Ye ole’ comet Whiskey!
But the true show was yet to come. As the comet swung around the sun on its outward passage, its brilliant tail came into view. Daylight observers estimated that the comet was brighter than Venus, which would have put it at an apparent magnitude of -5! It soon became visible in the dusk sky with its tail proceeding before it swept onward by the solar wind. This glorious appendage would ultimately reach a length of 69 million miles! As the comet slid into the evening sky, it became visible to denizens of the northern hemisphere. Several individuals noted its brilliant passage, and it became widely confused with the much anticipated Halley’s Comet, whose popular hysteria would reach a fever pitch later that year. My own grandmother, Edith Jandreau, vividly remembers seeing the Daylight Comet from northern Maine as a young girl, and the sight had a great impact on her youth.
All of this laid the stage for Halley’s show and for what was to follow. Mark Twain fulfilled his self-prophecy of coming into this world with the 1835 apparition of Halley’s Comet and departing this life with its 1910 return.
This laid credence to the already rich mythos surrounding comets. The Great January comet was brighter and more easily observed than Halley; the confusion merely added to the “Halley hype.” Astronomers inadvertently added to the chaos by announcing the discovery of cyanide in the tail of Halley, via that new fangled astronomical technique to “taste” all things celestial; spectroscopy. The Earth was due to pass through the tail of Halley’s Comet on May 18th, and that other invention of the modern age, the media, appropriately ran with the story.
Never mind the fact that the tail of a comet represents a scarcity of material thinner than any laboratory vacuum ever achieved. Then, as now, the media never let reality get in the way of a really juicy story! Keep in mind, the Halley hysteria of 1910 represented the first true “techno-panic” of our modern age. The man on the street had yet to insulate his psyche from the likes of 2012, Y2K, and Tiger Woods. Even The War of the Worlds broadcast hoax was almost three decades away. The Heavens Gate mass suicide during the passage of Hale-Bopp in the 90’s was a permutation of the same phenomena. Comets always seem to bring out the wackiest in people. Snake-oil salesmen, looking to make a fast buck, sold anti-cyanide “comet pills” and early gas masks, a sinister fore-shadowing of the horrors of World War I later in the decade. On the lighter side, comet parties were held as the affluent figured that if the end indeed was nigh, they would at least go out in style. Public awareness and interest in astronomy peaked, and even then sitting president William Howard Taft paid a visit to the U.S. Naval Observatory to view this routine visitor to our solar neighborhood.
A postcard which captures the wackiness of the day…
And 1910 marched on; the Great January comet slid back out into the icy depths of the outer solar system, and like all of the pseudo disasters to come, Halley’s swept by our world putting on nothing except a good show. Halley’s next appearance in 1986 was rather lackluster, and the world had to wait until the last half of the mid-90s for the next good cometary displays of Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp. Halley’s next and more favorable passage will be in mid 2061, but truly great comets like the Great January comet of 1910 come and go with little warning, providing us with an awesome and unforgettable cosmic display.