Historical Observations of Comet  Holmes (1892 III)


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 1892. Here are a few of them, reproduced with kind permission of the editor (in 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 at 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. My 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 of a very bright circular nebulosity with central condensation. The diameter of the comet was 5’ 41”. It was reobserved on November 16th at 10h 45m and its physical appearance seemed to have undergone a complete transformation. The diameter had increased to 10’ 33” and the cometary material had become much fainter and more irregular. The nucleus was now in the form of a bright streak, 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 of nebulosity.

On Nov 19th the comet was seen again. Its general aspect was much fainter, and it exhibited a further increase in dimensions. I carefully determined its diameter as 14’ 30” but the outlying portions were very tenuous and indefinite………
On Nov 9th the comet was about 203 millions of miles distant from the earth, and its real diameter must have been 333,000 miles.
On the 16th this must have increased to 652,000 miles. By the 19th the comet’s distance had become 217 million miles, and its real diameter 925,000 miles. In ten days therefore the cometary material expanded nearly threefold. Denning's letter can be found  here.


November  9th 1892 Observations from M Bigourdan, Paris Observatory :
The Comet was a large and bright nebulosity, perfectly round, and 5.5’ in diameter. It showed a central diffuse nucleus 10” in diameter. A rather brighter portion of an approximately elliptical form appeared to extend from the nucleus in the direction p= 127deg, its axis being 1.5’ and 30” respectively. On Nov 13th the comet was seen only intermittently. It was 8’ in diameter and nearly round. The nucleus no longer occupied the centre, but had shifted towards the preceding portion. The elliptical region was 2’ by 30”, and in the direction p=116.8deg. To the 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…..

January 16th 1893  Prof E Barnard, Lick Observatory, Mt. Hamilton, California:
Observing with a 12-inch at 8h 10m he found that an estimation of the comet’s diameter gave 30”.While under observation “the comet seemed to be perceptibly brightening”, and further measurements at 9h 45m gave a diameter of 32.4”. At this time he says: “The nucleus had developed clearly, and was very noticeable as a small ill-defined star.” With the 36-inch, which he was able to use later, he made the following measures, which we reproduce here, as they are unique in showing the increase in diameter of the comet due evidently to some external impact

10h 29m   43.4” diameter
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 head, presented a distinctly granulated appearance. Applying a power of 145, single 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 have been mistaken for one of the very faint, barely resolvable clusters in which the components are only to be caught by glimpses.

March 16th 1893:
Comet Holmes (1892 III) The comet has become rather a difficult object.

Other references:
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.

The 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."

"The 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 themselves.

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.

David Strange
Norman Lockyer Observatory
Sidmouth, Devon U.K.                                          13th November 2007                                                                     (updated 9th Dec. 2007)