On this day, in 1954, a meteorite fell near Sylacauga in Alabama. The largest piece of it which was recovered is known as the Hodges Fragment. It is called this because it hit a woman called Ann Hodges. Ann survived, and was able to walk away from the incident, though she was very badly bruised. The eight and a half pound rock had smashed through her roof, bounced off her large wooden radio and hit her in the side as she lay sleeping on her sofa. It’s a very rare thing for a person to be hit by a meteorite, It has been calculated that, in the US for example, a person will be hit by a meteorite once every 9,300 years. Oddly, her home was just over the road from the an establishment called the ‘Comet Drive-in Theater’.
Many people had observed the meteor in the sky. Over three states, they had heard explosions and seen its fiery trail. Some witnesses closer to the meteorite strike reported seeing a plane flying in the area, which was worrying. In 1954, people were pretty edgy about the Cold War and there was some concern that it might be something to do with the Russians. The meteorite was confiscated by the police and turned over to the United States Air Force for examination.
Once they had proved, beyond all doubt, that it was an extra-terrestrial object and not part of some terrible communist plot, the next problem was: who did the meteorite belong to? Hodges thought it was hers, as she was the person who had been hit by it. The owner of her rented house, Birdie Guy, thought as it had landed on her property, it should belong to her. There was a lot of legal wrangling and, eventually, Hodges paid Guy $500 for the rock. Both sides believed, falsely as it turned out, that there was a fortune to be made out of the meteorite. By the time they had finished deciding who it belonged to, everyone had forgotten about it.
The real winner in the Sylacauga meteorite incident was a local farmer called Julius McKinney, who was driving his mule cart when the animals ground to a halt and shied at something in the road. He got down to investigate, expecting to find a snake, but when he found a large black rock, he moved it to the verge and went on his way. When he heard about the Hodges meteorite, he went back, retrieved it and took it home and gave it to his children to play with. After a few days, he mentioned it to a friend who helped him find a buyer from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. We don’t know how much he sold it for, but shortly afterwards he bought himself a house and a car.
Today is also the birthday of Ernst Chladni, who was born on this day in 1756. I mention him because he happens to be the first person to suggest the meteorites came from space. Before that, everyone thought they must come from volcanoes. Chladni worked mostly with sound experiments and also invented a couple of musical instruments called the euphon and the clavicylinder about which I have been able to find out disappointingly little.