Several great comets sparked the skies of the Victorian Era. There’s no official definition other than a “great comet” is one that glows with exceptional brightness. The title is often associated with specific comets that were bright enough to be seen by the naked eye of the average Victorian. The Victorian Era boasted several of these great celestial events.
A Few Details About Comets, Great and Meek
A comet is a celestial icy body with a tail consisting of gas, dust carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane and possibly more elements to be determined. When a comet gets close to solar winds, its “tail” points away. According to Space.com, some scientists believe that that the water and organic molecules that make up life on Earth might have originally been brought here by comets.
Great Comets Are Snowy Dirtballs
Some astronomers refer to comets as snowy dirtballs or dirty snowballs because they are ice cold and “dirty” with particles. They believe that comets are basically leftovers from the dust and ice that formed the solar system roughly 4.6 billion years ago.
Following are the highlights of Great Comets of the Victorian Era. At the end of this section, we’ve included a TV Guide version of the anatomy of comets.
The Great Comet of 1843: What a Tail!
This great comet held the record for having the longest tail in history. Comet Huyakutake broke that record in 1996. The paintings shown here are by astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth. His goal was to show the length of the tail and overall brightness of the great comet.
The great comet of 1843 was a “long-period comet” which means it takes more than 200 years for it to complete its orbit. It was discovered on February 5, 1843 and was last observed on April 19 of the same year. On that day, it passed closer to the sun than any other known object.
As noted in our post on the Perseids and Comet Swift-Tuttle, Lewis Swift observed the Great Comet of 1843 as a boy. Swift also saw the Comet Halley twice, 76 years apart.
In “Observing the Great Comet,” you can read the comments Annabella Innes recorded over a three-week period in March 1843 as she observed the comet’s passage through the night sky. She also noted people’s reactions to the comet.
“”Saturday, 4th March, 1843. This has been a beautiful bright clear day. In the evening we all watched anxiously for the Comet. It appeared before seven o’clock, at first faintly, but as the night became darker we saw it distinctly. It is indeed magnificent. The tail looked even longer than it did last night.”
“Saturday, 11th March, 1843. I got up early to gather flowers. The heat was dreadful. After breakfast it increased so much we began to think there must be some truth in the report that the Comet is to burn us up.”
In The Hobart Colonial Times, one man noted, “There is great doubt in the public mind as to this phenomenon, and many people will not believe that this is a comet…if a comet were so close to the earth as this meteor evidently is, we should stand a good chance of being well roasted.”
The Great Comet Donati And Abraham Lincoln, 1858
Abraham Lincoln observed this comet on September 14, 1858. He was sitting on the porch of his hotel the night before one of his historic debates with Stephen Douglas. It was considered the most brilliant comet of its century. It was also the first to be photographed.
Italian astronomer Giovanni Battista Donati first observed it on June 2, 1858. This long-period comet was also photographed at the Harvard College Observatory on September 28, 1858.
The Great Comet of 1861
John Tebbutt discovered this great comet on May 13, 1861. He was a sheep farmer and amateur astronomer of Windsor, New South Wales, and Australia. The comet could be seen by the naked eye for three full months. For two days of that time, Earth was actually in the tail of this great comet. Streams of debris could be seen converging towards the nucleus. According to Comets And The American Civil War:
“For a while the Earth was actually within the comet’s tail, and the inhabitants of this planet had a brief but giddy view of streams of cometary material converging towards the distant nucleus. By day also the Sun was dimmed as the Earth ploughed through the comet’s gas and dust.”
On the Fourth of July, a soldier from the Second Wisconsin wrote this about the body:
“We have been visited for a week past by a very large comet which at full day appears very bright and transparent; late at night the tail stretched nearly to the Zenith while the star was near the horizon.” (In other words, it stretched from the nearly very top of the sky to the edge of the horizon. – Jeremy)
The Great Comet of 1874: A Real Sun Grazer Breaks Up
This was a sun grazing comet with a short period (under 200 years to complete its orbit). It could be seen from early June to August of 1874. It had two large tails, which stretched more than 60 degrees across the sky. It returned in 1877 and in 1882. At that point, it broke up and disintegrated.
Jerome Eugene Coggia officially discovered this comet at the Marseille Observatory on April 17, 1874. During the rest of April and May, many other astronomers observed it. By June, its tail became visible to the naked eye and many observers wrote about it.
According to the morning edition of the Omaha Daily Bee, of July 17, 1874,
“The comet will make its nearest approach to our earth on the 22d inst. The readers of the BEE need not be alarmed… Some superstitious persons entertain the idea that the comet will ‘come it’ over the earth next Wednesday, and knock it all out of shape. Not so, however, as it will proceed southward and be visible to the astronomers of Australia and South America, till the early part of November.”
The Great Comet of 1882
Some comet specialists consider this one to be more than just a run of the mill great comet. This one was a super comet. It was a member of the Kreutz Sungrazing group of comets.
It appeared suddenly in the morning skies of September 1882. Since it was visible to the naked eye, it was discovered independently by many people. Reports suggest that it was first seen as a bright zero-magnitude object by a group of Italian sailors as early as 1 September 1882, from the Cape of Good Hope.
The first astronomer to see the comet was W. H. Finlay, the Chief Assistant at the Royal Observatory in Cape Town, South Africa. Over the next few days many observers in the southern hemisphere reported the new comet. It brightened dramatically as it approached its rendezvous with the sun.
Her Majesty’s Astronomer at the Cape, David Gill, reported watching the comet rise a few minutes before the sun on 18 September, and described it as:
“an ill-defined mass of golden glory…with a beauty I cannot describe.”
In Brief: The Anatomy of Great Comets
Nucleus—The solid core of a comet. It consists of ice and dust that’s coated with dark organic material. It might have a rocky core.
Coma—As the great comet nears the sun, the ice on the surface of the nucleus forms a gas cloud, called a coma. Some comas reach 1 million miles across.
Tail—The sun’s radiation pushes dust particles away from the coma, forming the tail. Tails can reach 100 million miles long. It’s the tail debris from the comets that leads to meteor showers. The Perseid Meteor shower occurs yearly between August 9 and 13 when Earth passes through the orbit of the great comet Swift-Tuttle.
Asteroids Are Kissing Cousins—Asteroids and comets are similar, except fro the coma and tail, which might not be immediately visible.
Nuclei—Most comets measure up to 10 miles across.
Short Period Comets—Take 200 years or less to complete their orbit.
Long Period Comets—Take more than 200 years to complete their orbit.
Sun-Grazers—Smash into the sun or get so close that they break up and evaporate.
Single-Apparition Comets—Are not bound to the sun.
Perihelian—the point where the comet is closest to the sun.
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