“The Comet” (from Robert Merry’s Museum, November 1858; pp. 137-139)
THE COMET AS SEEN IN 1811.
So distinguished a stranger, and so rare a visitor, as the comet, seems to demand a more extended notice than the one column in October. We take leave to introduce him again to all our young friends, as many of them may not be here when he makes his next visit.
The word comet comes from the Greek kome, hair, from the long flowing tail, or train, which generally attends it. Many of the comets which have appeared in our heavens have had no train at all. Some of them have been without any well-defined nucleus, or head, seeming to be mere globular masses of vapor. We do not know how many of these erratic wanderers belong to our system. About 180 different ones have been observed, and their orbits calculated, so that we can predict the times of their return. Thirty of these are so near the sun as never to pass outside the orbit of Mercury. Many others perform their mystic dances among the several planets of our system, passing around and between them, and sometimes so near as to be drawn by the powerful attraction of the planet quite out of their courses. This was very remarkably the case with one which appeared in 1770. It passed so near to Jupiter, that the attraction of the planet became two hundred times greater than that of the sun. This entirely altered the form of its orbit, causing it to wheel toward the earth, so as to become visible to us for the first time. Having escaped from this disturbing force, it flew off into the unknown regions of space, perhaps never to be
seen again on the earth. It has been called “The Lost Comet.”
I well remember the comet of 1811, and how many superstitious terrors it gave rise to, in different parts of our country. The war of 1812 was fully believed to be one of its disastrous consequences. It was very large and brilliant, and was visible to the naked eye during three months. It was one of the most remarkable ever seen. The tail, at its greatest elongation, had an extent of 123 millions of miles, and a breadth of 15 millions. Supposing its nucleus to have been placed on the sun, and the tail in the plane of the orbits of the planets, it would have reached over the orbits of Mercury, Venus, and the Earth to that of Mars. Its revolution is estimated at 4,867 years, so that its previous appearance must have been about 600 years before the flood, perhaps the very year that Noah was born.
The comet of 1811 is represented in the cut as it appeared to a European traveling in the wilds of America. He was on a small island in the middle of the Essequibo, the only white man among a large number of Indians. Its appearance struck the natives with mingled surprise and terror. “What can it be?” they exclaimed, with great earnestness. A long silence ensued. Tamanus, a young Wapisiana, of more intelligence than most of his tribe, at length broke the silence. “This is the spirit of the stars,” said he; “the dreadful Capshi—famine and pestilence await us.” Another of the company called it “a fiery cloud.” A third said it was “a sun, casting its light behind.”
The comet now visible is called Donati’s Comet, because first discovered by Prof. Donati, at Florence, on the 2d of June last. This is the fifth comet which has been discovered since the beginning of this year. Three are now visible, one of them only to the telescope. Donati’s comet is now about 87 millions of miles from us. Its tail is 6 millions of miles long, and its velocity about 150,000 miles an hour. Its period is supposed to be 292 years. It appeared and was observed in 1556, and has been called “Charles Fifth’s Comet,” because he was so alarmed at
its appearance, as to be driven to abdicate his throne, and retire, for the remainder of his life, to a convent. If its present visit should have the same effect upon some of the cruel despots and wicked rulers of our day, leading them to repent of their sins, and behave well for the future, its mission would be a blessed one. Some of you will probably ask, why it did not appear in 1848, if its period is 292 years, and its last appearance was in 1556. The answer is, that, having ventured too near to some of the remote planets of our system, it was drawn out of its course, and delayed ten years in its return. It has been suggested by a very profound Yankee philosopher, that it stayed behind on purpose so as to witness the completion of the Atlantic Telegraph.
The comet of 1680 was one of the most remarkable on record. In size and velocity it far surpassed any other ever known. While the nucleus was below the horizon, the tail reached the zenith, coruscations attending its whole length, giving a brilliant and fearful aspect. Its average velocity was more than 800,000 miles per hour, being nearly six times as great as that of the comet now seen.
The comet of 1743 was so brilliant as sometimes to be seen at mid-day.
A very remarkable comet appeared in 1843. Its outline was very dim, and its nucleus, or head, could not be seen in this part of the world. It looked like a streak of aurora, or a faint cloud. It traveled with great rapidity, and soon vanished from our sight.
A comet which appeared in January, 1846, was observed to be double, to have two independent nuclei, with separate trains. It reappeared in 1852, the two parts being more distant from each other than before.
The comet of 1853 was one of great brilliancy and beauty. The nucleus was round, as bright as stars of the second magnitude, and was estimated to be as large as our moon. In June, it was 105 millions of miles from the earth, or 10 millions farther off than the sun. In three months, it had come 42 millions of miles nearer to us, when it began to move off as rapidly as it had come, and was soon lost to sight. The time of its complete revolution is not known, but is supposed to be some thousands of years.