May 18, 1910 (a Wednesday)

On this date, thousands of people took to their roofs, huddling for comfort and praying for salvation. Many believed the end of the world was near. The source of their anxiety was the return of Halley’s Comet from its 75-year odyssey through space.

Comet Halley

Many scientists were excited by the opportunity to increase the knowledge of astronomy. By late 1909, several of the world’s major observatories had geared up for Halley’s appearance. The public, too, eagerly awaited the moment when the comet became visible to the naked eye. Scientists had calculated it would appear between May 18 and 19, predicting that Halley’s tail would possibly sweep across Earth.

The tabloids jumped in, and discussed the catastrophic effects of the gaseous comet on the Earth’s atmosphere, causing many to panic. Despite a number of previous documented appearances having caused no deaths, the 1910 return of Halley’s Comet was widely perceived as a threat to mankind, allegedly due to noxious vapors emanating from its tail. This may be the first apocalyptic panic founded on a scientific, rather than religious misapprehension. In actual fact, the tail of Halley’s Comet never came any closer than 400,000 km to the Earth’s surface, and would not have been harmful at any distance.

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