It was a rough day for planet Earth back in 1910. People were nervous – no, downright scared, on the verge of panic – as if the Mayan calendar had foretold the end of world – only worse. Halley’s Comet (or Toscanelli’s Comet, if you prefer) was coming to town. The returning comet first became visible back in August of 1909, when it was a good 480 million miles away from Earth.
The chance to see a comet should be a cause for celebration, and for astronomers, it was a great opportunity. With more powerful telescopes and more advanced techniques, they were able to learn more than had ever been revealed about comets before. That was the good news. The potentially bad news was that this particular pass of the comet was going to be a close one, a frighteningly close one. As a matter of fact, the Earth would pass through the tail of the comet.
This was not particularly welcome news to a lot of folks. And even worse, scientists had discovered that a gas known as cyanogen, a deadly poison, was present in the composition of the tail, and while they assured the public that the gas would be much too diffuse to have any effect during Earth’s pass through the tail, many people still panicked and assumed the worst. It didn’t help at all when The New York Times reported that the French astronomer and author Camille Flammarion believed that the cyanogen “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.”
In a somewhat misguided attempt to allay fears, noted astronomer Sir John Herschel said that the whole comet could be squeezed into a suitcase. The New York Times stated that he was clearly talking nonsense because he had failed to state who would do the packing. “Experience teaches that mighty little can be packed in a suitcase by any man. It takes a woman to pack one properly.” The flippant article suggested that it would be better to leave the comet where it is in order for everyone to feel safer.
They didn’t. Doomsayers said that the comet would cause massive tides across the Americas as the Pacific emptied itself into the Atlantic. Charlatans sold comet pills that would supposedly protect against the effects of the poison. Churches held all night prayer vigils.
Finally, on May 19, with the world holding its collective breath, the Earth passed through the comet tail uneventfully. And it is comforting, in hindsight, to know that the world did not come to an end in 1910.