History of Electric Comet Theory: An Introduction
By Hannes Täger Ph.D.
Significant scientific hypotheses and theories asserting the electrical nature of comets have been proposed and explored for at least 250 years. Many natural philosophers, physicists, and astronomers believed that the characteristic physical and light phenomena of comets were fundamentally electrical. Later scientists developed more comprehensive ideas based on these early observations. They saw undeniable evidence that comets function as components of an electric solar system, or even more pivotal, an electric universe. Dr. Hannes Täger introduces notable historical figures who invested great resources in this field of research from the late 18th century up to the dominance of electric theories at the end of the 19th century.
The foundation for a new electric view on comets was laid during an epoch when astronomers like Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) pioneered a revolutionary new approach to astronomy in general. Their contemporaries William Gilbert and von Guericke made experiments and wrote publications that allowed electric interpretations of celestial phenomena.
Early Research in Electricity and Magnetism: 16th – 18th Century
1600 A.D. – William Gilbert
William Gilbert was an English physician and natural scientist. As the personal doctor to Queen Elisabeth, he was quite a well-known and prestigious public figure. In the year 1600 his important book “On the Magnet and Magnet Bodies, and on the Great Magnet Earth” was published. This book was a comprehensive collection of all earlier knowledge and understanding devoted to magnets and magnetism and included additional ideas and experiments taking place at the time. One chapter, in particular, summarized all that he could find in older sources and by own experiments about the force “Vis electrica“.
Gilbert realized that amber (the fossilized resin that was known by Ancient Greek philosophers to have the clinging properties of static electricity) was not the only conductor and developed a list of all the differences between magnetism and electricity. However, through this type of research, he eventually concluded that, despite their differences, magnetism and electricity are two emanations of the same basic force in all matter. However, his magnetic research that was of direct use of his magnetic research for the English Royal Navy overshadowed his achievements in the field of electricity. Generations passed before other scientists picked up where Gilbert had left off and started to apply ideas about electricity on the light of comets. He is regarded by some as the father of electrical engineering.[i]
1672 A.D. – Otto von Guericke
Otto von Guericke was a physicist, inventor, and Mayor of the City of Magdeburg, Germany. His work primarily dealt with astronomy, conducting vacuum experiments and investigating electrical phenomena. After some years of astronomical observation and scientific experimentation, von Guericke predicted that it is possible for someone to calculate when a comet would reappear in the sky.
Guericke’s two most distinguished accomplishments are his invention of the vacuum pump and the Magdeburg Hemispheres Experiments throughout the 1660’s. Drawing from William Gilbert’s earlier research, Guericke also utilized a terrella in a variety of experiments. He also employed a large sulfur globe (Schwefelkugel) for experiments with electric attraction. He compiled and published his findings in 1672. A century later his German fellow-countryman Wiedeburg reported,
“…already the inventor of the air pump played with an electrified sulfur ball and insulated cork balls and demonstrated the solar system.”
However, the paradigm-shifting breakthrough the science of electricity was pushing toward did not happen with Guericke’s work. His explanations and suggestions concerning so-called planetary forces failed to be adequate in explaining the nature of electricity and they contradicted the prevailing mechanistic ideas at the time.
1736 A.D. – Stephen Gray
Stephen Gray was born in Canterbury, England. He was the son of a dyer, and after some basic schooling was apprenticed to his father in the cloth-dyeing trade. Pursuing his passions of natural science and astronomy through self-education and experimentation, he became a great astronomer, experimenter, and poet. Gray was the first to describe the divergent roles played by electrical conductors and insulators through his groundbreaking systematic experimentation focused on conduction. He was made famous by his experiments with electricity, to such a degree that some today call him “the father of electricity”.
Gray considered electric matter to be one of the general causes of all motion in nature and believed the mechanics of the universe are fundamentally dependent on electricity. In his observations of planetary orbits, he believed that some influence of electricity was evident. These observations, in particular, inspired the already sick and aged scientist to design new electrical experiments. He intended “…to astonish the World with a new Sort of Planetarium never before thought of, and that from these Experiments might be established a certain Theory for accounting for the Motions of the Grand Planetarium of the Universe.”
