May 27, 2008
New Mysteries Regarding Origins of “˜Space Pistols’
New research has led scientists to doubt an age-old legend that accompanies a 200-year-old pair of dueling pistols.
The pistols were said to have been forged from the iron of a meteorite that hit the Earth.
Currently housed in the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library, the pistols were a gift from South American General Ignacio Alvarez to the fourth U.S. president, James Madison.
"Permit me therefore to present to your Excellency... a specimen of the first essays of the manufacture of arms established in the provinces of Buenos Ayres and Tucuman," wrote General Alvarez in an accompanying 14-page letter.
After Madison's death, they became the property of Madison's successor, James Monroe.
Until recently, the legend that accompanied the pistols had never been doubted.
However, after searching the globe for the most advanced collection of microscopes and scanners, scientists now say that the old story is flawed, and now new questions are being asked.
"It's made the mystery even more mysterious," said Meghan Budinger, curator at the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library.
The pistols underwent X-ray fluorescence as well as CT scans to show their details "“ inside and out.
But it wasn't until they underwent tests at the ISIS neutron source in Oxfordshire, UK that researchers were able to point the smoking gun to an inconsistent set of data.
The machine at ISIS, owned and operated by the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council, is able to probe matter at the atomic level, giving scientists unique insights into the structure and make-up of materials.
"We give a different picture of what the world looks like," said Professor Andrew Taylor, director of ISIS.
However, Taylor added that they "didn't set out to build a tool for archaeology."
It is more commonly used by scientists designing and testing new materials, such as those used in the Airbus A380 and the turbine blades found in Rolls Royce jet engines.
"What my neutron beams tell you are where atoms are and what atoms do," said Professor Taylor. "We try to understand at a microscopic level the structure, arrangement and forces that hold materials together."
By comparing the composition of Monroe's pistols and a fragment of a meteorite from the Campo del Cielo crater in Argentina "“ the alleged origin of the metals from which the guns were formed, scientists made their conclusion.
"They were completely different," said Dr Evelyne Godfrey. "There were differences in microstructures, there were differences in carbon content, there were differences in chemical composition."
"We can say for sure they weren't made from meteoritic iron."
Budinger said the museum hadn't anticipated such results.
Still, the results of testing at ISIS were able to answer one set of questions about the pistols, while giving birth to another.
Curators of the objects had always assumed that the handles of the pistols were made of silver, but ISIS showed that this too was not the case.
"They were brass - and it was a funny type of brass, too," explained Dr Godfrey.
The closest match was a distinctive alloy exported from Southeast Asia at around the time.
"It looks just like silver but is cheaper - so they were making tableware and replacing silver in other objects," said Dr Godfrey.
Other tests revealed that the guns were not just ceremonial - as previously thought - but were fully functioning arms.
"It brings up all kinds of questions," Budinger said.
"What exactly was General Alvarez's motivation? He wrote this very flowery letter saying how much he admired the United States and how much he admired Madison but then he gives them a gift that was not where he said it was from and it was made from cheaper materials."
It could also be possible that Alvarez himself had been told a myth about the pistols' origins.
"He may not have known what he was giving to Madison - at the time there would have been no way to prove it one way or the other," said Budinger.
And the questions don't end there. The letter makes reference to third pistol that was also supposedly forged from Campo del Cielo iron. Budlinger said the museum's curators were trying to track it down as well.
"If it looks exactly the same that tells us that all three pistols were manufactured by the same person and that either General Alverez was duped or that it means he was lying and that none of the pistols were made from the Campo del Cielo crater."
"If the third pistol is different entirely then I think we have fairly good evidence that our pistols may not be the Madison pistols at all," she said.
"In which case it's a whole new mystery."
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James Monroe Museum & Memorial Library