History of the Comet

There is no part of natural philosophy whose study affords greater interest or delight, than that of the solar system; and this interest appears to be the greater in proportion to the difficulties of attaining a thorough knowledge of the object of contemplation. Curiosity, that sole source of human wisdom, withdraws her stimulating influence, the momeut we have reaped the fruits of our investigation. Thus the sun, with whose history wc are acquainted, and whose daily visit has familiarized us to his presence, excites no emotion in his beholders, if we except the gratitude of the moral and religious to that munificent Being who ordained that he should lend us light and heat. But when a stranger appears in the "blue expanse" all eyes are turned towards it, a thousand conjectures are formed as to its immediate object and ultimate effects, the spirit of philosophy is awakened, sinners tremble at the dreaded termination of their career, while the philosopher calmly prepares to search into the hidden secret. Such has been the effect of the comet which has lately made its appearance in the firmament. As it is one which lias never before been seen, and which is, in every sense of the word, a stranger to the astronomical world, it becomes a matter of importance to learn its history, and to record such facts respecting it as may be supposed to be useful to future investigators. Before we proceed however to this task, it may not be superfluous to some of our readers to give a short description of the general nature of comets.

Comets are defined to be moving bodies appearing at uncertain intervals in the celestial regions, and having a very different aspect from the planets. They are improperly named comets, from coma; (hair) the tail being said to resemble hair; a tail however, does not attend all comets; some appearing as round and as well defined as the planets; while others are completely surrounded by a blaze of light, not unlike in appearance to the Aurora Borealis. They are said to be of much greater density than the earth, and to move about the sun in very eccentric ellipses. Their apparent magnitude is also very different, sometimes they appear only of the bigness of the fixed stars; at other times they will equal the diameter of Venus, and sometimes even of the sun or moon. These bodies will also sometimes lose their splendor suddenly while their apparent bulk remains the same -- with respect to their apparent motions they have all the inequalities of the planets; sometimes seeming to go forwards, sometimes backwards and sometimes to be stationary. More than 450 are computed to belong to our system; of which number only three have been accurately calculated by astronomers. According to Dr. Long, the head of a comet, when seen through a good telescope, appears to consist of a solid globe, and an atmosphere that surrounds it. This atmosphere is of a rarity inconceivably greater than that which surrounds this earth, and it is the reflection of light upon this atmosphere which is supposed to create the appearance of a tail, which always grows larger as the comet appreaches the sun and shortens as it recedes from that luminaiy. Some astronomers maintain the opinion that comets have light of their own, while others affirm that they receive it entirely from the sun. Sir Isaac Newton, whose theory of comets differs considerably from that of most other astrononers, computed the heat of that which appeared in the year 1680 to be two thousand times greater than that of red hot iron at its least distance from the sun, which was 490,000 miles. The comet of which we arc about to collect a history is the largest that has been seen since that of 1680, and as its perihelion distance from the sun is nearly two hundred times greater we may suppose its heat to have been proportionably less; and the idea of its having contributed to the mildness of the early part of our winter, consequently to be entirely without foundation.

The comet was visible for the first time on the 5th September, 1811. On the 7th, at half past seven o'clock, P. M. it was observed by professor Wood, of William and Mary College, and its situation then as calculated by that gentleman is thus described: it was in the same line with the polar star, and alpha and beta or the two pointers of the ursa major, 21° 35' from alpha, 50° 15' from the polar star, and 16° 28' from gamma of the ursa major, its right ascension 161° 30' declination N. 41° long. signs 23 deg. lat. 30° 30', distance from the sun 31° 15'. The diameter of its body exclusive of the coma (or tail) appeared to be one fourth of the moon, but including the coma three fourths of the moon. From this time to the 21st September its distance from the sun increased 13° 15'; during this period it had described an arch of 15 degrees -- its brightness as well as its tail had increased; its velocity had, also increased by one half; its orbit was then inclined to the ecliptic at nearly an angle of 64 degrees. The observations of this gentleman and those of Mr. Nathaniel Bowditch of Salem, appear to have led them to very different, and, in some instances, opposite conclusions. We presume not to decide the question of correctness but shall give the results of their calculations as we find them. Mr. Bowditch supposed from his first observations that the comet passed its perihelion ["Perihelion, is that particular point at which any planet is at its nearest distance from the sun."] on the 6th Sept. but by subsequent calculation he determined it to be on the 12th, at 3h. Greenwich time. His calculations as corrected by him to the 21st October, give the following result: Perihelion distance 1.032, the mean distance of the sun from the earth being 1.

Place of the perihelion counted on the orbit of the comet, 2 signs 15d. 14m.
Longitude of the ascending node, 4s. 20d. 24m
Inclination of the orbit to the ecliptic, 73d.

