Halley’s Comet Panic Of 1910
Halley’s Comet 1910. Source: (Wikipedia.org)
An innate part of human nature is the tendency to fear things we don’t understand. And while astronomers have been devising ways to study the heavens for centuries, the space beyond our world has always been a source of mystery and, therefore, fear. And, sometimes, fear grows into a full-blown panic. Such was the case with when Halley’s comet passed by the Earth in 1910.
Halley’s comet was not an unexpected sight that year. Edmond Halley figured out its pattern in 1705 after he used the gravitational theories of Sir Isaac Newton to chart the paths of two dozen comets and figured out that the comets which appeared in 1531, 1608, and 1682 were all the same object and that it was orbiting the sun. His theory was proven correct when the comet reappeared in 1758, just as he had predicted, though he sadly did not live to see it as he died in 1742. French astronomer Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille was, though, and he named the comet in Halley’s honor.
Since Halley’s revelation, other scientists have studied historical appearances of comets. Researchers Daniel W. Graham and Eric Hintz believe that one of the earliest sightings of the comet occurred in Greece sometime around 466 B.C. and was visible for 75 days. Another early sighting found among ancient Chinese records occurred in 240 B.C. Ancient Babylonia recorded it in 164 B.C. and 87 B.C. and the Romans witnessed it in 12 B.C.
These early observers viewed the comet with a wary eye and it became an easy scapegoat for anything bad that happened during its passing. In 66 A.D., historian Flavius Josephus viewed the comet as an omen predicting the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. In 451, it oversaw the defeat of Attila the Hun at the Battle of the Catalonian Plains. In 1066, there was the Norman Conquest during which King Harold II was defeated killed by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. In 1222, the comet was believed to have inspired Genghis Khan’s invasion of Europe and, in 1456, it was accompanied by the Ottoman Empire’s invasion of the Balkans.
Scientific advancements of the 16th and 17th centuries alleviated some of the superstitions about Halley’s comet as astronomers began to understand what they were seeing. But it also gave people more reason to fear it. By 1910, the comet was no longer just an omen of imminent destruction but was instead the potential cause of said destruction. And the threat had increased to the apocalyptic. One of the more far-fetched theories was that the comet would cause the Pacific to change basins with the Atlantic resulting in a cataclysmic avalanche. But it was a French astronomer named Camille Flammarion that incited the real panic.
Through the use of a scientific process called spectroscopy, astronomers had discovered that the tail of Halley’s comet contained cyanogen gas. Flammarion feared that the gas would enter the Earth’s atmosphere, poisoning the entire population. His theory got very little support in the scientific world, but it was published in the New York Times. Panic ensued. People were buying gas masks, sealing up their homes, and preparing for the end of the world. Scammers took advantage of the mass hysteria and began selling sugar pills marketed as “anti-comet pills.”
The comet came and went without incident, save for the death of King Edward VII which only those still holding onto the old superstitions linked to the comet. It has made one more visit since then, this time in 1986 and scientists were prepared with new technology which allowed the release of unmanned space probes to fly by the comet, sending back images and providing the closest look at the comet to date.