Bruce Baber (25
"200 YEARS AGO IN 1811
THERE WAS THE GREAT COMET, AMERICAS LARGEST
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
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
ArmÃ©e 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
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...