The Tale of a Fiery Comet

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In the 1880s H.H. Warner, a wealthy American renowned as the 'patent medicine king', awarded a cash prize of $200 to an American or Canadian discoverer of a comet. The prize motivated Edward Emerson Barnard, a young amateur astronomer with virtually no formal education, to discover eight comets within six years. He won enough money to build himself a house. 'This fact goes to prove the great error', he said, 'of those scientific men who figure out that a comet is but a flimsy affair after all - for here was a house, albeit a small one, built entirely out of them. True, it took several good-sized comets to do it, but it was done nevertheless.'

Barnard's discoveries also earned him a scholarship to Vanderbilt University. In 1887 the 30-year-old graduate joined the Lick Observatory of the University of California at Santa Cruz (in his resume he listed all his discoveries - ten comets and 23 nebulae - as well as his good habits: 'I am perfectly temperate, neither smoke, chew, nor use intoxicating drinks.'). Barnard, 'the man who was never known to sleep', was well known as an inexhaustible observer of the heavens when he became the subject of an elaborate hoax.

On 8 March 1891, when he opened his copy of the

San Francisco Examiner, Barnard was astonished and horrified to read a story describing his 'invention of a machine for scanning the skies and catching wandering comets on the photographic plate':

discovers comets all by itself the meteor gets in range, 'electricity does the rest.'

A Wonderful Scientific Invention that will do away with the Astronomer's Weary Hours of Searching—The Idea Founded on the Spectrum of the Comet's Light—It's Just Like Gunning for Wandering Stars with a Telescope.

The long, breezy headline was followed by an equally long and playful story that filled two whole columns of the newspaper and included three detailed illustrations: a view of the complete comet-seeker, a diagram of an objective prism and an electrical circuit. The story also included several quotes from Barnard, whom the story described as 'the renowned young astronomer'. 'When the comet is caught, as in a trap ... An alarm-bell rings in my bedroom down at the cottage', Barnard was quoted as saying. 'Of course, the signal quickly summons me to the roof [of the observatory] ... A single glance should suffice to reveal the position of the new comet.'

Barnard immediately sent angry letters of denial to all San Francisco newspapers, but they all ignored them. Somehow the hoaxer had convinced the newspapers to ignore Barnard if he 'disowns his invention'. For two years, until the Examiner apologised in an editorial after his discovery of the fifth moon of Jupiter, Barnard continued to receive letters from all over the world. Even the famous astronomer Lewis Swift wrote that he had read the article 'regarding your invention to search for comets while asleep or using the 12-inch or playing poker ... although the article appears somewhat fishy I am inclined to think it is still another of the marvellous inventions of the 19 th century'.

Barnard never discovered the identity of the perpetrator of the hoax; however, he suspected one of his colleagues. Barnard died in 1923 leaving an astonishing legacy of observations - of planets, satellites, comets, double stars, bright and dark nebulae and globular clusters - that make him one of the greatest observers of all time.

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