Wednesday, March 26, 2008

from Annual of Scientific Discovery, 1860

(page 362)


In calling attention to the matter of a shooting meteor, I am conscious that the evidence of its genuineness is not absolutely perfect; nevertheless, it falls so little short of entire satisfaction, as to make it fully worthy of notice. No instance of the kind at least has yet been recorded, entitled to so much confidence.

Mr. S. R. Scriven, a clerk in a dry-goods store in King's Street, Charleston,
was the principal observer of the phenomenon. He returned to his residence near King's Street, in Charleston, at half past eight, on the evening of Nov. 16, 1857, when he saw a red, fiery ball, of the size and shape of an orange, slowly descending through a distance apparently of twenty or thirty feet, to the ground. Its fall was scarcely more rapid than that of a soap-bubble, giving him time to call his sister, a little girl, to see it strike a high wooden fence, distant about fifty or sixty feet from the portico, and which separated the door-yard from a church-enclosure adjoining. It seemed to adhere for an instant to the board against which it struck, and then separated into three parts, and disappeared. The evening was dark, it having followed a rainy afternoon, though at the time of the fall, it had ceased to rain and become very foggy.

Nothing further would probably have been heard of the phenomenon but for the accidental reading, by an elder sister the next day at the breakfast-table, of a paragraph from a newspaper, relating to a meteoric fall, where the specimens picked up were said to have possessed a strong odor of sulphur. This induced young Scriven, who had never before heard of meteoric falls, at once to examine the fence against which the ball had struck. The fence was eight feet high, and formed of long strips of horizontally disposed boards. It was near the extremity of an uppermost board, that had been detached and bent around so as to present its flat side uppermost, that the body had been seen to impinge. And here it was that be discovered adhering a small bristling mass of black fibres. These he detached and carried into the house. As it had rained again during the night, he was led to suppose that the rest of the matter had been washed away. He searched the ground among the dead grass, but not until after the second night, when much more rain had fallen. He could find no more of the same material, though he gathered up numerous small fragments, which proved to be ordinary charcoal.

Mr. Scriven (the father) was so much struck with the appearance of the
black fibres, together with the circumstances under which they had been found, that he requested his son to call on Dr. William Pettigrew, the family physician, and describe to him what had happened. Two days, however, elapsed, before Dr. Pettigrew heard of the case. He immediately repaired to the house, where he was informed of the particulars as above described, and shown a mere pinch of the matter that had been detached from the fence, — the principal portion of it having unfortunately been given to a young man of the neighborhood, an engineer, who wished to exhibit it to his friends. Dr. Pettigrew immediately called to acquaint me of the case; but not finding me at home, we did not meet until the forenoon of the 20th, when he presented me the specimen gathered by Scriven, and took me to the spot.

I heard the statements repeated from the different members of the family,
corroborative of those above presented, and examined the place upon the board from whence the fibres had been gathered. It presented no discoloration or appearance of having been heated or charred, though for many inches on either side, it was slightly blackened in spots. This, perhaps, was not strange, as heavy rains had fallen since the occurrence; and it might fairly be presumed that all foreign matter would have been effectually detached. I examined the grass and soil on both sides of the fence, without finding anything beyond little fragments of charcoal, which are common enough in most places about the premises of houses. We then took pains to find the individual to whom had been given the principal portion of the fibrous matter obtained from the fence; but had the mortification to discover that, having worn it in a paper wrapper for several days in his vest pocket, he had finally mislaid or lost it. Thus little more than a microscopically visible specimen of the shooting star remained for study and examination. Its entire weight is probably less than one-tenth of a grain. When viewed by a single pocket lens, it seems to be a confused aggregate of short clippings of the finest black hair, varying in length from one-tenth to one-third of an inch. Each portion is straight, or only slightly curved. Except in color, they remind one most of that variety of pumice-stone from the Sandwich Islands, known as volcanic hair, or as "Pete's hair." They do not seem very prone to break in handling, and appear slightly elastic.

They have been examined under compound microscopes of high power by several persons accustomed to the use of this instrument ; but hitherto no one has ventured to suggest a relationship in their properties to any known form of organic or inorganic matter. The following description is from a note handed to me by my friend, Dr. F. W. Porcher, of Charleston. "Black elongated bodies, perfectly opaque, round and solid; amorphous, not properly smooth surfaces, often furnished with warty dots or projections; rather glossy." I could spare only a few of them for a chemical trial. These were introduced into a small glass test-tube (previously well dried), and heated by contact with the flame of the blow-pipe. They suddenly glowed with a brilliant light, at the same time emitting an odor most nearly resembling the bituminous. A distinct grayish skeleton of each fibre was left adhering to the glass. Barytic water being thrown into the tube, was instantly rendered milky, thereby proving the existence of carbonic acid; and the subsequent addition of hydrochloric acid, slowly caused the separation of the skeletons from the glass, which led me to infer the presence of silica as a part of the earthy residuum. The little bodies, however, were not annihilated by the process; but, greatly to my surprise, were easily seen, by the aid of a single lens, still floating through the clear liquid, preserving in a great measure their original form, with the exception only of being rendered here and there transparent, as if about one-half of the black matter had been eaten out and dissolved, leaving the remainder sufficiently connected to maintain the original figure of the body.

This is all that I have been able to ascertain concerning the origin, structure,
and chemical composition of these singular bodies. They appear to be inorganic, though composed in part of carbon. A large proportion of earthy matter also enters into their composition. It will be remembered, perhaps, in this connection, that Berzelius detected what appeared to him to be an organic residuum (resembling burnt hay) in the French meteoric stone of Alais, that fell March 15, 1806; and bearing more distinctly still upon our subject, are the highly interesting results recently obtained by Prof. Wühler on the unknown substance of an organic nature (resinous) in the meteoric stone of Kaba, Hungary, that fell April 15, 1857; and those again arrived at by Prof. E. P. Harris, in the Göttingen laboratory, concerning the carbonaceous matter in the stone that fell Oct. 13, 1838, at Cape of Good Hope, — a meteorite originally described by Sir John Herschel and Prof. Faraday.

Prof. Harris states, In his valuable
thesis on meteorites (Göttingen, 1859), that he finds a quarter per cent, of bituminous matter in the Cape stone, which is soluble both in alcohol and ether, and fusible in a glass tube over a spirit-lamp. It finally burns, with a bituminous odor, and the deposition of carbon. Is the matter of the Charleston shooting star analogous to that of the Alais and the Cape meteoric stones? And if so, may the more complete combustion of its carbonaceous ingredient have been prevented by the humid state of the atmosphere at the time of its fall? These are questions that naturally suggest themselves, but to which we are not in a condition to return satisfactory replies at present.*

* As having possibly a close connection with the subject in hand, may be mentioned, two instances recorded in Chladni'a list of ancient meteorites. The first of these refers to the fall at Rockhausen, near Erfort, July 5,1582, (?) during a frightful tempest, of a large quantity of a fibrous substance, similar to hair. The second occurred March 23,1665, (?) at a place near Lancha, not far from Naumburg, in which case, the matter that fell was likewise fibrous, and resembled a bluish silk. It was also abundant.

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