Ernst Florenz Friedrich Chladni
Ernst Florenz Friedrich Chladni was born on the 30th of November 1756 in Wittenberg, Germany. His early interests were widely-spread but for the days of the late 18th century not so unusual: mathematics, physics, music, and natural history. Setting his own wishes aside he followed the advices of his father, a professor of Jurisprudence, he stated to study law and philosophy at the universities of Wittenberg (1774) and Leipzig (1778). At the age of 25 he received his Ph.D.’s. But shortly after his father’s death, he was lucky to concentrate his mind back to his “real interests”: science. Because his hope to become a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Wittenberg was dashed, he started to make a name for himself by independent scientific work. Chladni performed e.g. studies of the transmission of sound in various gases and of vibrating plates of glass and metal covered with sand, on which were formed the still so-called Chladni figures. Besides he invented a musical instrument called the euphonium which he used to better demonstrate the Chladni figures on his lecture tours. Nowadays, we call him “father of acoustics”.
So far, so good; but how he became fascinated by meteorites? It is said that a discussion with the physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who witnessed a fireball himself, triggered him to concentrate on the natural phenomena “falling bodies and fireballs”. Depending on the sources it is not quite clear if Lichtenberg, as acknowledged by Chladni, was the first one who suggested fireballs as cosmic phenomena and not atmospheric, or if Lichtenberg, as he wrote 1794 in “Erxlebens Naturlehre”, related the phenomenon to electricity. Anyway, the discussion in 1792/1793 made Chladni spending several weeks at the library and studying numerous historical reports on fireball observations. The task was not only a scientifically one, but his juristic qualification allowed him to separate the eye-witnesses’ reports into “truth” and “fairy-tales”. Based on the real reports Chladni was able to link the two phenomena “falling bodies and fireballs” with each other. Moreover and more radically, his only explanation for the high velocity and the undirected direction of the fireballs described by eye-witnesses was an extraterrestrial origin. In this and later publications he concluded that stony and iron masses, originating from space, fall from the sky by forming fireballs. He hypothesised the cosmic origin in more detail. Those masses could be either primordial masses or fragments of planets. This explanation was in total contrast to the generally accepted idea of Aristotle (confirmed by Isaac Newton) that there is no small body in outer space except the Moon.
As it is quite debatable if Chladni really should be called “founder of meteoritics”, it is undoubted that he was one of a few people who started meteoritics as science by thinking about and publishing radical ideas in those days. His famous publication of 1794 “Ueber den Ursprung der von Pallas gefundenen und anderer ihr ähnlicher Eisenmassen und über einige damit in Verbindung stehende Naturerscheinungen" [on the origin of the mass of iron found by Pallas and of other similar ironmasses and on a few natural phenomena connected therewith] can surely be seen as a milestone for the acceptance of the thesis that meteorites are of extraterrestrial origin. The following table gives a short selection of observed falls and finds, he compiled in his work:
Date of fall / find
Today’s classification & preservation (main mass)
19th Feb 1785
H5, Nat. Hist. Mus. Vienna
Pas de Calais, France
13th Sep 1768
L6, Nat. Hist. Mus. Vienna
LL4, University of Modena
Bohemia, Czech Republic
3rd Jul 1753
H5, Nat. Hist. Mus. Vienna
26th May 1751
Iron (IID), Nat. Hist. Mus. Vienna
11th Oct 1750
Bohemia, Czech Republic
L5, London Nat. Hist. Mus.
7th Nov 1492
LL6, Musée de la Régence, Ensisheim
Campo del Cielo
~2000 BC (14C)
Bef. 1576 (find)
Iron (IA), still crater #10
Pallasite, Moscow Acad. Sci.
