Coggia’s Comet

Stargazers and amateur astronomers in the Midwest during the summer of 1874 were treated to the sight of an impressive comet. “M. Coggia’s comet,” according to the morning edition of the Omaha Daily Bee, of July 17, 1874, “has almost every evening been plainly visible to the naked eye, and of all the heavenly bodies has been ‘the observed of all observers.’ . . . . It has gathered strength in the northern heavens for the past three months, and will be intrinsically brighter than now a few days hence, but will shine to us only in competition with the sunlight. After to-night, as we learn from a gentleman well versed in the interesting science of astronomy, it will set before the expiration of twilight, and not rise to us still [until] after the morning twilight has begun. . . .

“The comet will make its nearest approach to our earth on the 22d inst. The readers of the BEE need not be alarmed at the announcement, as they will not be made aware of the fact in any other way than as a result of calculation. Some superstitious persons entertain the idea that the comet will ‘come it’ over the earth next Wednesday, and knock it all out of shape. Not so, however, as it will proceed southward and be visible to the astronomers of Australia and South America, till the early part of November. It will then have been visible about six months and a-half, and a comparison of all the observations will enable its orbit to be determined with great accuracy.”

During Omaha’s 1874 comet watch the Bee entertained its readers with comet-related tidbits (“Why is a gossiping female like the comet? Because she’s a talebearer,” in the evening edition on July 15); and crowed about scooping the Omaha Herald with comet news (morning edition on July 18).

The same widespread feelings of anticipation and apprehension greeted the arrival of later comets such as Halley’s in 1910, which created a sensation among amateur Nebraska stargazers. It was feared that when the earth passed through the tail of Halley’s on the evening of May 18, 1910, there would be unpleasant consequences-perhaps contamination of the atmosphere by “comet dust” or gases. The old fears of an earth-comet collision were still present. However, no ill effects were suffered after the comet disappeared from view, not to be seen again for about seventy-five more years.

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