Hessle, Sweden It’s a Baseball! It’s a Lollypop! It’s Gunpowder! Nope, it’s just a New Years Day Meteorite

Updated: Martin Horejsi’s Meteorite Books Website 

A January 1, 1869 Witnessed Fall: Hessle, Sweden

It’s a Baseball!

It’s a Lollypop! It’s Gunpowder!

Nope, it’s just a

New Years Day Meteorite

Novo-Urei

Like cosmic gumballs, licorice of course, these fell on New Years Day in 1869 just six degrees shy of the Arctic Circle. But because of where they fell, maybe they should be described as small Swedish meatballs.

According to the Catalogue of Meteorites, the Hessle meteorite shower occurred on January 1, 1869 at about 12:30 pm. In a single content-dense sentence the rest of the story of the fall is presented. Or is it? Let’s start with the CoM entry and go from there.

After detonations, a shower of stones, weighing from about 1.8kg to a few grams each, fell over an area about 3 x 9 miles; some fell upon ice a few inches thick without breaking it, and powdery, carbonaceous matter was found in association with the stones.

A quick analysis of the description of the fall yields the following:
There were loud noises preceding the fall.
The fall was a shower of stones.
The meteorites ranged from 1800g to a few grams.
The Hessle strewnfield was 4.8km by 14.5km.
Some meteorites landed on ice a few inches thick but didn’t break the ice.
A powdery material was found with the stones.


Novo-Urei
With a form similar to Holbrook (but with less metal and more surface texture) and Pultusk (same classification but with more contraction cracks), complete individuals, even sub-gram ones, are highly desired since there are only so many to go around, and their number can only go down.

Each of the listed CoM details is an important fact about the fall, but without the rich background the facts fall far short of the real story. When reading an earlier account of the fall included in the book A Chapter in the History of Meteorites by Walter Flight, the elements of the Hessle story take on an entirely new life. And in this case anyway, open the door for one to take a somewhat humorous bend on the story. In this particular case, I will be doing the bending.

First of all, consider that this fall landed shortly after noon on not just any old day, but on New Years Day. And a Friday in case you’re wondering.

Now I think it is fair to give those winter loving Swedes the benefit of the doubt that the previous night some alcoholic libations might have been consumed in personal quantities somewhat beyond responsible moderation. Also, although they were hopefully not as apocalyptical as we are now, I’m sure a hail of stones falling from the sky, especially when said stones’ fall was preceded by thunderous roars from the heavens, might have caused a few tickers to beat a little faster as their owners wondered if the End was near (that’s End with a capitol E). And that goes double for those select individuals who missed certain death as the thunderstones collided with mother earth mere meters from where the church doors had just opened releasing the worshipers back into the custody of a cloudy afternoon.
Now you can read into that church part what you want, but outside a direct lightening bolt strike, to me anyway, not much else screams Act of God as a sizzling hot chunk of rock flung from the asteroid belt right at your head.

But back to the story. A few of the Catalogue facts ring hollow, or at least tinny under closer scrutiny provided by those who were there when the event occurred. Of course I was not among them, but the words provided by letters published by Mr. Flight cast a bright light on just how shallow our generalized descriptions are especially those of the auditory aspects of this phenomenon.

For instance, the word “detonations” hardly captures the dynamic sounds produced by the Hessle meteorites. Remember that this was a shower, not just a fall. Now imagine, if you will, hearing a couple of bangs in the distance. Big deal right. Thunder? Dynamite? Military artillery? Tree falling? Glacier movement? Could be anything. Of course we know better today because we can look it up in the Catalogue of Meteorites 5th edition, right?

Well what if you heard something that sounded like:

“heavy peals of thunder, followed by a rattling noise as of waggons (sic) at a gallop, and ending at first with a note like an organ tone, and then a hissing sound.”
Bit of a difference, eh?


Novo-Urei
The total weight of the four similar sized pieces picture above is less than two grams. Fortunately that does not translate into value. 

Hessle stones, especially complete individuals, have been offered so rarely in the past that most collectors not only are missing the Hessle entry in their collection (except supermicros), but also have not had the opportunity to even consider acquiring a sample.

Now lets take a closer look at the physics of the fall itself. First, the fall is named Hessle, presumably because that’s where it fell. Horseshoes, hand grenades, and meteorite falls. Close enough is good enough. The funny thing is that none of the residents of Hessle, according the Flight entry, observed the fall although a:

“luminous meteor was noticed by observers at a distance.”

Not bad, describing it as a meteor, given that the Hessle meteorite fall is the first reported in Sweden. But then again, airplanes are still a few decades off, and space aliens weren’t as popular to use as excuses as they are today.

