In search of historical roots of the meteorite impact theory: Franz von Paula Gruithuisen as the first proponent of an impact cratering model for the Moon in the 1820s

Grzegorz Racki, Christian Koeberl

Meteoritics & Planetary Science
First Published: 28 March 2019


“Franz von Paula Gruithuisen (1774–1852), the Bavarian medic, physician, and astronomer, enfant terrible of German science, is known for his insightful observations and many extravagant conceptions. However, since the seminal monograph of Baldwin (1949), he is also referenced for early contributions to the meteoritic origin concept of lunar craters. His most commonly cited paper of 1828 is analyzed here for the first time in some detail. For Gruithuisen, impact phenomena were only an outcome of a more general cosmogenic theory, which assumed planet and satellite growth by concentric shell‐like coalescence of the cosmic bodies. The aggregation theory thus defined was initiated in 1794 by Chladni, developed by the Bierberstein brothers and Anton Zach. Gruithuisen was notably the first person to formulate a nascent concept of lunar crater mechanics. This cratering process, as he thought, is based on an uneven gravitational subsidence of concentrically layered spherical impactors (=the solid core of comet) into the plastic sediments. Only the more resistant and heavy central portion of the body was submerging deeper, and therefore, the circular terrace‐like rim of the ring mountains was formed. Gruithuisen tried also to recognize terrestrial equivalents of large‐scale crater‐like mountains on the Moon, and speculated on other impact consequences, such as a catastrophic influence on the history of the biosphere and a cometary source of the terrestrial hydrosphere. These ideas found several conceptual followers in the vital German science of the last decades of 19th century. Thus, despite principal errors in the gravitationally penetrative cratering model, we confirm the claim of recognition of Gruithuisen as one of the founders of the impact hypothesis.”