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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The Dominion Observatory

29 April 1905

When next you have an opportunity to stroll through the Experimental Farm, take a look at the impressive red stone building with the verdigris copper, domed roof located off of Maple Drive close to Carling Avenue. It was once the Dominion Observatory, for a time the proud owner of the largest telescope in Canada. Its construction was due to the efforts of two men, Dr Frederick King, the first Dominion Astronomer, and Otto Klotz. The two initially worked together at the Cliff Street Observatory located on a small road overlooking the Ottawa River, roughly where the Supreme Court building stands today. This observatory was established by the government in the late 1880s to determine standard time, make “exact determinations of geographical locations” for explorers of the North West Territories, which at the time included Saskatchewan and Alberta, and to rate, test and adjust chronometers and other surveying instruments.

cliff st

The Cliff Street Observatory,  Canada Science and Technology Museum

The facilities on Cliff Street observatory were rudimentary. Its 6-inch aperture equatorial telescope was too small for serious scientific work. Moreover, the building was on such a narrow lot that there was insufficient space to build a heated room for people working there. Even more problematic was that the observatory only had a clear view of the sky to the north over the Ottawa River and to the south, though its southern view was often obscured by smoke from the many coal burning fireplaces in Ottawa. Its east and west view were obstructed by other structures, including a stable.

Plans for building a new, larger observatory date from late 1898 when King with Klotz’s help sent a memorandum to Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior, recommending the construction of a new government-owned observatory to replace the inadequate Cliff Street facility. In the memo, King argued that astronomical investigation in Canada had been long neglected. A new observatory would help to address this shortcoming. It would also be of considerable scientific value for many branches of science, and would stimulate the study of science throughout the Dominion. He also advocated for the advancement of “pure” science as opposed to just “practical” science on the grounds that unforeseen benefits can emerge from such research, and that the Government should not leave this “wholly in the hands of foreign investigators.” King also recommended that the observatory be built on a knoll of land on Parliament Hill between the Centre and West Blocks. Later, when the knoll became the location of the Victoria Monument, he recommended building the observatory where the Summer Pavilion stands behind the Parliament buildings. King estimated that a 10-inch telescope and the construction of a suitable building with a 22-foot diameter dome roof with rollers would cost $16,075.00.

According to J. H. Hodgson, the author of the definitive account of the history of the Dominion Observatory, Klotz, ostensibly King’s subordinate, disagreed vehemently with the proposed site of the new observatory. It seems that relations between King and Klotz, who once had been close friends, had deteriorated owing to professional jealousy and perceived slights. Klotz thought the proposed site was too small for a national observatory and considered Parliament Hill to be “hallowed and sacred ground,” that would be profaned by such a use. He also had a different vision than King’s for the work of the new observatory, envisaging it expanding into other related areas of scientific research. While he agreed with King that there was a pressing need for better facilities, Klotz disagreed with King’s recommendation of a 10-inch equatorial telescope, which had quickly grown into a proposed 12-inch instrument, on the grounds that neither he nor King had any experience on such a machine. Klotz believed that the funds could be better used on a geodetic survey of Canada. He thought King just wanted to be able to brag that he was the Dominion Astronomer in change of a prestigious, world-class telescope.

In the end, Klotz won the argument on the site for the new observatory. Before settling on its Experimental Farm location, other sites considered included the bluff at the end of Concession Street (Bronson Avenue) overlooking the Ottawa River, a lot south of Strathcona Park, a location close to Rockcliffe, and a city lot at the corner of Maria Street (Laurier Avenue) and Concession Street. Neapean Point was also a contender but was rejected owning to concerns that the vibrations of trains running nearby might disrupt the delicate astronomical equipment. While the Experimental Farm was distant from the city centre and civil servant offices, it had the benefit of lots of space, and unobstructed views far from Ottawa’s smog and lights. An extension of the Ottawa Electric Railway to the Farm would also solve the problem of ready access.

 

telescope

The 15-inch aperture telescope, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 1 May 1905

While Klotz won the argument over the observatory’s siting, King ruled over its instrumentality. He apparently had little trouble persuading the government to purchase a still larger 15-inch aperture, equatorially-mounted, refracting telescope and other astronomical equipment from Professor John Brashear of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The local Pittsburgh newspaper headline read “No Limit As To Price.” The mountings for the 19 foot 6 inch long telescope, with a magnifying capacity of 1,500 times, were made by Warner and Swasey of Cleveland, Ohio. The instrument was completed by January 1903 at a cost of $14,625.59, well ahead of the completion of the observatory itself. The telescope was the same size as the one used at Harvard University, and second only in size to the huge 36-inch aperture Link telescope built in 1888 at Mount Hamilton, California.

