On this date, the Great Comet of 1680, known today as C/1680 V1, passed only 0.42 AUs from Earth. It became one of the brightest comets of the 17th century – reputedly visible even in daytime – and was noted for its spectacularly long tail. Reaching its peak brightness on 29 December, it was last observed on 19 March 1681.
Naturally, people thought it presaged the apocalypse. According to The Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America, by John Fiske, 1903 Edition, Vol II, at page 59:
Late in the autumn of 1680 the good people of Manhattan were overcome with terror at a sight in the heavens such as has seldom greeted human eyes. An enormous comet, perhaps the most magnificent one on record, suddenly made its appearance. At first it was tailless and dim, like a nebulous cloud, but at the end of a week the tail began to show itself and in a second week had attained a length of 30 degrees; in the third week it extended to 70 degrees, while the whole mass was growing brighter. After five weeks it seemed to be absorbed into the intense glare of the sun, but in four days more it reappeared like a blazing sun itself in the throes of some giant convulsion and threw out a tail in the opposite direction as far as the whole distance between the sun and the earth. Sir Isaac Newton, who was then at work upon the mighty problems soon to be published to the world in his “Principia,” welcomed this strange visitor as affording him a beautiful instance for testing the truth of his new theory of gravitation. But most people throughout the civilized world, the learned as well as the multitude, feared that the end of all things was at hand. Every church in Europe, from the grandest cathedral to the humblest chapel, resounded with supplications, and in the province of New York a day of fasting and humiliation was appointed, in order that the wrath of God might be assuaged… Newton’s comet looked down, while Dominie Nieuwenhuysen [who was a Calvinist minister] and Dominie Frazius [who was a Lutheran minister] were busy with prayers to avert the direful omen.
The Great Comet of 1680 also has the distinction of being the first comet discovered by telescope, on 14 November 1680.
- John Fiske. The Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1903).