The Return of Halley’s Comet

18 May 1910

Years before the return of Halley’s Comet, astronomers around the world including at the Dominion Observatory at the Experimental Farm began to prepare for its arrival. The comet was scheduled to return in the spring of 1910, seventy-five years after its previous brush with Earth in 1835. Unlike that earlier year, astronomers now had the instruments to track, conduct spectroscopic research, and photograph this celestial visitor. Beyond knowing that its trajectory would take the comet between the Earth and the Sun, a scant 14 million miles from our planet, they were largely ignorant about it. Experts estimated that the head of the comet was as big as 42 Earths with a tail 62 million miles long and 600,000 miles wide. So close was it to come, astronomers expected that the Earth would pass through the comet’s tail. This was enough to send a frisson of alarm through the general public. Doom-laden views of certain observers, combined with long-standing superstitions that comets were portents of disaster, meant that there was a genuine fear that the end of the world was nigh.

Halley's Comet Yerkes, 29-5-1910 Prof Edward Barnard NYT 3-7-10

Halley’s Comet 29 May 1910, taken by Professor Edward Barnard, Yerkes Observatory, appearing in New York Times, 3 July 1910.

Newspaper coverage was also unhelpful. Although the vast majority of astronomers viewed the return of Halley’s Comet with delight, seeing it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view close-up a celestial event of remarkable beauty, considerable column inches were given over to the apocalyptical views of the few. This was an early example of seemingly balanced coverage providing a decidedly unbalanced view of what was likely to transpire. Of course, articles portending disaster sold papers, a phenomenon noted by the Ottawa Evening Citizen. In a swipe of its competitors, most likely the Ottawa Evening Journal, the Citizen remarked after the Comet’s safe passage “There was no collision, as the superstitious and the ignorant feared, and, if truth must be told, some newspapers unfortunately traded in those fears by more or less veiled stories and hints.”

Halley’s Comet was named after Edmond Halley, an English astronomer and friend of Sir Isaac Newton, who was the first to describe the periodic nature of the comet in 1705, and predicted its return in 1758. Sadly, Halley, who died in 1742, was not alive to witness the event. However, the return of his comet, visible to the naked eye on Christmas Day 1758, immortalized him. Looking at historical records from China, historians have dated the first known recorded appearance of Halley’s Comet to 240BC.

We now know Halley’s Comet has a peanut-shaped nucleus roughly 15 kilometres long with a diameter of 8 kilometres, considerably smaller than the late 19th century estimates. Nonetheless, a collision with Earth would have been disastrous. The Chicxulub asteroid that likely led to the extinction of the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago is believed to have been smaller. Halley’s Comet, a remnant from the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago, consists of dust, rock and ice. Its tail is made up of dust and sublimated gases that spew off as it approaches the Sun. The comet spends much of its time in the Kuiper Belt that circles the Solar System.

By 1909, the world’s telescopes were trained to the western sky shortly after sunset to watch for the comet’s return. When it was first spotted by telescope is a bit murky. The Ottawa Evening Journal reported that the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa received a telegram that a German astronomer had seen Halley’s Comet as early as mid-September 1909. The first Canadian spotting apparently occurred mid-January 1910 in British Columbia. At this point, the comet was hurtling towards the Sun reaching its perihelion (closest approach) on 20 April before commencing its return to the outer Solar System, but not before brushing close to the Earth. It was not yet visible to the naked eye.

With the return of Halley Comet, many newspapers, including the Ottawa Evening Journal, ran articles linking previous appearances of the comet to wars, plagues and other disasters of the past. One story managed to ascribe the biblical Deluge, dated to 2349 BC, to the comet as well as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in 1900 BC. Other world-changing events linked to the comet included the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, the sack of Rome by Attila the Hun in 451 AD, the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the War of the Roses in 1456, and Wolfe’s Conquest of New France in 1759. For 1910, the article noted the return of the comet coincided with threatened war in the Balkans and labour unrest and socialist demonstrations in America and Europe. Coincidentally, King Edward VII died on May 6th, another apparent “victim” of the comet.

