An illustration accompanying a report about Halley's comet yesterday incorrectly described a drawing of the 16th-century Aztec king Montezuma as part of the Bayeux Tapestry, an 11th-century work commemorating the Norman conquest of England.
The year was 1910, and 5-year-old Henry Fonda remembered being awakened in the middle of the night by his mother.
"Shhh," she whispered. "Don't let the girls hear us. They're too young to be interested, and your father works too hard to lose his sleep." She clasped his hand and tugged the barefoot boy down the stairs of the Nebraska homestead where he was raised.
"A window faced west," actor Fonda told his biographer, Howard Teichmann, "and we looked out and saw this long, brilliant streak moving across the sky, 10, 15 degrees above the horizon." Fonda's mother put her arm around him, squeezed his shoulders and said: "Remember this . . . Halley's comet. It comes around only every 76 years. Seventy-six years is a long time. I didn't want you to miss such a sight. Now you'll always remember it."
If comets stand alone among celestial events, one comet stands apart from all others. That is Halley's, which is now racing from the freeze of deep space toward the orbit of Mars on its way to its 30th recorded encounter with Earth. No other celestial apparition is so eagerly anticipated or will be so closely observed and chronicled when the comet swings around the sun early next year.
Halley's (rhymes with Sally's) is named for Sir Edmond Halley, the 18th-century British astronomer first to reason that three comets witnessed by the world in 1531, 1607 and 1682 were the same one. Plotting its orbit through space, Halley determined that the comet would return again, precisely 76 years after its last appearance, reappearing in 1758 and every 76 years until it burns out.
Just as he forecast, the comet appeared in full view of Earth on Christmas Day, 1758, and has returned twice since then, 76 years apart. Halley's has a special place in history. Its namesake's prediction that the comet would return in 1758 was the first scientific proof of Newton's law of gravity, accepted at the time by few mathematicians.
Almost overnight, Halley's successful forecast brought science to the attention of the world's ruling class. Observatories were built, and scientific academies sprung up in several European countries. Expeditions were sent to sea to identify new stars for navigators and map changing magnetic lines of force across the oceans.
Halley had based his prediction on a long talk with Isaac Newton and an unpublished paper by Newton. Halley nagged the British mathematician and philosopher into letting him see the work.
"However it happened," astronomer Jacques Blamont of the University of Paris says, "it is the most important anecdote in the history of science."
By the time the comet carries its dazzling tail across Earth's skies in November and then around the sun from January until March next year, the celestial colossus is expected to demonstrate anew its unique grip on the human spirit. Why Halley's sustains such a strong hold on the human mind should be no mystery. It visits Earth every 76 years, the average span of a human life. The comet is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that leaves an indelible print on the human psyche.
The ancient Chinese first recorded its appearance 240 years before Christ, but it went nameless for more than a millennium because, until Halley, no one realized that it was the same object reappearing cyclically.
The Chinese made excellent observations of comets but recorded little thought about their composition and origin. Early Greeks and Romans gave a lot of thought to where comets originated but almost never backed up their thoughts with careful observation. Such a melange of careless science resulted that 20th-century astronomers look back on the historical study of comets with amusement.
In the several centuries before Christ, Greek philosophers Anaxagoras and Democritus claimed that comets were a conjunction of planets that appeared to touch each other. Hence, the name comet, which in Greek means "hairy star." Greek mathematician-philosopher Pythagoras argued that a comet was a single planet that rarely rose above the horizon and so was rarely seen. Hippocrates, a Greek physician, also believed that comets were planets that orbited so closely to the sun that they could be seen only occasionally.
The Greek whose view prevailed was the philosopher Aristotle, who believed that comets originated in what he called the "sublunar region" below the moon and near Earth where moving air caused matter to catch fire. He thought that, when Earth was warmed by the sun, it gave off an "exhalation" that turned the upper atmosphere so hot and dry that parts of it caught fire.
Few records of careful comet observations are available from Aristotle's time about 350 years before Christ until the 16th century.
"Aristotle said comets were terrestrial phenomena, like rainbows. Nobody keeps records of rainbows," said Dr. Donald K. Yeomans of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Comets frightened generations of people through the centuries. The phenomena were usually seen as divine forecasts and omens, perhaps of defeats in battle, upheavals of kingdoms, deaths of rulers, approaching wars and natural disasters ranging from flood to famine.
When the comet made its first on-the-record appearance in 240 B.C., Rome was battling the north African city-state of Carthage in the first of the three Punic Wars. At the same time, Agis IV, the 22-year-old King of Sparta, was executed, and civil war broke out in the north African cities of Utica and Hippo Regius. A close encounter with the comet might well have been blamed for such chaos in what was then more than half of the civilized world.
The comet's appearance in 66 A.D. seemed to "hang like a sword" over the doomed city of Jerusalem just before its capture and destruction by the Romans. In 451, the comet was believed to be a good omen when it appeared exactly at the time of the battle of Chalons in what is now northeastern France. There, Roman general Flavius Aetius halted Attila the Hun's advance across Europe.
Few dates in western history are more important than 1066, when the Norman, William the Conqueror, defeated Harold II, the Saxon king of England, in the Battle of Hastings. The events were later celebrated in the Bayeux Tapestry worked by William's wife, Queen Mathilde. One scene in the tapestry shows William and his courtiers rejoicing as they look up at the comet. The adjoining scene reveals Harold II cringing in fear.
The comet reappeared spectacularly in 1456, when famine and pestilence plagued Europe. Three years earlier, the Ottoman Empire had captured Constantinople, overrun what are now Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria and begun the siege of Belgrade. A prayer at the time recorded fear of catastrophe: "From the Turk and the comet, good Lord, deliver us."