Cromwell Mortimer, Secretary of the Royal Society of London, recorded this and the spoken description of three experiments from Gray’s deathbed one day before he passed in London in February 1736.
The experiments were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, with Mr. Mortimer including some remarks and reactions. Mortimer himself and others attempted to replicate the experiments but were met with unexpected results, likely due to some obscurities in the limited descriptions given by Gray. Mr. Mortimer had penned down the following lines about Experiment I:
“Take a small Iron Globe of an Inch or Inch and half Diameter, which set on the Middle of a Cake of Rosin of about seven or eight Inches Diameter, having first excited the Cake by gently rubbing it, clapping it three or four times with the Hands, or warming it a little before the fire; then fasten a light Body, as a small Piece of Cork, or Pith of Elder, to an exceeding fine Thread, five or six Inches long, which hold between your Finger and Thumb, exactly over the Globe: This light Body will itself begin to move around the Iron Globe, and that constantly from West to East, being the same Direction which the Planets have in their Orbit round the Sun. If the Cake of Rosin be circular, and the Iron Globe placed exactly in the Centre of it, then the light Body will be a Circle; but if the Iron Globe be placed at any Distance from the Centre of the circular Cake, then the Light Body will describe an [Elliptical] Orbit, which will have the same Eccentricity as the Distance of the Globe from the Centre of the Cake.
If the Cake of Rosin be of an Elliptic Form, and the Iron Globe be placed in the Centre of it, the light Body will describe an elliptical Orbit of the same Eccentricity as the Form of the Cake. If the Iron Globe be placed in or near one of the Focus’s of the Elliptic Cake, the Light Body will move much swifter in the Apogeè Part of the Orbit, than in the Perigeè Part, contrary to what is observed of the Planets.”
Birth of Electric Comet Theory – 18th Century
1767 A.D. – Hugh Hamilton
Hugh Hamilton was a mathematician, natural philosopher, professor and Church of Ireland Bishop of Ossory in Dublin. Hamilton wrote a mathematical treatise on conic sections called De Sectionibus Conicis: Tractatus Geometricus, published in 1758.[ii] The work was acclaimed for its lucidity and famous Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler described it as a perfect book.[iii]
His next work, published in 1767, was the adventurous “Philosophical Essays on Vapours”. The second Essay dealt with “Observations and Conjectures On the Nature of the Aurora Borealis And the Tails of Comets”. In this essay, Hamilton explained Aurora Borealis and comet tails as electric phenomena.
“But we find that any Body, even the most electric, if sufficiently heated, will become a Conductor, or will let the electric Matter pass from it very easily, and therefore we conclude that Heat disposes all Bodies readily to part with the electric Matter they contain, and we have an Instance in the Tourmalin stone that some Bodies will always throw off an electric Matter merely by being heated. Now when a Comet comes down towards the Sun, from Regions of extreme cold, and begins to acquire some Degree of Heat, it will, like the electric Matter, which it may possibly contain in great Abundance, and this Matter, will exhibit to us the Appearance of a shining Train as it does in the Aurora Borealis; and as the Comet comes to its Perihelion, and the Heat increases, this Matter will issue more abundantly, and the Train or Trail will increase in Lenght, till upon the Comet’s receding from the Sun the heat will decrease, and this Matter being pretty much exhausted, the Tail will be contracted in its Dimensions, and at length will be too far removed, and grow too faint to be observed.”
“Future Experiments and Observations will either confirm these Conjectures of mine, or suggest others more probable; but now we can only argue by Analogy from the rising of the electric Matter thro’ the colder Regions of our Atmosphere in the Aurora Borealis, that the same Effect will take place in the Atmosphere of a Comet, and from the same Cause, whatever that may be.”
1772 A.D. – Andrew Oliver Jr.
Andrew Oliver Jr. was a judge, philosopher, mathematician and dedicated comet researcher. He spent most of his life in Salem, Massachusetts. In 1772 his “Essay on Comets” was published. In part 1, Oliver posited explanations for the comet tail phenomena, accounting for their perpetual opposition to the Sun. In part 2 he speculated if comets could be habitable bodies in spite of the vast eccentricities of their orbits.