But I digress.
The stones were reported to have been:

“strewn over a line of country lying 30 degrees E. of S. towards 30 degrees W. of N.”

Now I chewed on that sentence for quite a while before giving up and spitting it out. Pardon my vector analysis, but east of south? West of north? Can someone toss me a bone here? I must of cut class when my geography prof covered that one. One suggestion is that the terms southeast and northwest were lost in translation. Sounds reasonable to me.
Now remember, this is 1/1/69 of the 1800s variety. The fall location is a full 60 degrees north of the equator just six degrees and some minutes south of the Arctic Circle, and just a few days after the Winter Solstice. In other words, it should be cold, yet the report states that the ice on a local lake, where some specimens just happen to fall, was only “a few inches” thick.

A few years ago, I drug my family above the Arctic Circle in Finland (next door to Sweden) just to see what was up there. Plenty of trees. Plenty of mosquitoes. And plenty of cold. Yet as I type this here in my home just shy of 47 degrees north, and as it happens, also on New Years Day, its freezing outside! Everything is frozen. The creeks. The lakes. The pipes. Not that it’s like this every January first, but our lake ice is many times thicker then a few inches.


Novo-Urei
The above comparision of the weather as of this writing in both Missoula, Montana and Uppsala, Sweden shows just how similar my town’s temperature is to that of where the meteorite fell. At least until the weekend when I’ll be wearing sunglasses and skiing fresh powder while my friends in Uppsala will be listening to the rain fall from a dark sky.

Why does this matter, you ask? Well it was reported that the Hessle stones slammed into the frozen lake near an ice fisherman. Normally I might wonder who was in the spiritual right, the churchgoer or the fisherman, but in this case neither was spared the close call. I can ask questions like this because I was raised fishing on the River That Runs Through It and just happen to still live within a few clicks of said river. But regardless of the Biblical considerations, the ice thickness is the topic at hand. The report describes the landing behavior of some of the stones, when they hit the frozen lake (which, by the way, had better have ice more than two inches thick if anyone is going to walk around safely):

“After digging a hole three or four inches deep, rebounded….”

Where to start? Bouncing meteorites? Four-inch deep holes in two-inch thick ice? I won’t pick on the metaphysics any further except to say that later, under close scientific inspection, they didn’t bounce during “laboratory tests.”

Interestingly, the bouncing meteorites were taken as evidence for, well, let me quote from the story:

“This explains in some degree the statements of eye witnesses as to their remarkably small downward velocity.”

Presumably these are the same eyewitnesses who did not hear any of the thunder, wagons, organ pipes, or hissing.


Novo-Urei
Perfect individuals are the rarest of the already rare. 

In the case of this member of the quartet, the primary crust damage on this little fellow was field bandaged with secondary crust during battle with earth’s atmosphere.

To top off, the particular quoted passage ends with:

“when picked up, it was still warm.”

I used to be of the faith that 21st century man knew better when it came to such things as hot and cold meteorites. But in my never ending (some say obsessive) pursuit to surround myself with the evidence of historic witnessed meteorite falls, a majority of documents I’ve read clearly places the surface temperature of freshly fallen meteorites decidedly above that of the average room. Say what you will about me, but I think these rocks from space are more apt to be warm to the touch then cold, with a few being on the dangerously hot side.

Of course there are many reports of the frozen variety thunderstone, but the lesson here is to listen to the witness and not immediately dogpile on their facts in an attempt to make the world fit your rules. Everyone out there, raise your hand if you have touched a meteorite immediately after it fell.

I thought so.

Now I know you have not read this far just to hear my opinions, but stay with me for one more. The Hessle meteorite fall is one of a few where not just stones were recovered, but also an unusual gray powder. But more on that in a moment. First, a mild digression into the “field analysis” of the stones. The ice bouncing aspect of the Hessle stones became important when it was observed that:

“it is a remarkable fact that nearly all the specimens which have been collected fell intact.”
But what I personally find more remarkable (in a funny, ha ha way for me), and so did one of the early observers (but not for the same reason) is that the geologic integrity of the Hessle stone is such that (if you can believe this):

“Though the structure of these meteorites is so loose that they break in pieces when thrown with the hand against the floor or frozen ground…”

Notice the “they” as in plural? I wonder how many stones were analyzed in such a way.

And, as they say, but wait. There’s more!


muffin
Years ago, a few specimens of Hessle were traded out of the Stockholm Museum. The moment I heard that some individuals were available for exchange, I immediately requested the best complete individuals. I was sent a photo of the stones and chose four. 

A photocopy of the original specimen label arrived with each beautiful stone.