The initial plans for the new two-storey high observatory with a revolving dome were drawn by government architects in 1901. David Ewart, the chief Dominion Architect, is credited for the observatory’s Baronial style architecture. Construction tenders closed in November 1901 with Theophile Viau winning the contract with a bid of $74,999. The contract was awarded in August 1902, and construction got underway shortly afterwards at the Experimental Farm. The final cost of the building was $93,800, far more than initially appropriated by the government for this project. It was ready for occupancy in April 1905. There were initially fourteen permanent staff members—all male. There were no female employees as no washroom facilities were provided for female personnel.

observatory

The Dominion Observatory, circa 1905, Canada Department of Mines & Resources, Library and Archives Canada,  PA-034064.

The state-of-the-art Dominion Observatory was unveiled to the men of the press gallery of the House of Commons on Saturday, 29 April 1905. That evening, journalists gathered in front of the Centre Block on Parliament Hill to be conveyed to the Experimental Farm. On arrival at the Observatory, they were met by the institution’s three leading astronomers, Dr King, Mr Klotz and Mr J.S. Plaskett, who explained to the men the workings of the astronomical instruments. With a clear sky, each journalist had an opportunity to view the constellations. Afterwards, Plaskett exhibited magic lantern views of Canadian scenery. (The magic lantern was an early slide projector.) Over coffee, Dr King spoke about the great value of the government’s contribution to the pursuit of astronomical knowledge. He hoped that the Dominion Observatory would be to Canada what the Greenwich Observatory was to England. Dr King indicated that one of the immediate practical benefits of the Observatory was the determination of the positions of various points throughout Canada used by surveys conducted by Dominion surveyors. The Observatory would also be used to calculate standard time for the country. Later, the Observatory conducted pure research into spectroscopic binary stars. (Spectroscopic binary stars are binary stars that are so close together that they cannot be viewed separately with a telescope. They are revealed by the Doppler effect on the light each star is emitting, shifting from red to blue as they move.) It also assumed responsibility for seismic, magnetic and gravimetric analyses. In 1914, a new building was built on an adjacent lot to house the Geodetic and Boundary Survey divisions. A full weather station was also maintained at the Observatory.

Within just a few years after the opening of the Dominion Observatory, its 15-inch aperture telescope was deemed to be too small. In 1913, the Ottawa Evening Journal opined that while the Dominion astronomers were doing sterling work on binary stars despite the small size of their telescope, a larger instrument was now necessary. The 15-inch aperture telescope was smaller than that of most national observatories, and was “altogether out of keeping with the standing of Canada.” It encouraged the construction at the Observatory of an instrument with an aperture of 60 inches, or better yet, one of 72 inches. The newspaper placed the cost at $70,000, with a special tower to house it costing an additional $40,000.

The newspaper’s argument found traction in government circles. Mr J.S. Plaskett of the Dominion Observatory designed a 72-inch aperture telescope. However, instead of Ottawa, the decision was made to locate it in Saanich, British Columbia, a site considered far superior to the Experimental Farm station. The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory on Observatory Hill was completed in 1918. It quickly became world renowned for its research into the Milky Way.

Observatory today

The Dominion Observatory, 2016, Google Maps

When Dr King died in 1916, Otto Klotz assumed his responsibilities as Dominion Astronomer despite his German roots and widespread anti-German sentiments at the height of the First World War. Klotz died in 1923. The Dominion Observatory in Ottawa continued operations until April 1970 when its astronomical and time-keeping work was assumed by the National Research Council of Canada. The Observatory’s 15-inch aperture telescope was given to Canada’s Science and Technology Museum. The old Observatory currently houses the Office of Energy Efficiency, part of Natural Resources Canada.

 

Sources:
Brooks, Randall & Klatts Calvin, 2005. The Dominion Observatory 100th Anniversary, http://www.casca.ca/ecass/issues/2005-me/features/brooks/e-Cassi_DomObsV4.htm.
Evening Journal, (The), 1901. “Sites For The New Buildings,” 31 May.
—————————-, 1903. “Ottawa’s New Observatory,” 28 February.
—————————-, 1905. “Private View of New Dominion Observatory,” 1 May.
—————————-, 1913. “The Dominion Observatory,” 27 February.
Hodgson, J.H., 1989. The Heavens Above and the Earth Beneath: A History of the Dominion Observatory, Energy Mines & Resources.
Pittsburgh Daily Post, 1900. “Big Telescope Goes To Canada,” 5 March.