These observations appear to agree very nearly with those of the Parisian astronomer, Burckhardt. His elements of the comet's orbit are as follow; Perihelion distance 1,022,41. Time of its passing the perihelion, 48 minutes past nine in the evening of the 12th Sept. Ascending node 140d. 13min. Inclination 72° 12': Place of the perihelion 74° 12'. He further observed that the nucleus (or body) of this comet appeared separated from its coma, and that the latter surrounded it in the form of a parabolic ring; an appearance which has never been observed in other comets.

Mr. Wood's calculations of the elements differ considerably from the foregoing. He affirms that the comet had not arrived at its perihelion on the 1st October -- this he infers from the progressive increase of light in the comet from its first appearance to that time; taking it for granted that the light of the head of a comet is greatest when in the perihelion, and that it decreases as it recedes from it. -- This greater apparent brilliancy, however, is accounted for by Mr. Bowditch by the diminution of the comet's distance from the earth. As it receded from the sun it approached nearer to the earth, and of course appeared larger and more brilliant to the inhabitants of that planet The motion of the comet was supposed by Mr. Wood to be direct, in as much as it moved according to the order of the signs with an increasing velocity. Mr. Bowditch, on the contrary, maintained it to be retrograde. -- Judging from the apparent magnitude of the nucleus (or body) of the comet, which is computed by Mr. Wood to be 1m. 33s, he supposes that its least distance from the earth cannot exceed 20 millions of miles, whereas Mr. Bowditch makes it one hundred millions more, and supposes that Mr. Wood has fallen into an error by confounding the appearances of the comet when viewed from the earth and from the sun. Lastly, these two gentlemen differ with respect to the length of the tail. Mr. Bowditch calculates it to be nearly equal to one half of the sun's distance from the earth, or about 47 million* of miles, and Mr. Wood makes it only about half that length. It is much to be regretted that the observations of these gentlemen, both of whom are certainly skilful in the science, should differ on so material a point as the time of the comet's perihelion. From the daily observations of Mr. Wood from the 7th September to the 24th October, the comet continued to recede from the sun ; and from the 21st September to the 24th October it had traversed a distance of I8° 30' being at that time distant from the sun 66°. Now unless we suppose its subsequent course to have been retrograde, it would appear to have passed its perihelion before it was observed at all by Mr. Wood; and this opinion is confirmed by the observations of Mr. John Carr of Virginia, wlio supposes the comet to have passed its perihelion between the 4th and the 12th Sept, with the amazing velocity of 400,000 miles per hour.

Mr. Bowditch by the assistance of an apparatus, prepared after the method of La Lande made the following estimate of the apparent course of the comet. In the month of February, 1811, it was near to the eastern part of the constellation Argo, having a motion west inclining to the north. After passing a few degrees to the eastward of the Great Dog, its direction became nearly north, and in the month of May, its longitude was stationary. Early in June it passed near to the eastern part of the Lesser Dog, inclining rather towards the east; it was then visible at the cape of Good Hope and other places south of the equator. On the 16th July it passed the ascending node in the longitude of about 4 signs 18 degrees, and then moved north easterly towards the lect of the Great Bear, in which situation, as has been before observed, it became visible to us on the evening of the 5th September. It ceased to be visible, as this gentleman had calculated, early in the last month (February 1812.)

It would be an endless task to enumerate the various conjectures of the learned, as well as the unlearned, respecting the uses assigned to comets in the great scale of nature. Man, like the "pamper'd goose" is too apt to consider every thing he sees, as made for his use, and to look upon every part of the creation which he cannot appropriate to that end, as an unnecessary labor of the great Creator's hands. Whatever appears beyond the [damaged] of his limited faculties, is regarded as the [preternatural?] sign of God's particular notice; as if man were the only thought which occupied the Infinite Mind. Some very learned men have supposed that comets were occasionally made the angry messengers of our Divine Father to teach his unbelieving children, the strength of his avenging arm. If we cannot be made to see and feel the work of an Almighly power in the daily view of nearer objects; if in the contemplation of the innumerable but regular gradations and mutual dependencies which exist throughout nature, we cannot be persuaded to acknowlege our own dependance on the goodness and mercy of a supreme and overruling God; neither should we be made to believe though one should rise from the dead --

Let earth unbalanc'd from her orbit fly,
Planets and suns run lawless thro' the sky;
Let ruling Angels from their spheres be hurl'd,
Being on Being wreck'd and world on world;
Heav'ns whole foundations to their centre nod,
And Nature tremble to the throne of God.
All this dread order break -- for whom? for thee?
Vile worm! -- oh madness! Pride! Impiety!
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of man kind is man.

How to cite this article:  "History of the Comet," Niles Weekly Register (Baltimore), 7 Mar. 1812, pp. 10-12, , available at

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