It is often said that Chladni published his paper in 1794 without having ever witnessed a fireball and even without having seen a piece of a meteorite, but at least the latter one should be questioned. Chladni wrote in a later publication of 1819 (as quoted by Bühler): “Als ich meine erste Abhandlung…im Jahre 1794 erschien, hatte ich ausser Stücken von der Pallasschen Eisenmasse noch nichts von der Art gesehen (so wie ich auch nie die Gelegenheit hatte, eine Feuerkugel selbst zu beobachten)“ [as my first essay…in 1794 was published, I had not seen any pieces of this kind except those of the Pallas iron (as I had not had the opportunity to witness a fireball myself)]. Chladni’s detailed description of the silicate inclusions in the Pallas iron, which is related to the later name of this meteorite type as “Pallasite”, can be more likely retraced to an observation of a real piece. He also concluded that fallen bodies are composed of iron, and other elements like sulphur, silica, and magnesia also exist outside Earth.
Nevertheless, for writing this publication Chladni was immediately attacked and ridiculed by nearly all his contemporaries. The most well-know beyond them, e.g. Alexander von Humboldt and the already mentioned Lichtenberg. Lichtenberg’s comment on Chladni’s paper, as cited by Chladni himself in the publication of 1819, was “es sey ihm bey dem Lesen meiner Schrift anfangs so zu Muthe gewesen, als wenn ihn selbst ein solcher Stein am Kopfe getroffen hätte, und er habe anfangs gewünscht, daß ich sie nicht geschrieben hätte” [when he read my text, he felt as if himself had been hit on the head by such a stone, and he initially wished that I had not written it].
Luckily, nature itself had the strongest arguments against Chladni’s counterparty in the next years. After several witnessed falls e.g. at Siena (Italy, 1794), Wold Cottage (England, 1795), Portugal (Evora/Portugal, 1796, all material lost), Salles (France, 1798), and Benares (India, 1798) on 26th April 1803 one of the biggest meteorite showers took place at L’Aigle in Normandy, France. The detailed report by Jean-Baptiste Biot which included a description (the first ever) of first description of the shape of a strewn field as an elliptical area and the fact that over 3000 stones were collected, made even the so far most sceptical members of the respected French Academy of Sciences to rethink about a connection between fireballs and falling bodies.
Chladni wrote two more scientific papers in 1797/8, in which he not only discussed the new and some of older observed falls, he also included his thoughts on the first English paper in meteoritics by Edward King in 1796, the work of Domenico Troili on the Alberato stone in 1766 and Baudin’s account of the Barnotan shower.
Another step forward into the future of meteoritics were the analyses of samples of the observed falls Benares (LL4), Siena (LL5), Wold Cottage (L6), and Tabor (H5) together with samples from iron finds Campo del Cielo, Krasnojarsk, Siratik (Senegal, 1716, IIA), and Steinbach (Germany, 1724, IVA-AN). The chemist Edward Charles Howard and the mineralogist Jacques Louis the Comte de Bournon published their results in 1801 and in an extended version in 1802. These are the first papers including scientific data in meteoritics. Howard and de Bournon established the crucial link between iron and stony meteorites by e.g. the presence of nickel in irons and separated metal fractions of the stony meteorites. They also observed chondrules and thermoluminescence in a meteorite for the first time and suggested bodies of meteors as sources of meteorites.
As more scientist as Louis-Nicholas Vauquelin, Antoine Fourcroy, and Martin Heinrich Klaproth also started to analyse meteorites and came to similar results, Chladni’s theories were obviously en route to be accepted. Therefore, Chladni concluded in his publication of 1819 (as quoted by Bühler) “Über Feuer-Meteore, und über die mit denselben herabgefallenen Massen“ [about fire-meteors and the associated fallen masses]: “Ungeachtet man damahls nichts davon wissen wollte, so wurden doch bald Einige aufmerksamer, und fingen an zu vermuthen, dass doch etwas an der Sache seyn möchte…” [despite the fact that everybody disavowed with this at that time, soon some people were attentive, and started to assume that there might be some truth in the matter…]. In his second book he compiled all present information about the occurrences and physics of meteorite falls and the composition of the “fallen bodies”. It also includes his already published chronological list of stony and iron masses associated with fireballs from 1803 and theories about the origin of meteorites (“the large empty space between Mars and Jupiter” or interstellar space) from 1805.
