Thunderstone Phenomena

This account appeared in the March 14, 1912, issue of the august British scientific journal Nature:

“During a heavy thunderstorm which ensued on Monday, March 4, between 2.30 p.m. and 4.15 p.m., an aerolite was observed to fall at Colney Heath, near St. Albans [Hertfordshire]. The observer [H. L. G. Andrews], who has placed the specimen in my hands for examination, stated that the stone fell within a few feet from where he was standing, and that it entered the ground for a distance of about 3 ft. Its fall was accompanied by an unusually heavy clap of thunder. The example weighs 5 lb. 14 ½ oz., and measures 6 3/4 in. x 5-5/8 in. at its great length and breadth respectively. The mass is irregularly ovate on the one side, and broken in outline on the other. The actual surface throughout is fairly deeply pitted, and under magnification exhibits the usual chondritic structure of the crystalline matter with interspersed particles of what appears to be nickeliferous iron.”

The following week, in the March 21 issue, the correspondent, G. E. Bullen, wrote, “I have now submitted the stone for examination by Dr. George T. Prior, of the British Museum (Natural History),who informs me that it is not of meteoritic origin.” If this is an authentic case, it is indeed a remarkable one: a rare modern, Western report of a thunderstone. Rejected by nearly all learned commentators as a misperception or absurd superstition, thunderstones are the subject of many folk traditions and fewer documented, firsthand sightings. They are said to be aerial objects that crash to Earth during intense storms, usually in the wake of lightning and a heavy peal of thunder.

Often, though not always, they are alleged to be shaped like manufactured artifacts. The thunderstone tradition is part of the history of meteorites. Charles Fort, the great anomaly collector, summarized that history thus: “Peasants believed in meteorites. Scientists excluded meteorites. Peasants believe in ‘thunderstones.’ Scientists exclude ‘thunderstones.’”

Until the early nineteenth century most scientists denied that such things as meteorites could exist — no prevailing theory concerning the causes of atmospheric phenomena could accommodate the notion of stones falling from the sky — and they “explained” meteorite falls as an illusion. They held that lightning had merely struck stones already on the ground, and observers mistakenly deduced that the stones had arrived with the lightning.

Meteorites,we know now, are not associated with lightning, though there is nothing to stop a fall of one, coincidentally, with an electric storm. In any event, it looks very much as if what eighteenth-century scientists were explaining were thunderstone, not meteorite, manifestations. Moreover, lightning was hitting ground objects. As historian of science John G. Burke notes, thunderstone traditions worked to hinder scholarly recognition of the reality of meteorites. He remarks that the “studies of early paleontologists, archaeologists, and mineralogists . . . tended to prove that the stones alleged to have fallen during thunderstorms were either fossils, ancient stone implements, or crystal masses of a common mineral.”

Nonetheless, according to widespread and often credible reports, non-meteoritic stones do fall anomalously out of the sky (see Falls from the sky [inorganic matter], earlier in this chapter). If thunderstones are seen in this context, a generous interpretation of an admittedly thin body of evidence permits us to declare them one variety of enigmatic, so far unexplained — but probably not extraordinary to the point of paranormality — occurrence.

The thinness of the evidence, incidentally, does not necessarily mean the absence of any potential abundance of evidence. All it tells us is that resistance to the idea of thunderstones has discouraged serious investigators from seeking such evidence. One need only read nineteenth-century scientific journals for examples of the intense ridicule attached to the subject.

The hostility was so extreme that an 1884 writer for the American Journal of Science, referring to an article just published in Cornhill Magazine, expressed astonishment that “any man of ordinary reasoning powers should write a paper to prove that thunderstones do not exist” (emphasis added). Even so, the Cornhill contributor could not have been more contemptuous of the subject, deriding the testimony of native peoples in a way that today would be considered racist; moreover, as William R. Corliss would observe nearly a century later, “it seems to be the writer’s intent to assert that all who did not subscribe to the science of 1884 were also savages.”

Where thunderstones — as well as many other of the phenomena this book describes — are concerned, perhaps we would all do well to remember that a century from now the science of the 1990s will seem as antique as that of the 1880s. Thunderstones may or may not exist.What is more certain is that we do not know everything, and it ill behooves us to pretend otherwise.

Unexplained: “Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurences & Puzzling Physical Phenomena” by Jerome Clark

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