Halley' Comet Fight 13-4-10 OEJ

Cartoon, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 13 April, 1910.

Halley’s Comet’s appearance in the night sky allowed astronomers to use state-of-the art equipment to photograph it and to conduct spectroscopic analyses. In February 1910, the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin announced the discovery of cyanogen gas, a chemical compound related to cyanide, in the comet’s tail. This stoked comet fears to new heights, especially when a French astronomer, Camille Flammarion, opined that all of the earth’s inhabitants would suffocate owing to the gas when the earth passed through the comet’s tail. He reportedly added that if there was also a “diminution of nitrogen and an excess of oxygen,” “the human race would perish in a paroxysm of joy and delirium, probably delighted at their fate.”  Professor Pickering of Harvard University suggested that Flammarion could be right. “The consequences of a collision of the earth with the comet’s tail may mean destruction to us,” he said. Another French astronomer, M. Deslandres of the Paris Observatory thought that the comet’s tail crossing the Earth’s atmosphere would led to an incalculable number of X-rays that would cause the water vapour in the atmosphere to condense leading to rains not “seen since the days of Noah’s great deluge.”

These were minority views within the astronomical profession. The famed American astronomer, Percy Lowell, said “Nothing can occur to the earth in consequence of its passing through the tail of the comet. The consistency of the tail is probably less than any vacuum procurable on earth.” (Mind you, Lowell also spotted “canals” on Mars that supposedly were a desperate attempt by Martians to tap water at the dying planet’s poles.) A similar sanguine view was expressed by Sir Robert Ball of Cambridge University. A Columbia University professor argued “the Maker of the universe” would not allow any harm to come to “the home of the highest form of life that He has fashioned.” Astronomers at the Dominion Observatory patiently addressed the questions of concerned Ottawa citizens. They also lectured at the Y.M.C.A. and other locales about the harmlessness of the comet’s return. At St Mathias Church, Dominion astronomer John Plaskett in a lecture titled “Wonders of Creation” rejected Flammarion’s thesis, echoing Lowell and Ball that there was no danger from the cyanogen gas as it was too rarefied to have any impact.

Halley's Comet Mary Proctor, San Fran Sunday Call

Mary Proctor, astronomer and author, member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1862-1957, San Francisco Sunday Call. University of California, Riverside.

One of the most reasoned, scientific assessments of the return of Halley’s Comet that appeared in the popular North American press was by a respected amateur astronomer, Mary Proctor. In an October 1909 Ottawa Journal article, Proctor said that “the fulfillment of the [Halley’s] prediction may be awaited serenely.” She added “Woe betide it, however, should it come too near to Jupiter, which has the reputation of being the greatest comet capturer of the skies.” (In 1994, this prophetic comment was captured on film when astronomers observed the tidal forces of Jupiter pulling apart the Shoemaker-Levy comet, causing it to plunge into the planet.) Later, after Flammarion’s dire prediction of the end of all life, she reiterated her views even more forcefully, adding “Astronomers are being suspected as conspiring together to keep the uninitiated in ignorance of the true fate awaiting our planet.” Instead of believing in conspiracy theories, she urged people to enjoy the comet’s approach, and “experience a spectacular display of cometary glory.”

After been lost in the light of the Sun for a couple of weeks, Halley’s Comet reappeared in the morning sky shortly before dawn in mid-April, 1910. Its reappearance was noted by Mr Robert Motherwell at the Dominion Observatory on 13 April using the observatory’s 15-inch aperture telescope. Owing to intense sunlight, it was not visible to the naked eye, and wouldn’t be for some days. Motherwell discredited reports from around Canada that the comet had been spoted. He ascribed such sightings to confusion with Venus.

Halley's Comet OEJ 16-4-1910

Illustration for serial on a comet striking the Earth, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 16 April 1910.

