Fire in the sky: Fairfield County meteor strike sparked scientific research
Published 9:06 am, Sunday, January 2, 2011
The nearly full moon was setting as dawn arrived on Dec. 14, 1807. It was Monday, and farmers in what was then Weston were already up tending to their livestock.
Suddenly, to the north, a bright object appeared in the cold, cloud-strewn sky, accompanied by a sound that people said resembled that of a cannonball being rolled on a wooden floor.
The object was sufficiently bright to illuminate fields and barns, and there were reports of something strange streaking across the sky from as far away as Rutland, Vt. The meteor broke up as it slammed into the earth's atmosphere at about 65,000 mph. Soon it seemed that Weston was a target of an artillery barrage, as dozens of rocks, one weighing 200 pounds, augered into the snow-covered fields.
It fell from the sky
According to a new book by Cathryn J. Prince, of Weston, "A Professor, a President, and a Meteor: The Birth of American Science," the meteorite provided the spark that over time turned the new nation, then populated largely by people who believed in the supernatural, into a scientific powerhouse.
Today it's known that the earth collects between 35,000 and 80,000 tons of space debris every year ---- mostly in the form of dust, but some of it falls as larger pieces, too. But in the minds of those living in the early 19th century, rocks weren't supposed to fly across the sky and crash onto your hay field.
"It was thought that meteors were caused by volcanos on the moon, or that they were some sort of rare meteorological phenomenon," Prince said. "It was Benjamin Silliman, then a young professor at Yale University, who was the first to establish that meteors came from outer space. This was also the first time that a scientist actually interviewed witnesses and analyzed a meteorite."
Prince, who examined all of Silliman's papers at Yale to research the book, recalls the political landscape of the early 18th Century. New England was bitterly opposed to President Thomas Jefferson's Embargo of 1807, which put most of its profitable shipping industry out of business.
This placed Silliman in somewhat of a bind, because Jefferson was also a man of science, of sorts. The president's endeavors in this regard, which included collecting fossils, were viewed a "frivolous" and even "un-Christian and insulting" by his New England Federalist adversaries. There was serious talk of secession in Hartford.
Silliman got caught in the crossfire between Jefferson and Connecticut when the president, apparently because of his disdain for the Nutmeg State, decided not to completely accept Silliman's report on the event.
Where the meteorite fell
Although it is called the Weston meteorite, most of it fell in what is now Easton, which was founded in 1845 from 28.8 square miles carved out of Weston.
Today it's believed that none or almost none of the pieces fell in present-day Weston, although pieces were found in a swath that extended from Monroe to Fairfield.
The impact footprint, about 10 miles long and four miles wide, was centered on what is now the Easton Reservoir, which didn't exist until 1926. Today, Easton is mostly covered by forest ---- at least the parts that aren't occupied by multi-million-dollar homes. But in 1807, that land was cleared of nearly every tree for agriculture and lumber, creating the perfect landscape for the early risers on Dec. 14 to view the fireball as it made its approach.
"Probably not all of it was recovered," Prince said. "There's a piece of it at the Peabody Museum in New Haven, another piece is at the American Museum of Natural History's Hayden Planetarium, and a third is in the Smithsonian."
As for Silliman, Prince says in her book that he was an ardent abolitionist, despite the fact that his mother owned 85 slaves at one time, making her the largest slave owner in Fairfield County.
"My own country, so jealous of its own liberty, stands disgraced in the eyes of mankind and condemned at the bar of Heaven," he wrote on the subject.
Silliman went on to establish Yale Medical School and was a key figure in getting Yale leadership to consider the sciences as subjects that should be taught in their own departments, rather than as part of the Department of Philosophy.
Silliman was born in North Stratford, which is now part of Trumbull. His first wife was Harriet Trumbull, the daughter of Jonathan Trumbull, Connecticut's 16th governor. They had a son and two daughters. Silliman remarried, at age 71, after she died in 1850. He died in 1864.
As for Silliman's relations with Jefferson, one can only wonder how much further science in the United States would have advanced had the two men been on friendly terms.
"A Professor, a President, and a Meteor: The Birth of American Science" by Cathryn J. Prince. Prometheus Books.