Popular Science Monthly/Volume 69/July 1906/The Largest American Collection of Meteorites
|THE LARGEST AMERICAN COLLECTION OF METEORITES.|
By L. P. GRATACAP, A.M.,
AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY.
IT requires very little imagination to picture to our eyes the astonishment of the inhabitants of the older portions of the earth at the fall of meteorites in days before scientific knowledge had reduced them to ordinary phenomena. What could be better calculated to excite admiration and reverence than a luminous missile suddenly passing athwart the sky, accompanied by detonations, and almost simultaneously reaching the ground? Was it remarkable that superstition quickly enclosed them in its mesh of fable and fancy? Believing that the gods were accustomed to descend upon the earth, these visible apparitions of flame might not unnaturally seem to them the vehicles, or at least the portents, of their descent.
In fact, a series of interesting medals or coins struck off to commemorate these unusual visitations has been found amongst Roman and Grecian antiquities, which have been styled 'Betyl Medals,' from a supposed reference to the Hebrew 'El Bethel,' the house of God, thus implying that the meteorite was indeed, by contemporaries, regarded as a supernatural object.
Science and observation have long ago determined their cosmic nature, and while opinions may still vary as to their exact origin, their actual constitution is well understood, and their source, in extraterrestrial streams of moving matter, recognized.
These strange objects have not diminished in interest because their miraculous origin has become a myth. On the contrary, science, by its exhaustive research, has placed them in the very front rank of objects that excite most vividly the imagination of the investigator. When science, in a perfectly rational way, speculates upon the possibility of one of these celestial visitors having passed through stellar space at measureless distances from our planet, exposed to inconceivable degrees of cold, and again at another time and place in its long transit to have encountered the most intense heat in the neighborhood of the sun, it requires little more suggestion to make it clear why they are to-day placed amongst the most prized specimens in mineralogical collections. The little further suggestion required to awaken the lay mind to a vivid realization of their interest is contained in the modern conception of their origin in dismembered comets, or even disrupted worlds.Museums and individual collectors have vied with each other in
securing meteorites, and the details of falls, their date and locality, the comparison of types of meteorites, their mineralogical components arid their many physical peculiarities have been so carefully recorded and studied that a special science has resulted, and a special group of students, whose rivalry is more animated than that generally discovered elsewhere amongst collectors of one kind of natural object.
The collection and the collector of meteorites have, with few exceptions, been features of the nineteenth century only. Previous to that these wonderful objects elicited surprise, and perhaps superstitious regard. Only within the nineteenth century did their careful comparison and study begin. All such collections as the great cabinets of Vienna, London, Paris, Berlin and the many smaller ones distributed through Europe have been slowly formed, the actual supply of material being dependent on meteorological incident and the results of travel and observation. In America, the larger collections at Yale, Harvard,
Amherst and Washing-ton were very gradually brought together. There was no concentrated effort made to extend them; the scientific thought of the last century, except towards its close, had not keenly awakened to a realization of the almost marvelous connotations implied in these strange aerial vagrants, and the opportunities for their discovery had not been actually availed of.
No one in the United States has exhibited greater perseverance and a more boundless, almost reckless, enthusiasm in this work of collecting meteorites than Professor Henry A. Ward. His audacity and zeal have gone hand in hand with a very keen scientific sense of the meaning of meteorites, and an admirable acquaintance with the literature and the results that have developed in their study.
He has himself been an explorer in this field, and it would be safe to predict his first arrival at the scene of any new meteorite's fall to-day. His correspondence is extensive, and the merest mention of a meteorite occurrence flies to his desk, and is very quickly subjected to his pertinacious system of verification or exposure.
The Ward-Coonley collection of meteorites now exhibited at the American Museum of Natural History represents his tireless work through many years, and stands to-day first amongst the collections of meteorites in this country. In the possession of large, unique masses, other collections may at points excel it, but in its representative character and in the actual number of 'falls,' it surpasses all others. The reader unacquainted with the peculiar pride of meteorite collectors may, perchance, welcome a little elucidation.