The Journal took this opportunity to run a fanciful serialized story that had initially appeared in the Aldine Magazine of New York in the 1870s about a fictitious collision of Plantamour Comet with the Earth. In the story, the collision split the Earth into three pieces, with Asia completely vapourized, leaving America the only habitable part of the globe. When the clouds finally lifted, there were two new moons in the sky—Europa and Africa—that had split away from the Earth complete with their own seas and atmosphere. Now separated forever, the remaining people of America could only communicate with the survivors of Europa and Africa by using ten-foot high letters made of tin.

Halley’s Comet became visible to the naked eye in Ottawa early in the morning of 29 April 1910, when it was spotted by Mr Motherwell at the Dominion Observatory. It was visible in the eastern sky at a declination of eight degrees north of the equator. While the two Ottawa newspapers agreed on the sighting, they agreed on little else. The Journal reported that Motherwell got only a partial view of the comet at shortly after 3am in a break in the clouds that lasted just sixty seconds. The Citizen reported that the comet was located by Motherwell at about 4.20am and that the astronomer had a good view for about 30 minutes before the Sun became too bright. By early May, the comet was visible to all who got up early enough. It was to be seen low on the horizon with its tail pointing nearly upwards.

With the comet visibly bearing down on the Earth, the focus of attention shifted to what might happen when the Earth moved through the Comet’s tail, scheduled to occur sometime around May 20th. In preparation for the event, it was reported that restaurants in New York and Paris were hosting comet parties. Recalling Flammarion’s dire prediction, one enterprising restauranteur advertised that pure oxygen would be blown into the dining room to counteract the effects of cyanogen gas. More seriously, Dr Koltz at the Dominion Observatory said that it would take several hours for the Earth to pass through the tail. He rejected any concerns that this transit would have on the Earth, though there may be some magnetic effects. He warned of the possibility that telephone and telegraph service might be adversely affected. Dr King, the chief of the Dominion Observatory, thought there might be a “sort of aurora borealis, but nothing outside of that.” Parliament Hill was deemed a good vantage point to see the comet at its best.

Halley's Coment OEJ 19-5-10

Cartoon, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 19 May 1910

In the event, both the Ottawa Evening Journal and the Ottawa Evening Citizen reported that Ottawa was in the comet’s tail for several hours during the night of May 18th. As expected, the Earth’s passage through the tail was uneventful. There was no cyanogen gas, and there was no deluge of biblical proportions, though cloudy skies and rain made comet watching in Ottawa difficult. Telecommunications were unaffected. Dr Kloz said that instruments at the Dominion Observatory detected some slight magnetic effects, but that was all. Newspaper accounts again differed on whether the comet sparked a viewing of the Northern Lights. According to the Journal, shortly after midnight the clouds broke and there was “a magnificent display of the Aurora” that spread across the “entire dome of heaven” before disappearing again as the clouds returned. The newspaper added that the aurora was most brilliant in Toronto and contained “all the colours of the rainbow.” Contrarily, the Citizen reported that “there was none of the auroral effects some had predicted.” There was also no mention of an aurora borealis in Toronto’s Globe newspaper.

Halley’s Comet got progressively fainter during the following days as it continued its journey back out the Kuiper Belt. It returned to the inner Solar System in 1986. This time, however, the comet’s reappearance was unremarkable as it and the Earth were on opposite sides of the Sun when it occurred. For those who missed Halley’s Comet, you’re next opportunity will be July 2061. The showing is expected to be better this time.

Sources:

Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 1986. What have we learnt about Halley’s Comet?, https://astrosociety.org/edu/publications/tnl/06/06.html.

Curran, Kevin, 2012. Halley’s Comet, http://www.fallofathousandsuns.com/halleys-comet.html#past-appearances-of-halleys-comet.

Globe (The) 1910. “Through A Comet’s Tail,” 19 May.

Ottawa Evening Citizen (The), 1910. “Halley’s Comet Has Been Discovered,” 17 January.