The time Chladni’s ideas were under discussion and moreover as they were fully accepted a great interest in the collection and study of meteorites developed. Chladni himself assembled his own collection, he donated to the mineralogical museum of the University of Berlin. His collection was described in great detail in 1825 and then again in 1987. Today, Chladni meteorites are still part of the Berlin Museum collection (Humboldt University), some with his original written comments.
Original label written by E. F. F. Chladni.
© Museum für Naturkunde, Institut für Mineralogie, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.
Chladni was awarded a number of honours (e.g. 6,000 Francs by Napoleon Bonaparte for his discoveries on acoustics), but never received a full-time university appointment. He had to earn his leaving by giving lectures all over Europe until his death on 3rd April 1827 in Breslau. As a late honour for Chladni a new phosphate mineral Na2CaMg7(PO4)6 was named chladniite in 1993 .
More to read about and from Chladni
- Rolf W. Bühler, Meteorite: Urmaterie aus dem interplanetaren Raum, Birkhäuser Verlag Basel Boston Berlin (1988) 27-33.
- Ernst Florenz Friedrich Chladni, Ueber den Ursprung der von Pallas gefundenen und anderer ihr ähnlicher Eisenmassen und über einige damit in Verbindung stehende Naturerscheinungen (1794).
- Ernst Florenz Friedrich Chladni, Fortsetzung der Bemerkungen über Feuerkugeln und niedergefallene Massen, Mag. Für den Neuest. Zust. der Naturkunde 1 (1797) 17-30.
- Ernst Florenz Friedrich Chladni, Account of a remarkable fiery meteor seen in Gascony, on the 24th of July 1790; by Professor Baudin, Professor of Philosophy at Pau. With some observations on fire-balls and shooting stars, by Professor Chladni at Wittenberg, Phil. Mag. 2 (1798) 225-231.
- Ernst Florenz Friedrich Chladni, Chronologisches Verzeichnis der mit einem Feuermeteor niedergefallenen Stein- und Eisenmassen, nebst einigen Bemerkungen, Ann. Phys. 15 (1803) 307-339.
- Ernst Florenz Friedrich Chladni, Einige Kosmologische Ideen, die Vermehrung oder Verminderung der Masse eines Weltkörpers betreffend, Ann. Phys. 19 (1805) 257-281.
- Ernst Florenz Friedrich Chladni, Über Feuer-Meteore, und über die mit denselben herabgefallenen Massen, J. G. Heubner, Wien (1819).
- Ernst Florenz Friedrich Chladni, Nouveau Catalogue des chutes de pierres ou de fer; de poussières ou de substances molles, sèches ou humides, suivant l’ordre chronologique, Annales de chimie et de physique 31 (1826) 253-270.
- Ernst Florenz Friedrich Chladni, Über den kosmischen Ursprung der Meteorite und Feuerkugeln. Erl. v. Günter Hoppe. 3. Aufl. (Nachdr. der Ausg. Leipzig, Akad. Verl.-Ges. 1971). Thun [u.a.] 1996. 104 S. (Ostwalds Klassiker der exakten Wissenschaften 258).
- Günter Hoppe, Das Pallas-Eisen, ein Ausgangspunkt für die Meteoritentheorie E. F. F.
Chladnis (1794), Zeitschrift für geologische Wissenschaften 4 (1976) 521-528.
- Günter Hoppe, Goethes Ansichten über Meteorite und sein Verhältnis zu dem Physiker Chladni, Goethe Jahrbuch 95 (1978) 227-240.
- Kurt Löwenfeld, Ernst Florenz Friedrich Chladni. Skizze von Leben und Werk, Abhandlungen des Naturwissenschaftlichen Vereins zu Hamburg 22 (1929) 117-144.
- Ursula B. Marvin, Ernst Florenz Friedrich Chladni (1756-1827) and the origins of modern meteorite research, Meteoritics & Planetary Science 31 (1996) 545-588.
- Dieter Ullmann, Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladni. Leipzig 1983. (Biographien hervorragender Naturwissenschaftler, Techniker und Mediziner. 65).
More pictures and facts about Chladni