Meteorites are named from the locality in which they fall, or are found. But few meteorites have ever been seen to fall, and hence the meteorite mass, when discovered, is given a name (by which it is ever afterwards distinguished) that is derived from its exact locality or neighborhood. Thus Cañon Diablo, Arizona, Mincy Taney Co., Mo., Brenham, Kansas, Mocs, Transylvania, Estherville, Emmet Co., Iowa, are familiar labels in these collections. These designations sometimes of necessity assume a curious character, as the Vaca Muerta meteorite, or 'dead cow,' so named in the desert of Atacama, Chili, from its proximity to the corpse of that quadruped, the only, or at least a striking, physical feature in an otherwise featureless waste. Such a name remains after its origin has disappeared.
A certain number of localities, however, have frequently proved to be but representative of a prolonged fall. A meteorite mass, meeting the atmosphere of our earth, becomes, through friction, enormously heated, disruption takes place, and the separated parts, instead of falling at one spot, are dropped in succession at widely removed points, and thus a series of names becomes synonymous. Long examination and careful comparison, such, for instance, as Fletcher, of the British Museum, has devoted to the Mexican falls, or Dr. Brezina, of Vienna, to those of Europe, only can correct erroneous nomenclature of this kind.
Again it is entailed, in the trials of a collector's work, to find some of his 'falls' spurious, that the specimens are illegitimate or are terrestrial; an accident which may awaken irreverence in the lay mind, but which has sent a shock—often salutary—throughout the community of 'star-gatherers.'
All falls or finds are recorded—generally in a description authoritatively made by the finder or a scientific acquaintance—and the objective goal to be reached by collectors is to have a representation of all such occurrences. Obviously size or weight is significant, and it is not
unnatural for a layman to insist upon the superiority of a smaller collection with handsome examples over a larger collection where the specimens are diminutive or insignificant. The masses of various localities differ also greatly in size, the amount of material falling varying enormously in different falls, and so the value of a particular kind of meteorite is conditioned upon its initial size. It is quite evident that a mass of one thousand grams will not admit of such attractive subdivision as one of five thousand, and, in the case of the Angra-dos-Reis aerolite, one of the rarest of meteorites, there is not enough to 'go round.' The Angra-dos-Reis unit also possesses peculiar lithological features, which naturally enhance the value given to it by its physical diminutiveness.
Colossal intruders from space, such as the Anighito, brought by Peary from Greenland and weighing (calculated) over forty tons, the Mexican Bacubirito of similar weight, and the large Chupaderos monster, weighing over fifteen tons, while easily distributed to collectors, will eventually weigh more significantly as unique features in their entireness in the museums destined to receive and install them.
It is desirable to call close attention to the admirable results of Professor Ward's labors, and to emphasize the preeminence the Ward-Coonley collection now takes in American cabinets.
Professor Ward has taken every possible pains to perfect and enlarge his collection. He has purchased and exchanged, and has traveled the world seeking almost inaccessible masses to obtain new examples. An instance of the latter was his exploit in reaching and
unearthing the Bacubirito iron in Mexico, and a more recent venture in studying the anomalous features of the Willamette iron in Oregon under severe meteorological drawbacks.
This collection has been signalized by the most striking compliments from original workers and directors of museums in Europe. Professor Carl Klein, the state counselor and director of the Royal Mineral Collection at Berlin, has referred to it as 'one of the finest and richest meteorite collections in the entire world'; and Dr. Brezina, the most famous student of these objects, writes: "Professor Ward has succeeded in reaching the highest number of localities now united in any collection. I count up to this day 689 localities described or mentioned, twelve of which are dubious for want of precise dates. From the remaining 677, I find 603 represented in his list, while the great Vienna collection gives but 557, counted in the same manner. The average weights are likewise highly satisfying, the total average, viz: the whole weight of the collection divided by the number of localities is over four kilograms (now 4,138 grams) for the locality."