————————————, 1910.  “Halley’s Comet Is Located By Dominion Observatory,” 13 April.

————————————, 1910. “The Earth Takes Its Bath In the Comets Tail Tonight,” 18 May.

———————————–, 1910. “Ottawa Thro’ Comet’s Tail From 8.30 Last Night to 12.30,” 19 May.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1906. “The Star of Bethlehem,” 29 December.

————————————-, 1909. “More About Halley’s Comet,” 19 March.

————————————-, 1909. “Astronomers Preparing For The Return of Halley’s Comet,” 30 April.

————————————, 1910. “Halley’s Comet Said To Be Full Of Cyanogen Gas,” 8 February.

————————————, 1910. “Gas From Halley’s Comet Could Not Affect Earth,” 10 February.

————————————, 1910. “Lectures on Halley’s Comet,” 18 February.

————————————, 1910. “Ottawa and District Will Soon See Halley’s Comet, 14 March.

————————————, 1910. “Harmlessness of Halley’s Comet,” 21 March.

————————————, 1910. “It’s Mighty Little Wisest Men Know About Comets,” 2 April.

————————————, 1910. “Must be Pretty Scrappy Stuff in Halley’ Comet,” 13 April.

————————————-, 1910. “Halley’s Comet Was Seen At the Observatory This Morning, 13 April.

————————————-, 1910. “When the Comet Struck,” by W. T. Alden, 14 April.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet Seen One Minute,” 29 April.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet History, And Why Halley’s Is Harmless,” by Mary Proctor, 14 May.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet Night Preparations,” 17 May.

————————————-, 1910. “Comet Passes Very Quietly,” 19 May.

Simon, Kevin, 2015. Fantastically Wrong: That Time People Thought A Comet Would Gas Us All To Death, https://www.wired.com/2015/01/fantastically-wrong-halleys-comet/.

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Bombing of Parliament Hill

18 May 1966

One bright mid-May morning in 1966, a nondescript, middle-aged man walked into a mining supplies store in Newmarket, north of Toronto, and asked to buy some dynamite. The young clerk asked him what he intended to do with the explosives, and whether he knew how to use them. The man replied that he was prospecting, and needed the dynamite to blow up some tree stumps. He reassured her that he knew how to handle explosives. He had worked in mines in the Northwest Territories. Satisfied by his responses, the clerk sold him six sticks of Forcite, a gelatin dynamite composed of sodium nitrate, along with six detonating caps and six feet of fuse with a burn rate of one foot per minute. A background check was not required. After the man had thanked her and left the store, the clerk realized that she had erred; the fuse burnt one third faster than she had told her customer. But it was too late to correct her mistake; the customer had vanished. Little did she realize that her error would have fateful consequences.

Paul Chartier

Paul Chartier, The Bomber of Parliament Hill, The Citizen, 19 May 1966

Wednesday, 18 May 1966 was a cool, cloudy, spring day in Ottawa. The big news in the nation’s capital that morning was the previous night’s vote of non-confidence in Lester B. Pearson’s minority Liberal government. The motion had been put forward by John G. Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservative Party over tight money. The vote was unexpectedly close, 118-111. Most of the smaller opposition parties and independent MPs had supported the Conservative motion. That afternoon, the public galleries were packed with spectators, eager to hear the latest opposition salvoes against the government during Question Period which commenced at 2pm.

