The excitement of the last two weeks in response to the explosion of a meteor traveling approximately 34,000 mph overhead wasn’t the first time that a meteor caused some excitement in El Dorado County. But before exploring that subject, let’s review some basics about meteors and meteorites.
In simple terms, meteors are pieces of natural material such as rock or metal that have entered the Earth’s atmosphere. If they survive the heat generated by contact with the atmosphere and strike the Earth, they then become classified as meteorites.
The Earth acquires about 100 tons per day of dust-sized particles from outer space. In the 1930s magazines like “Popular Science” described how to put magnets under their roof gutter downspouts to capture any that might have landed on their house. It was a short fad.
Meteor showers occur a number of times a year and are believed to be the result of the Earth passing through dust that remains from a comet passing by sometime in the past. Each shower is named for the constellation from where the meteors “appear” to be originating, although they have nothing to do with it.
The April 22 meteor fell during the Lyrids (constellation Lyra) meteor shower, an average shower that produces about 20 meteors per hour at their peak. However, it appears from some of the latest material from NASA and reports in several newspapers, that it may not have had anything to do with the shower and may have been a small asteroid, if one considers a piece of material weighing about 77 tons and the size of a minivan, small.
Meteorites fall into three general classes: iron, stone and stony-iron. These have been further divided in a a number of subcategories, including carbonaceous chondrites, which, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, is a division of the stone meteorites. These are extremely rare and prized because they are very old and contain carbon compounds and other materials that may give clues to the formation of our solar system. The scientists, after investigating the pieces of meteorite found in the Lotus area, have designated it as being one of these.
Now, going back a few years, at the meeting of the National Academy of Sciences held in Washington, D.C., in April of 1873, a professor Benjamin Silliman Jr. presented a paper entitled “On the Meteoric Iron found near Shingle Springs, Eldorado County, California.”
In the paper Professor Silliman wrote: “An Eldorado meteoric mass was found by the writer in March 1872, in the cabinet of Mr. W.H.V. Cronise, of San Francisco, where it was placed by its discoverer, Mr. James Crossman [there is a J. H. Crossman listed on a 1871 deed in the El Dorado County Recorder’s Office], who in 1871 rescued it from the forge of a smith at Shingle Springs, California. [Iron meteorites were, and in some locales still are, often melted or worked by blacksmiths because of their high, 90 percent or more, iron content]. It was found in 1869 or ‘70, in a field belonging to the same smith, about half a mile from the town named. It is said to be the first meteoric mass discovered in California. Mr. C.F. Watkins of San Francisco has photographed this specimen of the natural size, and from this photograph the accompanying figure has been reduced to one-third the linear dimensions of the original.
“The mass was intact when I first saw it, and weighed about 85 pounds avoirdupois. It was flattened upon one side and presented the usual familiar features of iron meteors. The largest dimensions of the entire mass were about 24 and 29 centimeters [about 9.4 by 11.4 inches].”
The professor goes on to explain in depth the chemical analyses of the meteorite, ending with a reference to the fact that it has a very high nickel content, some 17.173 percent, higher than any other meteorite he knew of and contained “aluminum, calcium and potassium, which had been rarely observed in meteoric iron — meteors free from silicates — while the absence of copper, tin, manganese and sodium will be noted.”
So, what happened to the meteorite officially known as the Shingle Springs Iron? Professor Silliman noted that it had been cut into several sections, one of which he had in his possession when he presented his paper.
According to a paper delivered at a meeting of the Society for Research on Meteorites in 1934 by Earle G. Linsley, “Portions of it have been distributed. The largest mass is at Yale University (1,650 grams) [about 3.6 pounds]. The greater part is said to have fallen into the hands of boys and to have been lost.”
However, all is not lost. The American Museum of Natural History has a sample of it in its inventory and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has several samples.
I would like to dedicate this article to Morton Klotz, Ph.D, who unfortunately passed away earlier this month. Dr. Klotz worked for Aerojet Corp. for many years and was an expert in many things related to rockets, space travel and astronomy. Some of you may remember him as “Dr. Rocket,” giving talks to school children, or may have had the privilege of taking one of his classes in astronomy at the former American River College, an institution of higher learning more commonly known as UBR, or “University Behind Raley’s.”
Dr. Klotz would have loved to have experienced this meteoric event and his expertise on this subject, along with his always questioning mind, would have saved an enormous amount of research time and made for absolutely wonderful conversations.
Author’s Note: A few years ago a young man appeared at the Diamond Springs flea market with a number of interesting looking, very heavy for their size, dark brown rocks that would hold a magnet. He said that he had found about 90 pounds of them in one location in Shingle Springs and believed them to be part of the Shingle Springs meteorite.
Several months later I ran into him again and asked it he had sent a sample to be tested. He said he had and that the report came back that they could be a meteorite, but that the lab questioned the location of the find, which seemed very strange, given the history of a meteorite in Shingle Springs.
Since then I have found another person who claims to have in his backyard a 100-pound iron meteorite that was dug up in the same area.