At its next appearance in 1531, the world seemed a bit wiser about comets. Turks and Christians were still warring, but the Ottoman advance had been stopped at Vienna, and fewer people seemed to relate events to the comet. The appearance in 1758 marked the last time the comet had no name, a fitting tribute to Halley, whose achievement began a process that eventually ended centuries of superstition.
When Halley's made its closest approach to the sun in April 1910, little had changed in the way people reacted. Instead of queens needling tapestries, newspapers chronicled the comet's approach with countless stories of gloom. The New York World headlined: "Friday, the Thirteenth. Halley's Comet. Have you thought what that means?" One etching showed St. Peter's Basilica in Rome crumbling before the comet's massive brightness.
As the comet began circling the sun, stories throughout the world seemed the same. A child watching a duel was shot by men fighting the duel. A Cuban barracks blew up, killing 100 men. Thousands of Chinese rioted in Peking in what was immediately called the "Halley's Comet Rebellion." England's beloved King Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria, died and lay in state in Westminster Hall as Halley's streaked across the sky.
As astronomers began predicting that Earth would pass through the comet's tail on either May 18, 19 or 20 that year, turmoil grew. Thousands said goodbye to relatives and friends. People asked doctors for antidotes to poisonous gases thought about to engulf Earth. Priests and ministers held all-night services.
Schoolchildren stayed home, and thousands of workers stayed off the job. Farmers dismantled lightning rods so they would not attract a charge. Coal miners in Pennsylvania and silver miners in Colorado refused to go underground for fear of being trapped. And in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, people moved from homes into caves to escape the comet's supposed wrath.
Pineapple workers in Hawaii fled the fields for the beaches where they believed the water would protect them from the "fiery torch." Thousands in San Francisco's Chinatown filled rain barrels with water and climbed in to ward off the heat of the comet's tail. People living along Lake Superior evacuated homes, saying they feared that the comet's tail would suck up air above the lake and cause a giant tidal wave.
Comet watchers in Roselle Park, N.J., were reported to be terror-stricken when a prankster tied a canister filled with sodium, dynamite and a time fuse to a weather balloon and lofted it from a vacant field. The fuse was timed to explode the dynamite at 1,000 feet. The roar was heard for miles at the same time the sodium was ignited in a shower of flame that affected watchers for days.
Meanwhile, hucksters sold comet pills, tonics and conjure bags to ward off ill effects. Voodoo doctors did a land-office trade casting protective spells over patients. Men costumed in monks' garb walked streets selling leaflets bearing a handwritten spell that guaranteed comet immunity. Postcards illustrating the comet swallowing Earth sold out everywhere. The second-best seller was a smiling Earth winking at Halley's as it passed through the comet's tail.
The comet's approach also triggered real tragedy. The week before its closest approach, eight people jumped to their deaths from the tops of buildings and bridges. A San Francisco man committed suicide rather than face the comet, and his mother then hanged herself. A man in Hancock, Mich., brooded so much about the chance that Halley's might strike Earth that he hanged himself, leaving a note saying he preferred suicide to "being killed by a star." A prominent farmer in Lawrence County, Ala., kissed his wife and six children, then took a stiff drink of strychnine and died in agony before their eyes. His widow told police he thought Halley's would set the world afire.
Newspapers shed little light. The Milwaukee Free Press speculated on the front page about the consequences of a collision with the comet. When it hit Earth, the Free Press said, the resulting fire would be so bright that all on Earth would be blinded while the heat vaporized everything in its path. The Sheboygan Press in Wisconsin offered the hope "that Sheboygan would still be with us."
Tongue in cheek, the New York World gave its readers a chronology of events bound to take place when the comet's tail brushed the globe: "At 8 a.m., the comet will arrive off Sandy Hook, destroying Coney Island and Canarsie. An hour later, Staten Island will be annihilated, and Fifth Avenue will follow in its wake." No need to worry, the World said, because "the Plaza hotel will serve Milky Way punches, and the comet will be driven away by a speech from Mayor [William Jay] Gaynor." About four months later, Gaynor died, 32 days after being shot by a discharged city employe.
There was more humor amid the gloom. An Illinois senator said he missed his train to Washington because of the comet, leading the Chicago Tribune to note that this was the 138th time this year that he missed his train. "This time," the Tribune said, "he blamed the comet." Inevitably, a baby was born in Chicago at the moment astronomers said Earth passed through Halley's tail. The attending physician asked for and was given permission to name the little girl.
"You henceforth shall be known as the Comet Girl," the doctor said, "and I choose for you the name of Halley." So was born Halley Johnson May 18, 1910, daughter of a hotel house detective.
Businesses operated as might be expected. Jewelry stores sold thousands of commemorative brooches. Socks, hats, gloves, shirts, ties and handkerchiefs embroidered with the comet's sign sold briskly. Haberdasheries offered vests emblazoned with the comet and studs and buttons fashioned to resemble it. For women, there were comet gowns, skirts and hats crowned with feathers in the shape of the comet's tail.
The 1910 visit inspired poems, post cards, cartoons, jokes and songs. Advertisers used the comet's star-shaped head and sweeping tail to sell custard, stationery, soap, bicycles, soft drinks, perfume, fountain pens, straw hats, real estate and mattresses.
Henry Fonda, who died in 1982, almost lived long enough to see the comet a second time. Mark Twain, the humorist and author, was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in the year the comet arrived in 1835 and died when it reappeared in 1910. A year before he died, Twain said, "I came into this world with Halley's comet. It's coming again pretty soon, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's comet."
On April 21, 1910, Twain lay near death as the comet swung around the sun. In the strongest emotional sense, his prophecy of his death reflected humanity's timeless bond with the comet called Halley's.