Meteorite Sword from Outer Space

This week the guys at the Drunk in Public Domain podcast are screening the infamous 1959 Ed Wood film (and oft-cited worst movie ever made) Plan 9 from Outer Space. It has aliens, zombies, a woman named “Vampira” and the actor Bela Lugosi, who died 3 years before the film. It’s not only the film Jerry Seinfeld planned to go see in the famous Chinese restaurant episode, but also one that Fox Mulder from the X-Files claimed to have watched a whopping 42 times.

I’ll be listening in. I highly recommend checking out their show. It’s always entertaining and a great way to experience public domain film and music.

In keeping with this outer space theme, today we’re talking about a Meteorite Sword from Outer Space. More specifically, we’re talking about James Sowerby (1757-1822), and his outer space sword which still exists today.

James Sowerby was an English naturalist, illustrator and mineralogist who produced an impressive corpus of work. One of his projects titled English Botany (1790-1814) is a 36 volume masterpiece with 2,592 hand-coloured engravings which he labored on for 23 years. He is also the founding father of the Sowerby family of naturalists/illustrators. His children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and so on would continue his work. He developed a color theory based on yellow, red and blue called A New Elucidation of Colours (1809).

A New Elucidation of Colours (1809)

He also illustrated many, many minerals. We restored and put together 36 of them into a collection below.

Illustrations from British Mineralogy (1802-1817) and Exotic Mineralogy (1811)

The takeway here is that James Sowerby was such a fascinating guy that he never needed a sword from space to be interesting. This is just the galactic icing on the cake.

So let’s get to this sword story.

During James Sowerby’s time, it was mostly unknown what was out there. A sun, a moon, stars… and what? Was it just… space?

Well, no. We now know there is plenty of other stuff out there too. At around 3 o’clock on the 13th of December 1795 just outside of the town of Wold Cottage in Yorkshire, England, a piece of that “other stuff” came hurtling through our atmosphere at an unfathomable velocity and slammed into the earth within a few yards of ploughman John Shipley, creating a crater, and presumably scaring the hell out of the guy. A stone was found embedded seven inches deep into the chalk under the topsoil, warm and smoking.

A rock from space was a new idea at that time. The first publication that surmised that meteorites may have originated in space and not on Earth was only published in 1794 by German physicist Ernst Florens Chladni, and his research was widely ridiculed for almost a decade.

Science caught up eventually, and James Sowerby acquired the stone from Wold Cottage (the first recorded English meteorite) in 1804. At his private but free to the public museum on the grounds of his London home the meteorite became a favorite attraction. Sowerby wanted to share his curiosity for discovery, and what better way to do that than by allowing the public to marvel at a celestial object? The meteorite brought in flocks of visitors, and Sowerby wasn’t afraid to cut off specimens from the stone to trade with other collectors.

In the portrait below the Wold Cottage meteorite is visible just behind Sowerby’s color theory illustration.

James Sowerby (1816) by Thomas Heaphy

Eventually Sowerby’s collection held more meteorite samples. Some were made of stone like the Wold Cottage, and some were made of iron. One of these iron meteorites was the Cape of Good Hope meteorite discovered in the 18th century in the Dutch Cape Colony in southern Africa, where it was originally erroneously believed to be part of a ship’s anchor.

In 1814 Sowerby had the wild idea to make a sword out of it.

1814 marked the end of the Napoleonic wars. France had been defeated, Napoleon abdicated and various sovereigns planned on visiting England to celebrate the end of the war. This included the Emperor of Russia, Alexander I. Sowerby thought that a sword made from a space rock would make for an interesting gift, and obviously he was completely right!

The meteorite sword of Emperor Alexander I (1814) James Sowerby
Photograph copyright © The State Hermitage Museum. Photograph by Konstantin Sinyavsky.

Sowerby had a very small window of time to get his gift prepared and presented. He managed to have the sword crafted in two days, but wasn’t able to catch the emperor in person. It was a challenge to get the sword to the emperor, and it took 5 years to receive a response. In 1819 Sowerby heard back that the sword was well received and he was gifted a diamond ring in return. The sword is housed in the State Hermitage Museum in Russia, and the ring likely still resides with a descendant of James Sowerby.

I rather like the idea of a meteorite sword. Outer space is still a realm of unknowns. This sword’s material came from out there, and perhaps that origin carries with it *something* from beyond…

(the X-Files theme song should play in your head now)

This is just the bare-bones version of the story. If you want all the juicy details check out Paul Henderson’s research.

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