Anti-comet umbrellas and other strange Halley's Comet inventions
The appearance of Halley's Comet in 1910 saw a panic-buying spree for all manner of nonsensical apparatus.
They say 'where there’s a crowd there’s business'.
With a huge potential global audience online, the next time inspiration for an innovation flashes like a shooting star, no matter how unlikely-sounding it may be, you may find customers surprisingly easy to find – especially if your money-spinning idea has links to space.
You’d be following in a long line of entrepreneurs past, such as when Halley’s Comet flew by Earth in 1910.
The event caught the attention of opportunists who saw the potential to profit from the unknowns surrounding the comet’s appearance.
This was nicely fuelled by French astronomer and popular science author Camille Flammarion, who paved the way by stating that Earth would pass through the comet’s tail, and that there was a chance that "cyanogen gas would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet".
Just think about that as Earth passes through the dust left by Halley’s Comet in its orbit, next time you’re watching the Orionid meteor shower!
While a San Francisco newspaper did remind readers that "most astronomers do not agree with Flammarion," it made little impact on the uncertainty that was left in people’s minds – and more importantly to the merchandise that was to be peddled to save us all from oblivion.
Salvation came in the form of anti-comet pills, one such medication promising "an elixir for escaping the wrath of the heavens".
Or there was the gas mask that was sold to evade the fumes, although it wasn’t specified how long to use it for, which could itself have had long-term drawbacks.
As the comet approached, those householders who had not been drawn into the craze stuffed paper around their doorframes in an effort to keep the toxic gas out.
But of all the craziness that ensued to defend oneself against the incoming comet, anti-comet umbrellas were surely the best (an idea taken to a different level decades later, with a meteorite-deflecting helmet).
You can imagine how an umbrella could easily deal with all that a massive comet could throw at Earth and its residents.
Halley’s Comet duly passed by, leaving Earth unscathed, returning again – but with less hysteria attached – in 1986.
Surely today things have moved on, with a more knowledgeable and discerning potential buyer in the marketplace? Perhaps not!
Would you like to buy a nice piece of land on the Moon?
A quick Google and it's yours, courtesy of a ‘lunar real estate agent’.
Excellent views, especially for stargazing, but a bit sparse on local amenities when you want to buy a pint of milk.
This too is just an opportunistic fancy: according to a 1967 agreement, known as the Outer Space Treaty, you cannot buy land on the Moon, so that idea will have to wait.
There are many legitimate products that take their names from astronomical bodies, but any that claim to give you X-ray vision, or the ability to read people’s minds (I knew you’d say that), do add a pinch of salt!
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This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.
Jonathan Powell is a freelance writer and broadcaster. A former correspondent at BBC Radio Wales, he has written three books on astronomy and is currently astronomy columnist at the South Wales Argus.