the Mt. Browne Meteorite', Records of the Geological Survey of New South Wales, 7, pt.4 (Sept.1904), 312-314.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Book Review - Weston Meteorite - A Professor, a President, and a Meteor

A Professor, a President and a Meteor:  The Birth of American Science
Cathryn J. Prince, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2011

Cathryn J. Prince has just written a new book on the Weston meteorite, a stone that fell from the sky in Connecticut in 1807, and one that holds a special place in the hearts of those who study and love the history of meteoritics.  It was the first time fragments from a witnessed meteorite fall were recovered and analyzed by a scientist, Benjamin Silliman (1799-1864), in the new American republic. 

Don’t misinterpret my comments that follow — I admire Benjamin Silliman — just look at the very first Meteorite Manuscripts post — but I was disappointed with the presentation of Silliman as being the new father of meteoritics. Prince lavishes such unfounded praise on his accomplishments, that even in the afterlife, Silliman’s face must be red with embarrassment.  I could cite many examples, but the following will suffice:

“Everything scientists know today about meteorites — the different types, the various minerals, trace elements, and isotopes contained within — began in Silliman’s laboratory.”

Just how groundbreaking was the work that took place in Silliman’s lab?

Different types of meteorites:  Although he may have mentioned or referred to cursory examinations of specimens from one or two other falls in his lifetime, Silliman only published one detailed chemical study of meteorites, and those were from the Weston fall.  The paper was read before the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia in 1808, published in 1809 and then republished with revisions in 1810.  Other scientists, such as Edward Howard (1774-1816), published comparative studies, analyzing meteorites that fell in various parts of the world, or published several chemical studies of meteorites over the years.  Yet no detailed analyses of different types of meteorites ever emerged from Silliman’s laboratory.  His meteoritic fame rests on Weston alone.
Minerals:  As noted in 1806 by André Laugier (1770-1832), “ever since the English chemist Mr. Howard, called the attention of philosophers and naturalists towards the stones called meteoric, all chemists who have repeated the experiments laid down in his interesting memoir, have obtained similar results.”  Silliman did not disappoint in this regard, as he reported the usual silex, iron, magnesia, sulphur and nickel.  His study resulted in no new findings, and all Silliman did was confirm the work of others.  

Trace Elements:  When Laugier reported finding chrome in a study of five different meteorites in 1806, and suggested that all meteorites might have chrome, Silliman responded with addenda to his 1809 and 1810 reports with an analysis showing that Weston didn’t follow suit.   One year later, Warden found the analyte in a Weston sample, and Mason and Wiik confirmed the presence of chromium in 1966.  Silliman never discovered any new elements in meteorites, unlike Proust (1754-1826), Laugier, Klaproth (1743-1817), Vauquelin (1763-1829) and Stromeyer (1776-1835).
Isotopes:  John Dalton (1766-1844) hadn’t even published his atomic theory until 1808, the year after the Weston fall, and the very nature of atoms — never mind isotopes — was under fire.

Meteoritic Origins:  In his 1809 paper, Silliman stated that meteorites might come from comets circling the Earth, a theory proposed by Thomas Clap (1703-1767) and published after his death in 1781. However, Silliman admitted in his 1809 report that even this theory had its problems, so he finally concluded with statements that meteorites were not of this earth and they have a common source which is unknown — conclusions reached by Edward Howard in 1802.  

While others debated extraterrestrial, lunar and atmospheric sources, it was primarily Silliman who kept the terrestrial comet theory alive in his lectures during the 1830s and 1840s, until in the words of Burke, “the terrestrial comet hypothesis passed into oblivion” as a result of John Lawrence Smith’s (1818-1883) research on the size of the Weston fireball. 

I thought Prince presented a muddled picture of Silliman’s terrestrial comet theory versus Chladni’s extraterrestrial belief.  She does note that Clap was wrong about comets orbiting the Earth, but did not emphasize that Silliman adopted an erroneous theory, and there is no mention of Smith’s work that undermined Silliman’s belief.  It was not Silliman who was the groundbreaker regarding meteoritic origins but Ernst Chladni (1756-1827).

Silliman’s Weston study owes a great debt to the chemical work of Edward Howard and other analysts, such as Vauquelin, Fourcroy (1755-1809) and Klaproth, as well as to scientist Jean Baptiste Biot (1774-1862), who interviewed scores of eyewitnesses to the 1803 L’Aigle meteorite shower and documented their reports.  None of these scientists who guided the work of Silliman are mentioned by Prince.    

Regarding the birth of American science, that honor belongs not to Silliman, but to Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), who was held in such high esteem as a scientist abroad, that he was awarded the British Royal Society’s greatest scientific honor — the Copley medal — in 1753 for his work on electricity.  And as Ambassador to France during the 1770s and 1780s, Franklin literally sat at the table with the father of modern chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) — he was a frequent guest at the Lavoisier salon.

Nor was Silliman’s the first to have his work published in the French journal Annales de Chimie.  Robert Hare (1781-1858), his associate, had his paper on the oxygen-hydrogen blowpipe published not only in Annales de Chimie in 1802, but the British Philosophical Magazine as well — five years before the Weston meteorite fall  — and he achieved an international reputation. Silliman held Hare in high regard, and published several papers on the use of Hare’s blowpipe.  Hare received the first Rumford Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston in 1839, one of the oldest scientific awards established in the Unites States — an honor that was not bestowed on Silliman.  

