May 13. 2013 - Anniversary of the Discovery of the Great Comet of 1861

An Australian youth named John Tebbutt purchased a marine sextant when he was only 19 years old.

He also acquired a clock with a seconds pendulum and a small telescope, and he used all of these instruments to make observations of the stars and other celestial objects in the nighttime skies.

This was back in the 1800s, and at that time most of the world's astronomers lived in the Northern Hemisphere. They were eager to learn from the data that the amateur astronomer from Australia was recording. While still in his 20s, Tebbutt actually built a small wooden observatory with his own hands!

And on this date in 1861, he discovered a previously unknown comet.

Tebbutt tried to send word of the new comet and the orbit he had computed for it to other astronomers, but they spotted the comet before they received his news. (Remember, back then before telephones and telegrams, news traveled slowly.) Still, Tebbutt is credited with the discovery.

The comet was considered “Great” because it was very bright. It was visible to the naked eye for about three months. But I think it was great because of a very unusual circumstance: for two days during the time when the comet was closest to Earth, Earth actually crossed through the comet's tail! That meant that people could see streams of cometary material converging on the bright body of the comet itself. Just check out these pictures people drew:

Plan Ahead...
Check out my Pinterest boards of May holidays, historical events in May, and May birthdays.

Also on this date:

Paleontologist George Washington Cuvier's birthday

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