February 25, 2018

Flashback: Remembering the Great Comet of 1910.

1910 was a heady year both in astronomy and the world at large. The nationalism that would lead to World War I was still fermenting in Europe; the radio was the hot new IPod of the age, and silent movies were yet to be replaced by “talkies” over a decade away. In astronomy, astrophotography was in its infancy, and Edwin Hubble had yet to make his landmark discovery that would expand our known universe beyond our own Milky Way galaxy… and the public and scientists alike eagerly awaited the close perihelion passage of Halley’s Comet in April.
Then, without warning, a truly special event occurred; a bright comet appeared suddenly out of nowhere. First sighted by South African diamond miners just before dawn on January 12th, 1910, the comet was a long period visitor to our inner solar system and became known as the Great January Comet or Daylight Comet of 1910. Generally, comets are named after their discoverers; some amateurs are driven souls, diligently sweeping the skies for their fleeting piece of immortality. Some notable astronomers, such as Caroline Hershel, was the proud discoverer of eight comets. These days, robotic spacecraft and even kids on the Internet also compete, sifting through piles of images before bedtime. Unwieldy names, such as Hale-Bopp or IRAS-Araki-Alcock are now common, and generic “Great” comets are now largely unheard of. But the Daylight Comet of 1910 had two things that aided its reclusiveness; 1. It was extremely near (about 0.13 astronomical units) the sun at perihelion, and hence difficult to observe, 2. It was initially only visible in the southern hemisphere, and hence only within reach of a handful of telescopes. Within days of the sighting, telegrams flashed from the Transvaal Observatory in Johannesburg, which  was able to pick it up low in the dawn sky, already at -1 magnitude.

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.

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.


  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Astroguyz: http://bit.ly/69KdZW An Astroguyz Flashback: Remembering the Great January Daylight Comet of 1910….

  2. [...] another comet made a brilliant passage just a few months prior, which became known as the Great Comet of 1910. In fact, many viewers in the general public actually saw this comet and confused it with [...]

  3. [...] kometa wykonane genialny fragment, zaledwie kilka miesięcy przed, który stał się znany jako Wielki Comet 1910 . W rzeczywistości, wielu widzów w opinii publicznej rzeczywiście zobaczyłem tę kometę i [...]

  4. [...] are the big “question marks” of observational astronomy. Some, such as Comet Hyakutake and the Great Daylight Comet of 1910 present themselves seemingly without warning and put on memorable displays. Others, such as the [...]

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