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Controversy and Enlightenment: The Work of Grove Karl Gilbert and Daniel Moreau Barringer

David A. Kring

The classic work of Daniel Moreau Barringer, which proved, for the first time, the impact origin of a crater on Earth, was recognized by the Meteoritical Society in 1950 when it formally recommended the name “Barringer Meteorite Crater” for the structure commonly called Meteor Crater, Arizona.

Barringer initially marshaled his evidence for an impact origin over a century ago in a paper that was published in the 1905 Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.  The work was not without controversy. Less than a decade earlier, the Chief Geologist of the United States Geological Survey, Grove Karl Gilbert, had studied the structure and concluded it was produced by a volcanically-driven steam explosion.

Barringer Crater

A brief summary of the controversy can be found in Chapter 1 of the Guidebook to the Geology of Barringer Meteorite Crater (aka Meteor Crater). A more detailed rendering of the issues involved can be found in William Graves Hoyt’s book “Coon Mountain Controversies.” Perhaps the best descriptions of the issues, however, were penned by Gilbert and Barringer themselves. Because those works were written over a century ago, it is sometimes difficult for students to locate them. For that reason, we provide electronic versions of the key works here.

  • D. M. Barringer (1905)
    Coon Mountain and Its Crater
    Barringer marshals evidence for an impact origin for the crater.
  • B. C. Tilghman (1905)
    Coon Butte, Arizona
    Because Barringer believed the crater was produced by an impacting asteroid, he formed the Standard Iron Company to recover metal from beneath the crater floor. His initial partner in that venture, Benjamin Chew Tilghman, published a companion paper to that of Barringer’s paper.
  • D. M. Barringer (1910)
    Meteor Crater (Formally Called Coon Mountain or Coon Butte) in Northern Central Arizona
    Barringer wrote several papers as his studies of the crater continued. The most extensive report was a paper read “before the National Academy of Sciences” in 1909. Barringer published that paper the following year. The paper was, however, self-published and is, thus, very difficult to obtain.
  • G. K. Gilbert (1896)
    The Origin of Hypotheses, Illustrated by the Discussion of a Topographic Problem
    Gilbert’s work, while contradicted by Barringer’s work, is still a classic paper in American science. It is the first major publication to apply T. C. Chamberlain’s 1890 proposal for a new method of “multiple working hypotheses.” It is fascinating to read how he tested the impact and volcanic hypotheses. It is also fascinating to compare his work with that of Barringer to see how different assumptions and observations led these two giants of geology to opposite conclusions.

The 1910 work of Barringer is published with the permission of his family. The copyrights have expired on the other works provided here.

Meteor Crater report cover

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