Comet Halley in 1910

1910 Halley's Comet



Fear of Poisonous Gases in the Tail of Halley’s Comet

Comet Halley streaking across the sky in 1910

Halley's Comet


On February 7, 1910 a stunning announcement was made. The Yerkes Observatory claimed to have discovered cyanogen in the tail of Comet Halley. Not scary? What if you learned that cyanogen was commonly known as cyanide? The poisonous gas in the comet's tail was found using a recently invented process called spectroscopy. Spectroscopy was a process which allowed the chemical composition of an object to be determined by the way it dispersed light.


There's a lot of dangerous things in the universe, so how did this announcement lead to a public scare? It was also announced that Earth would pass through the tail of Halley's Comet. To make matters worse, The New York Times interviewed a French astronomer named Camille Flammarion who said the cyanogen "would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet." Great, Camille. Thanks.


Prominent astronomers attempted to reassure the public they were in no such danger, claiming the cyanogen would not penetrate Earth atmosphere. Despite this reassurance people purchased gas masks and bought comet pills.


On May, 1910 our "fragile" planet passed for six hours through the tail of Halley's Comet. There were no deaths - at least none associated with the cyanogen for the tail of Comet Halley. Hopefully, Camillle wasn't disappointed that her prediction didn't come to pass.