The English astronomer Edmund Halley lived from 1656 to 1710. He became famous mainly because of his research into the movements of comets and his involvement in the publication of Isaac Newton's (1642-1727) famous work "Principia".

The appearance of Halley's comet May 1910

Since time immemorial, comets have been seen as omens of doom. They were often held responsible for natural disasters and wars. Comet Halley also suffered this fate: apart from its alleged role in the defeat of the English king Harold, this comet was also blamed for the fall of Jerusalem in the year 69, because three years earlier the comet had been observed in Jerusalem. Comet Halley appeared again in 451 during the battle of Chalons when the Roman general Aetilus defeated the Hun Attilla.

Comet Halley was also blamed for the Turks' invasion of Constantinople (today's Istanbul) in 1456. This superstition is conceivable, by the way. Nobody had the faintest idea what comets could be and such a flaming tail star can scare the hell out of you! But even in our "modern" twentieth century, such superstition still exists. This was demonstrated by the appearance of comet Halley in 1910.

Astronomers had calculated that the earth would move through the outer parts of the comet's tail. This posed no danger whatsoever, as the tail of a comet is very thin. Much thinner than the best vacuum that can be created in a laboratory. However, all sorts of wild stories circulated about the harmful influence of the hydrogen cyanide gas from the comet's tail. People and animals would be poisoned and comet Halley would mean the end of our civilisation! Some people were so panicked by these announcements that they did not want to wait for the critical day.

Many suicides were committed in 1910 because of the appearance of Halley's Comet. Others were prepared to pay a lot of money for the mysterious "anti-comet pills", which were marketed by clever businessmen and which were supposed to nullify the harmful effects of the comet's gas.

However, the day in question passed without anything happening and most people will not even have seen comet Halley. The comet was barely visible from our country. When it was clear, comet Halley was very low above, or just below, the horizon.

Nevertheless, there are quite a few people who are convinced that they saw Comet Halley in 1910. Because the comet was only briefly visible with the naked eye in the morning sky in the Netherlands in May of that year, this is not very likely. However, another comet was visible in January 1910. This was the Johannesburg Comet, named after the place where it was discovered by a group of miners.

This comet made a brilliant appearance in the evening sky in early 1910, and many people must have been confused by this: they thought they had seen Comet Halley - after all, it had been announced - but in reality it was the "accidental" Johannesburg Comet that stole the show.