I wish Prince had presented a more balanced examination of the relationship between James Woodhouse (1770-1809) and Benjamin Silliman.  Woodhouse performed his own analysis of the Weston meteorite, published in 1808, with Silliman’s published version following in 1809.  According to Greene and Burke, both Woodhouse’s and Silliman’s analyses were inaccurate due to the limitations on the analytical techniques available at the time, for example, both men reported very high silex results.

Woodhouse beat out Adam Seybert (1773-1825) for a professorship of chemistry resulting in bad feelings between the two, but Prince does not mention the soured relationship between the men when she refers to  Seybert's denigrating words about Woodhouse’s ability to analyze a meteorite.  Nor does she mention that Seybert attacked Woodhouse’s 1808 publication dealing with the Perkiomen zinc mine, something which had nothing to do with meteoritics, and which is treated is some detail by Smith.  However, the author does state that Silliman thought Woodhouse was “overbearing and stodgy”, and he “had not the gift of a lucid mind, nor of high reasoning powers, nor a fluent diction.”  Silliman also objected that Woodhouse didn’t mention God or religion in his lectures.
 “No doubt a certain degree of vanity was involved,” states Prince, “but a greater sense of purpose drove Silliman — his idea that shared knowledge would elevate the nation.”  Vanity apparently overshadowed sharing when it came to Woodhouse.  For although Woodhouse acknowledged the work of Silliman and Kingsley in his paper, the favor was not returned by the two men in their 1809 and 1810 reports, even though a comparison of the two sets of results would have been useful scientifically.  Woodhouse died in 1809, and became, more or less, a footnote to the history of the Weston meteorite.

Silliman was a man who published more than 60 scienfitic papers on topics such as mineralogy, geology and chemistry.  As Prince points out, he started a school of chemistry at Yale, and one of his students was the noted chemist Charles Upham Shepard (1804-1886), who made such important contributions to meteoritics.  The American Journal of Science was also founded by Silliman in 1818.  

When discussing these accomplishments, Prince is on firmer ground.  But regarding the Weston meteorite, the author  makes no clear distinction between Silliman’s accomplishments in capturing the imagination of the public versus the quality of his scientific work on the fragments, which was professional but certainly not exceptional.  In fact, the key deficiency of the book is its failure to acknowledge the truly groundbreaking work of others who preceded – and guided – Silliman in his meteoritic endeavors.  Prince is selective in the research that she quotes to cast Silliman as a trailblazing scientist who rides into town to restore law and order to everything that preceded him in the world of meteoritics, and to provide guidance and inspiration to eveyone that followed him.  In this respect, in reads more like a "Western" than about "Weston".
If you want a brief but informative account of Silliman’s and Woodhouse’s work on the Weston meteorite, I highly recommend that you  obtain a copy of Greene’s and Burke’s work, “The science of minerals in the age of Jefferson”.  For some reason, Burke did not include the Weston information in Cosmic Debris, and only mentions the publication in a footnote.  I was able to buy a used copy for $10, and it should be accessible at many libraries. 



J. G. Burke, Cosmic debris, meteorites in history, pp. 23-24, 56-58, 65-66 (Berkeley:  University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986).  

J. C. Greene and J. G. Burke, ‘The science of minerals in the age of Jefferson’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 68, no.4, 24-26, 96-98.

A. Laugier, ‘Abtract of a memoir on a new principle in meteoric stones’, A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, and the Arts 105, 147-149 (1806).

U. B. Marvin, ‘Meteorites in history: an overview from the Renaissance to the 20th century’, in The history of meteoritics and key meteorite collections:  fireballs, falls and finds (Geological Society of London Special Publication no. 256), (ed. G. J. H. McCall, A. J. Bowden and R. J. Howarth), pp. 51-52 (Geological Society London, 2006)

B. Mason and H. B. Wiik, ‘The composition of the Forest City, Tennasilm, Weston and Geidam meteorites’, American Museum Novitates 2220, 10-14 (1965).

A. F. Noonan and and J. A. Melen, ‘A petrographic and mineral chemical study of the Weston, Connecticut chondrite’, Meteoritics 11, 111-130 (1976), at p. 124.

O. R. Norton, Rocks from space, meteorites and meteorite hunters, 2nd ed., pp. 35-41, 419-420 (Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1998).

D. W. Sears, ‘Sketches in the history of meteoritics 1:  the birth of the science’, Meteoritics 10, 215-225 (1975).

D. W. Sears, ‘Sketches in the history of meteoritics 2:  the early chemical and mineralogical work’, Meteoritics 12, 27-46 (1977).

E. F. Smith, James Woodhouse: a pioneer in chemistry, 1770-1809, pp. 65-66, 242-255, 272-275 (Philadelphia:  John C. Winston Company, 1918).

D. B. Warden, ‘Description and analysis of the meteoric stone which fell at Weston, in North America, the 4th December 1807’, Philosophical Magazine 36, 32-34 (1810)