Among the spectators who had arrived to watch their country’s leaders in action were hundreds of school children. Also present was a middle-aged gentleman wearing an overcoat. It was the same man who had purchased the Forcite in Newmarket five days earlier. Entering the Centre Block of Parliament like any tourist visiting the Hill, he made his way to the Public Gallery on the third floor. But he was turned away; the gallery was full. Trying again, he went to the Ladies’ Gallery at the other end of the Commons chamber where an obliging commissionaire allowed him to enter and take a seat to watch the proceedings. He had an excellent vantage point. Facing him was the Speaker’s Throne.  On his left was the governing Liberal Party, while on his right were the opposition parties. As it was Question Period, the House was full. Both Prime Minister Pearson, and Opposition Leader Diefenbaker were in attendance. At 2.45pm, the man, still wearing his overcoat, left his chair to go to the men’s washroom located just a few steps across the corridor from the Ladies’ Gallery. He asked the guard if his seat could be saved. The guard said no; there was no reserved seating. But it was unlikely that somebody would take his seat as Question Period was almost over. Thanking the commissionaire, the man left. Minutes later, the Centre Block was rocked by a bomb blast emanating from the third-floor men’s washroom. Acrid fumes filled the hallways, seeping into Commons chamber.

On the Commons’ floor, there was confusion. Parliamentary business stuttered to a halt amidst calls for medical assistance. Diefenbaker rose to say “…someone had just passed away within the precincts of the House of Commons.” Prime Minister Pearson announced that “It appears that was an explosion” and “that a man has been killed under circumstances which are not yet quite clear.” The House temporarily adjourned.  Security staff escorted the deputies to safety. In the meantime, three doctor MPs hurried to the scene of the explosion. Groping their way through thick smoke, and stumbling over pieces of wood and masonry shards that littered the floor of the bathroom, they came across the mutilated body of a man stretched out in front of the urinals lying in a pool of blood. There was nothing that the doctors could do. Dr Philip Rynard (PC—Simcoe-East) pronounced the man dead. Dr Hugh Horner (PC—Jasper-Edison) said that it looked like the man had been carrying an explosive device when it went off.

Chartier's body being removedChartier's body being removed

Chartier’s body being removed from Centre Block, Parliament Hill, 18 May 1966, CBC News

The initial assumption that it was a suicide was quickly dispelled. It was something far more malevolent—an attack on Parliament itself, the first since Guy Fawkes had tried to blow up the British Parliament in 1605. There had been nothing like it in Canadian history. While there had been incidents of incivility, and in 1964 a protester had thrown a bottle of animal blood from the Public Gallery onto the floor of the House of Commons, there had never before been outright violence.

Police quickly put a name to the bomber—Paul Chartier, an emotionally disturbed, unemployed security guard, age 45. They tracked down his recent movements and where he lived—a rooming house in Toronto. At his lodgings, they found several sticks of dynamite, fuses, and two crude bombs. Police also uncovered some writings titled Young Years, which provided details of Chartier’s life, and his growing conviction that the world was against him.

Chartier, born in 1922, had grown up in small-town Alberta, one of nine children, his parents having moved west after World War I from Quebec. While his parents and siblings had made successes of their lives, Chartier drifted from job to job. He worked briefly in the mining industry in Yellowknife before joining the Royal Canadian Air Force during the war. While in the Air Force, he got into some minor trouble before being discharged in 1945. He then went into the hotel business, first with a brother, and later for himself. Married in 1951, both his hotel business and marriage failed within a few years owing to his growing mental instability. Abusive to his wife, his unsocial and erratic behaviour drove customers away. Subsequent careers in the dry-clearing business and as a truck driver also ended in failure. It was never his doing; it was always somebody else’s fault. After going bankrupt in 1961, Chartier left for the United States, where for the next several years he wandered around the country. For a time, he worked as a hotel security guard in New York. By 1966, however, he had returned to Canada. Unemployed, he found a room in a boarding house in Toronto. About a month before the fatal blast, he took a trip to Ottawa to check out Parliament Hill, staying under an assumed name at the YMCA.

