Bruce Baber (25 Aug 2011)

Two hundred years ago in 1811 a comet appeared.  It was visible to the naked eye for 260 days.  It was dubbed the "Great Comet".


The Great Comet was discovered on March 25, 1811.  From May through August, the comet was still difficult to see because of its low altitude.  In August it was noted as having a small but distinct tail.  By September it became a conspicous object.  On October 6, William Herschel noted the tail of the comet had grown a good deal.  It finally disappeared in early 1812.


The Great Comet of 1811 was thought to have had an exceptionally large coma, perhaps reaching over one million miles across... fifty percent bigger than the sun as observed from earth.  The comet's nucleus was later estimated at 30 to 40 km in diameter.  The orbital period was finally calculated to be 3,065 years.


The Great Comet caused a great deal of commotion.  Comets have always been seen as portending disaster.  Mentions of it found their way into literature of the time including War and Peace.  The artist/poet William Blake produced several sketches of it.  Blake probably used it as the background to a painting called The Ghost of a Flea.


The same year that the Great Comet appeared, there was another spectacular event.


On December 16th, 1811 the New Madrid earthquakes occurred and they continued until February 7, 1812.  The first earthquake and the series that followed were the largest ever witnessed by white men on this continent.  For a while the Mississippi River appeared to flow backwards and steamboats were washed miles inland.  Huge waves fifteen to twenty feet high overwhelmed many boats.  Some of the 8.0 quakes caused church bells to swing all the way to Pennsylvania.


In 1812 things didn't die down even after the comet left and the earthquakes stopped.  1812 is the year famous in American history for the War of 1812 and has been called America's second war of independence.  On June 18, America declared war on Great Britain.  The War of 1812 isn't taught much in the schools these days.  Most people don't know that one of the results of the war was the burning of Washington D.C. in 1814.


1811 and 1812 also saw the start of Tecumseh's War.  The Native Americans had taken the natural disasters as signs to wage war.


Elsewhere there were other wars in the same period of time.  Napoleon marched against Moscow in 1812.  In November, only 27,000 fit soldiers remained from his army of approximately half a million men; Napoleon's Grand Armée lost some 380,000 men dead and 100,000 captured. Napoleon then abandoned his men and returned to Paris to protect his position as Emperor. (various wikipedia sources)

A comet... earthquakes... wars.  It all started two hundred years ago in 1811.  Maybe there is nothing to draw a parallel to this year of 2011.  Then again...



Bruce Baber