Not Disappointing Mark Twain

There have been many accounts of astronomical events and their impact on humanity through the ages, not least the star of Bethlehem, one of the core symbols of Christianity. In 1066, Elmer recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle spoke to a comet:’You’ve come, you source of tears to many mothers. You’re evil, I hate you! It is long since I saw you, but as I see you now you are much more terrible for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country. I hate you.” Given this is the year of the Norman invasion, this seems to have been written in retrospect, but is an interesting take on early astronomy.

The return of Halley’s comet was predicted by the man himself and Newton to be at the end of 1757. It was a year late – held up by a few planets that slowed down its transit, a cosmic traffic jam that Douglas Adams would have been proud of – but given they were still reliant on brains and fingers for the maths, this is pretty good.

One of the first to try to cash in on the event was a Scientific instrument maker and science lecturer in London, Benjamin Martin, who claimed that the visit would be safe for the earth unless it arrived on 12th of May. In February he published a broadside predicting its imminent arrival, helping to stir up fears of the end of the world. The usually sensible John Wesley got it mixed up with a much larger, brighter comet that had come close to the earth in 1680 instead of the real Halley’s comet of 2 years later. He predicted the world would end as punishment for so much wickedness. Others disputed this, claiming that if God could create the earth without any means, then he needed no means to destroy it, so this seemed to calm things down for a while.

I have searched the Bristol newspapers of the time, and am rather stunned to report that this city of merchants and mariners did not seem to notice the comet. Feelix Farley’s Bristol Journal of December 23 1758 records ‘A meteor was seen at Plymouth about the time as that at Newcastle etc and Persons of Credit affirm that it passed from north west to south east and they saw the several sparks of fire drop from it as from a sky rocket.’

To be fair, the journal was rather taken up with several wars that were raging in Europe and the Americas, and England was at war with France as was the case for much of the 18th century. But the comet was first sighted by Johan Palitzsh in Germany on 26-7 and there are accounts of its sighting from across Europe, including much detail from the Belgian Mr De Lisle. There were also accounts from Mr Dirck de Klinkenberg of the Hague, Mr Lulof in Leyden, Mr de Ratte of Montpellier and the Rev Father Hell of Vienna.  These all deserve to be in my piece on names, but they are apparently true. And of course the Americans noticed it, so what on earth were the Bristolians doing that made them miss this extraordinary event? There is no sign of anyone trying to cash in on it with astronomy classes, which really sounds like a missed opportunity.

As literate people were taught to read from the Bible, the population were well aware of astronomical omens so the approach was widely advertised and England was full of amateur astronomers. But since most of the people up late enough to spot it were either insomniacs or drunk, there were plenty of false alarms before the beast finally appeared at the end of 1758, to return several months later.

The fears were of course unwarranted. Claims were made that they  had been whipped up by Martin to encourage sales of his pamphlet and his astronomy classes. Halleys’ work was republished on 24 February 1757, and claimed it would be ‘free from any humdrum Reflections on the general Conflagration, or any vague suppositions of the expected comet’s return of the earth on the 12th of May’ So they were already distancing themselves from the hysteria.

Halley’s comet’s return was of immense importance at the time. It provided the first evidence that anything other than planets revolved around the sun. It was also the first test of Newton’s physics (he had died in 1727). In fact, it was his observations of its movement that seem to have first suggested the idea of gravity, not the famous apple, which makes the comet a seminal event in the creation of modern science.

It can also lay a claim, if you are so inclined, in the history of American literature, as Mark Twain’s life spanned almost exactly, the period of its absence from our solar system. He claimed “I came with Halleys’ comet in 1835. It is coming again next year and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go with Halleys’ comet. The almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'” What would have happened if it had failed? Would he have died of a broken heart or lived longer and continued writing? Maybe Elmer can tell us. I wonder if he’s out there somewhere following this blog.


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