Oliver designed intricate models to aid his research. In his description of one particular set up, he explained that his comet – a small pellet of cork or pith of elder – made many rotations around his electric sun, a gilt wooden ball of four or five inches in diameter. The tail of the comet — a few 3 – 4 inch lengths of thread — turned away from the Sun and always maintained this position. The electric sun was supplied with the wire of an electric bottle and the artificial comet was hung up with a thread of silk. Oliver contemplated that if:
“…the electric tail of a Comet passed near a planet, it would be attracted by it, be drawn aside, from its opposition to the Sun, towards it, and upon its discharge the surplusage of its fire, that both might have equal, or proportional shares; which discharge, if we consider the snap of a small spark between two cork pellets, and enlarge the idea, proportionally, so that instantaneous cataract of fire which would necessarily take place between two Worlds in similar situations, we may well imagine would give an explosion, which nothing could equal, short of the final voice of an archangel; and, if it were not sufficient to rouse the ashes of the dead, might reduce the living to their primitive dust. “
However, Oliver hastened to assure his readers that humanity has not the least reason to dread because infinite wisdom and goodness would not create one world merely for the destruction of another.
1774 A.D. – Comte de Lacépède
Bernard-Germain-Étienne de La Ville-sur-Illon, Comte de Lacépède was a French naturalist who invested in music, philosophy and natural history. He avoided the terror of the French Revolution and later became known in society as a politician. As early as the 1770s, he saw electric matter as a generally active force in nature. While his contemporaries believed the concentrated effects of electric matter stemmed from the Sun, Lacépède campaigned to redirect the assembly point of electric matter to the interior of Earth.
In his unique vision, electricity was concentrated deep below the Earth’s surface and would occasionally “climb up” and cause violent explosions. In his opinion, these explosions were the force behind not only recurring natural activity such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, but also Earth-altering events like the sinking of the mythical island empire of Atlantis, the separation of Spain from Africa, and the origin of the English Channel between France and England. Furthermore, he held the cosmological beliefs that electric atmospheres surrounded stars, planets, and comets.
Comte de Lacépède’s published works include:
- Papers about Electricity in Journal de Physique (1774, 1777, 1778)
- Essai sur l’électricité naturelle et artificielle (1781)
- Théorie des comètes, pour servir au système de l’électricité universelle suivie d´une lettre critique sur l´attraction par M.P.D.L.C., Londes et Paris (1784)
Watch for Part 2: Early Enthusiasm in the Science of Electricity — Turn of the 18th/19th Century
[ii] Blacker, B. H. (revised Carter, Philip) (2004). “Hamilton, Hugh (1729–1805)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/12076. Retrieved 10 December 2011.
 Wiedeburg, Neue Muthmaßungen über die Sonnenflecken…, p.16.
 Gray, An Account of some Electrical Experiments…, Philosophical Transactions 1735-6, p.403.
 Ibid, pp. 400.
 Hamilton, Philosophical Essays, pp. 110.
 Ibid, p. 114.
 Oliver, Essay on Comets, pp. 47.
Hannes Täger is an engineer-economist and author, who resides in Germany. He got a vocational training as a metallurgist for molding and rolling milling in the Refined Steel Factories of Freital near Dresden. He studied business administration at the Technical University Mining Academy Freiberg (OreMountains), then he became a teaching assistant and received his Ph.D. in Economics. He now publishes in the field of early aviation history. For many years, Hannes has acted as one of the German translators for The Thunderbolts ProjectTM. Hannes was a conference scholar and a speaker in the Breakout Room at the EU2016 Conference, and his work was highlighted in a podcast called “History of the Electric Comet Theory.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.flugplatzgeschichte-grossenhain.de/Kontakt.htm.
Thunderblogs in this series:
History of Electric Comet Theory: An Introduction
History of Electric Comet Theory: Part 2
History of Electric Comet Theory: Part 3
History of Electric Comet Theory: Part 4
Photo credits: All of the pictures are from www.wikipedia.com or other public domain websites.
Edited by Jeffrey Whitlatch
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