Here at the Norman Lockyer
Observatory we are privy to the complete collection of
Nature in our library, as Sir Norman was its founding editor. It didn’t
take me long to browse
through Nature Vol XLVII Nov 3rd
1892 – Apr 27th 1893 to find quite a few
references of observations of Comet Holmes
(1892 III) after its discovery by Edwin Holmes on November 6th
Here are a few of them, reproduced with kind permission of the editor
spirit!), Sir Joseph Norman Lockyer K.C.B., F.R.S.
November 6th 1892
From the English Mechanic :
Holmes' Discovery Report
On Sunday night, Nov. 6th
11:45, I found a new comet in Andromeda. It was bright enough to be
visible in an opera glass through the haze prevailing. Nucleus bright,
with surrounding nebulosity 5' in diameter. No tail visible. I made the
position 0h 46.8m + 38deg 32' exactly 1m 10s preceding Sigma 72.
surroundings prevented me from watching for any motion. I think it must
have approached rapidly, for I observed that region on Oct. 25th and
observed nothing special. Edwin Holmes.
November 20th 1892
from W.F. Denning, Bristol:
The New Comet.
The comet discovered by Mr. Holmes on Nov. 6th
was observed here on Nov 9th at 5h 50m and found to consist
very bright circular nebulosity with central condensation. The diameter
comet was 5’ 41”. It was reobserved on November 16th at 10h
its physical appearance seemed to have undergone a complete
diameter had increased to 10’ 33” and the cometary material had become
fainter and more irregular. The nucleus was now in the form of a bright
and this was enveloped in a large faint coma. A small star was seen
just N of
the W extremity of the nucleus, and the latter seemed composed of knots
On Nov 19th the comet was seen again. Its
was much fainter, and it exhibited a further increase in dimensions. I
carefully determined its diameter as 14’ 30” but the outlying portions
very tenuous and indefinite………
On Nov 9th the comet was
about 203 millions of miles distant from the earth, and its real
have been 333,000 miles.
On the 16th this must
have increased to 652,000 miles. By the 19th the comet’s
had become 217 million miles, and its real diameter 925,000 miles. In
therefore the cometary material expanded nearly threefold. Denning's
letter can be found here.
Observations from M Bigourdan, Paris
The Comet was a large and bright
nebulosity, perfectly round, and 5.5’ in diameter. It showed a central
nucleus 10” in diameter. A rather brighter portion of an approximately
elliptical form appeared to extend from the nucleus in the direction p=
its axis being 1.5’ and 30” respectively. On Nov 13th the
seen only intermittently. It was 8’ in diameter and nearly round. The
no longer occupied the centre, but had shifted towards the preceding
The elliptical region was 2’ by 30”, and in the direction p=116.8deg.
naked eye it was easily visible, being as bright as the Andromeda
nebula near it,
but less easily distinguished , owing to its smaller apparent size…..
16th 1893 Prof
E Barnard, Lick Observatory, Mt. Hamilton, California:
with a 12-inch at 8h 10m he found that an estimation of the comet’s
30”.While under observation “the comet seemed
to be perceptibly
brightening”, and further measurements at 9h 45m gave a
32.4”. At this time he says: “The nucleus had developed clearly, and
noticeable as a small ill-defined star.” With the 36-inch, which he was
use later, he made the following measures, which we reproduce here, as
unique in showing the increase in diameter of the comet due evidently
10h 29m 43.4”
10h 30m 44.9”
10h 31m 43.6
10h 42m 47.8
10h 43m 47.9
10h 45m 46.0
11h 13m 47.3
11h 15m 46.1
In concluding his remarks he says:
“This is certainly the most remarkable comet I have ever seen, taking
everything into consideration.”
February 11th 1893 10h
to 10h 35m W.F. Denning, Bristol :
Observing with a
10-inch reflector 40x and 60x. The nucleus or brighter portion of the
presented a distinctly granulated appearance. Applying a power of 145,
lens, I saw that it really consisted of a number of very small knots of
nebulosity, so closely approximating the stellar form that they might
mistaken for one of the very faint, barely resolvable clusters in which
components are only to be caught by glimpses.
March 16th 1893:
Comet Holmes (1892 III) The comet has become rather a difficult object.
A fine account of the comet can be seen in the 1912 Edition of "Astronomy" from The Concise
Knowledge Library, written by Agnes Clarke, A. Fowler, and J. Ellard
Gore and published by Hutchinson. In the chapter Nature and Origin of Comets (page
378) Agnes Clarke writes:
On November 8th, 1892, Prof.
Barnard secured a very perfect representation (shown in
Fig. 23) of a peculiar looking
comet grouped with the great Andromeda and its attendant nebula.
Discovered ony two days previously by Mr. Edwin Holmes of London, it
presented a great round disc with definite edges visible to the naked
eye. This contained a tail in embryo, which subsequently opened into a
feeble brush, the head being then pear-shaped, and granulated like a
remote star cluster. A strictly continuous spectrum was derived from
it. "Its appearance," Prof. Barnard wrote, "was absolutely different
from that of any comet I had ever seen. It was a perfectly circular and
clean cut disc of dense light, almost planetary in outline. There was a
faint hazy nucleus." A photograph taken by him, Nov. 10th, showed, distant about one degree to the
south east, "a large irregular mass of nebulosity covering an area of
one square degree or more, and noticeably connected with the comet by a
short hazy tail."
This object underwent extraordinary
vicissitudes of aspect. From a seeming planet it quickly degenerated by
distension into the thinnest of nebulosities; then suddenly on January
16th, 1893, gathered itself together into an ill-defined star of the
eighth magnitude. This evanescent outburst was simultaneously observed
in several parts of the world. After some minor rallies and relapses,
the comet finally, on April 6th 1893, melted into the sky-background.
Observatory - December 1892:
Edwin Holmes: "This is coming end-on and will be a big
fellow, and I must get a position before I leave if possible."
Great Comet Scare" 27th Nov. 1892: From Astronomy and AstrophysicsVol
XII 1893 "The
Holmes'Comet" W.W. Payne
"November 11th when Mr. Holmes
reported his discovery to the English Mechanic, he said: "I think it
(the comet) must have appeared suddenly, for I observed that region,
October 25th, and observed nothing special." As the position was in the
direction from which Biela's comet might approach the Earth, Dr.
Berberich of Berlin, a rapid and experienced computer, immediately
called attention to this fact and some astronomers assumed the new
comet to be Biela's and calculated the distance it should be from us,
and the time it would cross the Earth's path. The results obtained from
these computations indicated that the time the comet would cross the
Earth's path was only a few hours from that when the Earth would surely
pass the same point. Such statements in the hands of newspaper
reporters quickly gained very wide circulation, producing the
impression that there would be a collision bewteen the Earth and the
comet on or about the evening of Sunday, November 27th, 1892. As a
result something of a "comet scare" was experienced in some parts of
this country that reminded one a little of the woeful events predicted
for the comet of 1843 in the early part of that year.............But
when it was learned very soon after that their conclusions were based
on incorrect or erroneous observations, none could be more ready or
anxious to correct wrong impressions than were these same astronomers
The moral of this is that astronomers should be more
careful in the future for the sake of the reputation of the science, to
say nothing of the harm of involving the innocent in jeopardy. To
remind politicians incidentally of the possibility of an awful future
for them may not be blameworthy."
If history repeats itself then we
still have the prospect of a few interesting months ahead! This is what we
have seen so far .
Any comments on other
historical observations of this comet are welcome here.
Norman Lockyer Observatory
Sidmouth, Devon U.K.
(updated 9th Dec. 2007)