edmond halley

Sometimes, the worst fear is that of the unknown. In 1910, a comet that I’m sure we have all heard of…Halley’s Comet, named after astronomer Edmond Halley, passed by the Earth. The comet only passes by Earth every 76 years or so, but in 1910, they weren’t as sure about this whole comet thing. When the word got out that it was going to buzz the planet, a lot of people were interested. People bought telescopes as it got closer. Everyone wanted to see the comet. Hotels even offered special deals, so people could gather on top of their roofs to watch the meteor pass. These were to ones who weren’t too worried.

Many other people had every doomsday scenario imaginable in their heads. Maybe they thought it was going to hit the Earth and wipe out all humanity. Apparently, a French astronomer named Camille Flammarion believed the comet’s 24-million-mile long tail contained a poisonous cyanogen gas that “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.” When The New York Times did a piece on Flammarion’s apocalyptic theory, some of the other less-trustworthy newspapers ran with the story, and proceeded to create a panic among the people. What had started out as a run on telescopes, ended up in mass panic and people ransacking stores for gas masks. To make matters worse, con men began selling anti-comet pills, and some people worried the comet would “cause the Pacific to change basins with the Atlantic” and turn the world into “one heterogeneous mass of chaotic confusion.” People flocked to the churches to pray, and according to science writer Matt Simon, some people actually sealed up their keyholes to keep poison out of their homes.

In the end, people found that their panic was as unnecessary, and the gas masks were. There was no poison. There were a few people who blamed King Edward VII’s death on the comet, bit there was no evidence of science backing that claim. Interestingly, Mark Twain also passed away as the comet flew overhead. That’s extra weird considering he was born as the comet last flew by, in 1835. Of course, that is just a coincidence, although quite interesting.

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