Chartier returned to the Ottawa area the day before the explosion, renting a cheap $3 per night room at the Saint Louis Hotel in Hull. There, he assembled a pipe bomb weighing several pounds, and smuggled it into the Centre Block hidden under his overcoat. After viewing Question Period from the Ladies’ Gallery, he went to the bathroom to light the fuse of his homemade explosive device with the intention of throwing it at Canada’s leaders assembled in the House of Commons below. But the bomb exploded prematurely while he was making his way out of the lavatory cubicle towards the washroom door, severing his right arm, and inflicting massive injuries to his torso and face. He died within seconds of the blast. On his body was a speech titled If I was President [sic] of Canada. It was a speech he had wanted to deliver to deputies. Roughly two weeks earlier, Chartier has written a letter to Lucien Lamoureux, the Speaker of the House of Commons, asking for permission to address the House. The clerk of the House of Commons replied that only sitting elected Members of the House had the right to speak in the Chamber. Consequently, “there was no possibility whatsoever of agreeing to your request.” The rejection was the final straw, and set in motion Chartier’s attack on Parliament.

In the rambling, and sometimes incoherent, speech, Chartier made it clear that he had planned the bombing for about a year, and that it was his intention to “kill as many as possible for the rotten way you are running this country.”  He added “as for “Mr Pearson and Mr Diefenbaker, they sound like a couple of kids, jealous of one another as to who is going to get the biggest share of money and scandal…I blame parliament for divorces, separations and suicides and a lot of people are in jail not being able to make a living.”

At the inquest into Chartier’s death held four months later, experts testified that had Chartier managed to throw the bomb into the House of Commons chamber, one could have expected at least a dozen deaths, and many injured. It was only through luck, or Providence, that the mining supplies company clerk had misinformed Chartier of the burn time of the fuse. Added to this was evidence that Chartier himself had made a mathematical error when calculating the length of the fuse. This error reduced the time he had still further.

The blast shattered Canadians happy illusions about themselves, and about Canada as a calm, peace-loving nation. Was Canada so different from its America neighbour whose president had been assassinated three years earlier? If evil was in our midst, how would it affect our way of life? In an editorial, the Citizen newspaper opined that the “easy atmosphere of the Centre Block has always been one of the glories of our parliamentary life. The unguarded secure passage of our leaders through the corridors, made safe only by the good sense of the Canadian people, is surely worth preserving.”

Security on the Hill was reviewed after the blast. The Speaker of the House noted that it was “not easy to reconcile enforcement of strict security regulations with the degree of freedom of access to the building and the galleries that the Canadian people have come to expect when visiting parliament.” He strove to find a “reasonable balance.” Nevertheless, six months after Chartier tried to blow up members of parliament, a group of university students tested Parliament Hill security, by bringing into the Centre Block a tape recorder (a large, bulky machine back in 1966) concealed under a coat. They then went to the same washroom as Chartier had on the third floor, before visiting the Public Gallery to tape the proceedings as proof of their successful entry. They were never stopped. Subsequently interviewed on CJOH-TV, the students were threatened with fines and jail rather than applauded for demonstrating the continued gap in parliamentary security. After a cool meeting with Speaker Lamoureux, the students were let off with a warning, their test of Hill security considered a prank.

 

Sources:

CBC Digital Archives, 1966, “Bomb in Parliament misses its target in 1966,” http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/society/crime-justice/general-3/bomb-in-parliament-misses-its-target-in-1966.html.

Fontana, James, 2005. The Mad Bomber of Parliament, Borealis Press: Ottawa.

Hanlon, John, 2007, “The Day We Broke the Silence of Centre Block,” The Ottawa Citizen, 20 October, http://www.canada.com/story_print.html?id=c882ed16-7e48-48cd-95c8-b2df5af38ed7.

House of Commons Debates, 1966. 27th Parliament, 1st Session: Vol.5.

Lamoureux, Lucien, 1966. “Statement by Mr Speaker Respecting Security Precautions,” The Citizen, 19 May.

The Citizen, 1966. “Grudge bomb meant for MPs,” 19 May.

—————, 1966. “The Bomb Explosion,” 19 May.

The Gazette, 1966. “Assassinations: no reason to be smug in Canada,” Montreal, 19 May.

—————, 1966. “Explosion In Parliament’s Centre Block Takes Life of 45-Year Old Bomb Carrier,” 19 May.