Halley's Comet May 29, 1910

110 Years Ago: Earth’s Passage Through Comet Halley’s Tail Mesmerizes The Public

On May 19 / May 20, 1910, Earth passed through the tail of Halley’s Comet with great fanfare.

The event is meaningful to me for two reasons. First, my grandmother told me about it when I was little. She herself was a little girl in 1910, and her memories were not very detailed. But she recalled, as her strongest memory, the general feeling of excitement among the adults around her. Some must have been genuinely panicked, others were probably nervous, and yet others were mocking those who suffered from vivid superstitions.

From German: “Old woman, close the umbrella. When the comet sees you, it’ll tun around and Earth is saved.”

Today, few people know that there was actually another comet visible in the sky earlier that year of 1910. The “Great January Comet of 1910”, officially designated “C/1910 A1” was a surprise visitor in the sky. Already visible to the naked eye when it was first reported on January 12, it brightened very suddenly, to the point where it eventually became brighter than Venus, and was visible during the day.

First spotted in the southern hemisphere, it reached perihelion on January 17 with a magnitude of –5. It then declined in brightness but became a spectacular sight from the northern hemisphere in the evening twilight. By early February, its curved tail reached 50 degrees into the sky.

There were of course plenty of newspaper accounts. The public, not yet accustomed to front page astronomical news, became highly interested in comets, and in what the experts had to say — especially at a time when superstitions and the belief in metaphysics was much more widespread than today.

At the time, Halley’s Comet, which had been known since ancient times, had been calculated to reach its perihelion on April 20, based on Newtonian physics and the work of Edmond Halley.

Illustration from the January 1910 issue of Popular Science Monthly magazine, showing how Halley’s tail points away from the Sun as it passes through the inner Solar System

Astrophotography and astrospectography were new fields, they were used to detect toxic gas cyanogen gas in the comet’s tail. The highly famous French astronomer and author Nicolas Camille Flammarion speculated that, when Earth passed through the tail, the poison gas “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.”

Flammarion was not only a genius scientist and author, but also a man with rather esoteric beliefs. He believed not only in the transmigration of souls, but also in telepathy, apparitions, hauntings, and “psychic forces”.

Very quickly, all manner of profiteers, charlatans, mystics, and those purporting to possess special astrological insights, seized on the opportunity, and soon, the panicked public was buying up quack “anti-comet pills”, “anti-comet umbrellas” and gas masks. Sadly, we even find newspaper accounts of people committing suicide because they didn’t want to see the catastrophe.

Considering the nature of what left the strongest impression in my grandmother’s memories, I wonder what today’s small children will remember, many decades from now, about the current COVID-19 crisis. Surely, it will be memories about how we adults reacted, which should also give us reason for contemplation.

The other reason why Halley’s Comet interests me is its association with one of my favorite authors and personalities. Mark Twain was born November 30, 1835, exactly two weeks after the comet’s previous perihelion. In his autobiography of 1908, he writes:

I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’

Twain died on 21 April 1910, the day following the comet’s subsequent perihelion. This is how the comet looked that day:

Portion of Plate b41215 of Halley’s comet taken on April 21, 1910 from Arequipa, Peru with the 8-inch Bache Doublet, Voigtlander. The exposure was 30 minutes centered on 23h41m29s R.A. and +07d21m09s Declination.

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