Judge Nathan Wheeler was in the midst of his early-morning stroll when he saw the light.
It was a little past 6 a.m. on Dec. 14, 1807, when a sudden flash illuminated everything around his farm in Weston. He looked up toward the sky where he saw a globe of fire about two-thirds as big as the full moon that was setting that morning. The fireball lit up clouds as it drafted behind them. Less than a minute after Wheeler saw it, he heard several loud explosions.
Something had fallen from the heavens.
“Several pieces of stony substance fell to the earth in Fairfield county,” the Connecticut Herald reported a few days later. “One-mass was driven against a rock and dashed into small pieces, a peck [sic] of which remained on the spot. About three miles distant, in the town of Weston, another large piece fell upon the earth, of which mass of about thirty pounds weight remains entire.”
Humans had long been aware of falling stars, but in 1807 knowledge of these extraterrestrial objects was still in its infancy. “Up to the end of the 18th century, it wasn’t accepted that these odd-looking objects are not from the Earth,” says Dr. Stefan Nicolescu, collections manager for the Mineralogy and Meteoritics Division at Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, where one of the pieces of what came to be known as the Weston meteoriteis held.
In 1794, a little more than a decade before the Weston meteorite fell, Ernst Florens Chladni, a German physicist, put forth the idea that meteorites may have originated in outer space and not in volcanoes or storm clouds. Much of the scientific community responded to this idea with scorn. Within 10 years, however, there would be a general acceptance among European scientists that meteorites came from space thanks to the documented fall of thousands of meteorites in 1803 from the skies above L’Aigle, France. This knowledge had not yet crossed the Atlantic to North America, however.
In 1807, Benjamin Silliman was a 28-year-old science professor at Yale, the institution’s first. He had studied in Europe and was aware of the documented meteorite falls there. Immediately after the reports of a falling star came out of Weston, he set out to investigate with fellow Yale professor James L. Kingsley. With Kingsley’s help, Silliman talked with eyewitnesses, analyzed pieces of the meteorite and ultimately published his findings in a scientific study. “By doing that, Silliman establishes his scientific reputation, Yale’s reputation, North America’s reputation for science across the whole world,” Nicolescu says.
Silliman’s study of the object built on the study of meteorites that fell a few years earlier at L’Aigle. “Another significance of Silliman’s work is that Weston is the first occurrence when somebody goes out in the field and collects eyewitness accounts, collects specimens, analyzes the specimens, and publishes his account,” Nicolescu says.
Cathryn Prince’s book, A Professor, a President, and a Meteor: The Birth of American Science,chronicles the fall of the meteorite and its often-overlooked role in U.S. history. She says that, in some ways, Silliman’s investigation of this meteorite marks the “birth of American science.” Prior to the Weston meteorite, European scientists held their U.S. colleagues in low esteem, she says. “Silliman’s paper and his investigation really bring them to the table.”
But not everyone embraced Silliman’s findings initially. Then-President Thomas Jefferson has frequently been quoted as saying in relation to the Weston meteorite that “it was easier to believe that two Yankee professors could lie than to admit that stones could fall from heaven.” That quote is apocryphal but there’s a grain of truth behind it. “Jefferson’s initially skeptical and wants to know more about it,” Prince says of the founding father’s reaction to the meteorite. “Because of his views of New England, initially he doesn’t want to accept Silliman’s work.”
However, Jefferson eventually came around.
Ultimately, pieces of the Weston meteorite were recovered in seven different locations from Trumbull and what is today Easton but was then part of Weston.
One piece, the largest recovered, has long been on display at the Peabody Museum, which is currently closed to visitors for a renovation that will last at least three years. Other pieces are scattered across institutions and private collections throughout the world. Many pieces never made it to Yale and even much of what came to Yale is unaccounted for. “There was no concept of curation in the modern sense,” Nicolescu says. “Silliman gave pieces of Weston as gifts to his scientific contacts, to his personal contacts and so on.”
Just recentlya colleague of Nicolescu’s at the mineralogy museum of MINES ParisTech (formerly École des Mines) in Paris told him about a piece of the meteorite in her institution’s collection.
The fact that the object fell in such close proximity to Silliman — one of the only men in North America qualified to study it — was fortuitous, as meteorite falls are incredibly rare. Including Weston, there have been only fiveconfirmed meteorite falls in Connecticut and there are only a handful of meteorites found each year in the U.S. Last year there was only one confirmed find and as of November of this year there has only been one — on a good year there might be 20 or so meteorite finds. Witnessed falls are rarer still. “There are years on end when no meteorite fall is witnessed in the U.S.,” Nicolescu says.
In 2013, Nicolescu confirmed, then classified, the latest meteorite to fall in Connecticut. The first fragments were found in Wolcott, so it became known as the Wolcott meteorite, though later another piece was found in Waterbury. Nicolescu says he often gets calls about suspected meteorites but the vast majority of the time they are terrestrial stones or what he and others call “meteor-wrongs.” Slag, basalt and iron ore are common culprits. That didn’t happen in this case and he was able to document a meteorite fall. He said it was a special moment for him as these extraterrestrial rocks are unlike anything on Earth and are truly remnants from the dawn of time.
“They are basically left over from the very beginning of the solar system,” Nicolescu says. He grows wistful contemplating it. “Over four and a half billion years — they are primordial material.”
Note 11/24: The caption on the second photo has been updated to clarify the origins of the two fragments.