The initial evaluation of the stones included the following two helpful observations:

“The exterior of the stones is black; the interior bright grey, and sufficiently porous to cling to the tongue.”

So the importance of smashing the intact bouncing stones was to do the tongue test, a classic yet intimate geologic assessment that has caused the less learned to make the faulty assumption that geologists eat rocks. Or in this case meteorites.

Remember the gray powder mentioned earlier? Well there have been several if not numerous reports of a dark colored powder accompanying some meteorite falls.

Often the powder is discounted as nothing important, or worse, considered not related to the meteorite. In this case Lindstrom published an analysis of the dust in 1869 that was later dismissed by Wahl in 1950 because there was no potassium. But here’s the exciting part. The gray powder, which has been described in other meteorite falls as smelling like gunpowder, may have similar properties to the Chinese invention. But more on that in a second. First, the words of the Flight book again:

“The most remarkable feature of the Hessle shower is the association with the stones already described of other cosmical matter, chiefly composed of carbon.

It was remarked by the peasants that some of the stones which fell on the ice near Arno soon crumbled to a blackish-brown powder, which formed with the snow-water a mixture resembling coffee-grounds.

Similar powder was found on the ice at Hafslaviken in masses as large as the hand, which floated like foam on water, and could not be held between the fingers.”

Any guesses on that one?

The description reminds me of some sort of hydrophobic graphite material. I have not consulted with a coffee expert, but I don’t think the latte’ crowd had yet descended upon this hamlet 20km from Uppsala. In other words, the comparison of the powder to coffee grounds might be understood differently in our Starbucks saturated landscape.

I err on the side of coffee grounds in 1869 being much coarser then the average grind today. With no electricity, bistro, or even paper cup, the horizontal cranking common to portable coffee grinders likely produced a grind larger than sand but smaller than gravel. Or maybe a combination grind of both sand and gravel. Maybe even including sand or gravel depending on the quality of the grinder.


Goalpara
Although durable enough to land on ice, bounce, then move around the earth for 142 years, these stones have grown fragile with age. 

In fact, I suspect even a light toss onto a floor would be enough to downgrade them from individuals to fragments.

Under the microscope, the powder contained “small spherical granules… and metallic particles extractible with the magnet.” But, the best test was yet to come. As any third grade boy would suggest, if something smells like gun powder, the it is only natural to compare it to the definitive property of gun powder.

In this case:

“and, when ignited, burnt away, leaving a reddish-brown ash.”

Do you get it? Hot meteorites landing in a pool of gunpowder? The implications are staggering!

Maybe meteorites were not only the precursor for iron sword blades, but also for guns. Just a thought.


Novo-Urei

Look close at the left surface. 

Can you see the orientation?

The lipping?

The radial flowlines?

Great gifts do come in small packages!

Mr. Nordenskjold, the one who did the analysis, deduced that,

“The combustible constituent accompanying the stony matter in the above mixture appears to have the formula nC9H8O2.

The Hessle stones form a new member of the small class of carbonaceous meteorites, that is to say, such as contain carbon in the amorphous state, or combined with hydrogen and oxygen, or in both these conditions; it includes at present those which fell at Kaba, Cold Bokkeveldt, Alais, Orgueil, Goalpara, and others.”

So now this odd collection of Hessle meteorites that fell intact, bounced on ice, arrived warm, shattered when thrown, stuck to the tongue, indiscriminately almost hit folks, and traveled with combustible powder also joins a rare class that at the time contained some of the strangest meteorites known to fall.

Not bad for an H5 ordinary chondrite.

Happy New Year Hessle, and also to you!

Until next time….


The Accretion Desk welcomes all comments and feedback. accretiondesk@gmail.com




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About the Author

Martin Horejsi
Dr. Martin Horejsi is a Professor of Instructional Technology and Science Education at The University of Montana. A long-time meteorite collector and writer, before publishing his column The Accretion Desk in The Meteorite Times, he contributed often and wrote the column From The Strewnfields in Meteorite Magazine. Horejsi is currently a monthly columnist in The Science Teacher, a journal by the National Science Teachers Association. Horejsi specializes in the collection and study of historic witnessed fall meteorites with the older, smaller, and rarer the better. Although his meteorite collection once numbered over a thousand pieces with near that many different locations, several large trades and sales have streamlined the collection to about 250 locations with all but 10 being important witnessed falls. Many of the significant specimens in Horejsi's collection are historic witnessed falls that once occupied prominence in the meteorite collections of Robert A. Haag, James Schwade, and Michael Farmer. Other important specimens were acquired through institutional trades including those from The Smithsonian Institution, Arizona State University, and other universities.
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