This is the analysis of a technical expert, and might perhaps but poorly reflect the impressions of one less solicitous about percentages and exhaustiveness. The ocular view must be considered, the sensible visual effect of interest and wonder. In this respect the Ward-Coonley collection is eminently adequate to extort praise. It is now arranged in seven beautiful cases at the north end of the Hall of Geology at the American Museum of Natural History, and the specimens classified in their three groups of iron (Siderite), iron and stone (Siderolite), and stone (Aerolite), present their extended, yet thick and close ranges, most effectively to the spectator. Superb polished slabs, etched and developed, follow one another in the stepped series; and the bewildering number of aerolites, many large, and showing that invaluable and (to the eye of the collector) most exquisite test of certainty, the dark glistening crust of fusion, succeed, installed upon attractive mahogany standards; while a supplemental section of casts, reveals the original form and appearance of many celebrated or singular meteorites.
The assemblage is a striking and forcible tribute to Professor Ward's enthusiasm and persistency. A moment's reflection upon the order of events in the history of this great American collection of meteorites is not without interest. Professor Ward had been known as the indefatigable explorer of the continents and seas of the earth for all kinds of natural objects by which our American museums have so largely profited, but it was not until he had disposed of the great collection of natural history specimens which he exhibited at the International Exposition at Chicago in 1893 that he felt free to seize an individual field of study and enterprise. His mind had been deeply moved by the appeal made to it by these mute messengers from space, and a certain challenge offered by them to his ingenuity and skill to find and possess them. He gave himself over literally to this pursuit with a single-minded persistence that only success could reward. Professor Ward has played the part of exchanger to its fullest limits. In this he has acted upon a very acute design. In all large museums and with most active collectors, there are specimens that, as Professor Ward puts it, 'money could not dislodge.' Only the actual offer of pieces as rare, or more rare, and to which all approach was absolutely closed, except by the avenue of exchange, could displace them. Under such pressure Professor Ward has happily gathered into his possession many a piece of celestial iron or stone, which otherwise would have remained as immovable as Fitz-James before his less capable assailants.
But practical and effective as has been exchange, as a means to an end, the infallible efficacy of money has been no less powerful. The actual expenditure has been very great, and in this pursuit, as in war, the cost for a successful issue must not be counted. Professor Ward enjoyed two unusual opportunities for suddenly increasing the size of his collection. The Gregory collection in England and the Siemaschko collection in Russia, vying with each other as the largest private collections in Europe, fell into his hands at the death of their owners, and from these treasuries he filled the gaps, and enriched the precious contents of his own. His collection is one of increasingly rapid growth, and illustrates the quantitative results of single-minded effort, precision of attack at vulnerable points and prodigality of purchasing power in a scientific warfare where the victor only receives the congratulations of his generous competitors.
Looking over Professor Ward's recently published catalogue, some concluding facts in this summary are interesting and convincing. In an introductory paragraph of his catalogue (1904) the author says: "The geographic sources of the collection are world-wide. Australasia and Asia, Africa and South America, are represented each by 95 per cent, of all their known meteorites, while North America and Europe bring up the train with 99 per cent, of the former and 97 per cent, of the latter. No collection in the world can say of itself more than this. Attention is particularly drawn to the series from Japan, Australia, Russia and Mexico. It is only within the last decade that the rare and interesting meteorites from these countries have been largely distributed. To-day it is true that in no collection in any one of these four countries are there so many kinds from that country as are represented in this collection." The catalogue further notices that in this remarkable collection thirty falls, irons and stones, represent the largest single piece of that fall to-day known.
The final impression left from an inspection of the Ward-Coonley collection is one of admiration and of natural astonishment that so complete an assemblage of these valuable and coveted wanderers from space could have been gathered together by the activity and industry of one individual. Their acquisition places the institution that receives them among the four most important meteorite depositories in the world.
Summary of the Collection.
|Total number of falls and finds||603|
|(Siderites 241; Siderolites 28; Aerolites 334.|
|From North America||229|
|From South America||31|
|From Australasia, Sandwich Islands||26|
|Total weight of entire collection 2,495,429 grams (= 5,509 pounds).|
|Average weight of each kind 4,138 grams (= 9 1/9 pounds).|
|Average weight, counting nothing over 50 kilograms to a kind, 1,746 grams (= 3 4/5 pounds).|
|Total number of specimens, about 1,600.|