Thursday, December 26, 2019

What Didn't Happen a Hundred Years Ago

Perusing the Columbia Republican for December 23, 1919, the following article piqued my curiosity. It reported the responses of Hudsonians to the fact that the world had not ended the previous Wednesday.


A little research uncovered, on a blog maintained by the University of Cincinnati Libraries, this letter, found in the university archives. It was written on December 4, 1919, to the Cincinnati Observatory by a woman named Myrtle Riley, who worked for Western Electric Company. In the letter, she asked the astronomers if it was true that the world was going to end on December 17, 1919.

According to the blog, "Ms. Riley's concerns apparently grew out of a prediction by Albert Porta. Porta, a meteorologist from the University of Michigan, predicted a weather catastrophe caused by an exceptionally large sun spot combined with the electro-magnetic pull of the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune." Further investigation revealed that attributing the prediction to Albert Porta was corrrect, but identifying Porta as "a meteorologist from the University of Michigan" was not. 

The notion that Porta was affiliated with the University of Michigan gave credibility to his prediction, but it brought embarrassment to that institution. The full story is told by Kim Clarke as part of the University of Michigan's History Project: "Professor Porta's Predictions." Clarke's account provides evidence that not everyone was as blasé about the imminent end of the world as Hudsonians apparently were.
In Chickasha, Okla., a week before Christmas of 1919, a young girl slipped on a new dress. If she was going to meet her maker, she wanted to look special.
Across the Atlantic, the poor of Paris gathered in churchyards to say prayers. They, too, were preparing themselves.
On Canada's Vancouver Island and in Oshkosh, Wis., people drank and danced, content to wind down their lives in glorious, boozy parties.
It was Dec. 17, 1919, and the world was all but coming to an end. From England and France to Cleveland and Indianapolis, people huddled, prayed, cried and stared into the sky, waiting and watching for a dramatic climax. There would be torrential rains, massive lava eruptions and deafening winds that would rattle the earth for days.
It would be, predicted Professor Albert F. Porta, "the most terrific weather cataclysm experienced since human history began." And the United States would be the epicenter.
As newspaper readers across the country knew, Albert F. Porta was a noted forecaster. His calculations were grounded in science. And his name was attached to a very distinguished place: The University of Michigan.
And so people braced for the end.
Before making his famous prediction, Porta had had a varied career. He was born in 1853 the Piedmont region of Italy and studied architecture and civil engineering at the University of Turin. In 1894, he, his wife, and children, emigrated to Guatemala, and nine years later he moved to the United States, where in 1907 he became a professor of civil engineering at Santa Clara College, a small, all-male Jesuit school. It was there, according to Clarke, that he discovered the campus observatory "and scholars trained to explore the heavens and predict the weather."

By 1913, Porta was no longer a faculty member at Santa Clara College, but he had been hired by the Santa Clara observatory for this mathematical skills, "specifically to determine electromagnetic connections between sunspots and planets of the solar system." After two of years working at the observatory, he left to establish his own weather and earthquake forecasting service. Clarke comments, "He claimed new methods for predicting earthquakes in an anxious region still recovering from the 1906 quake that devastated San Francisco."

Relying exclusively on a federal government booklet called the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, which published annually the movements of Earth, Sun, Moon, and stars, Porta's Institutio delle Scienze Planetarie--the Institute of Planetary Sciences--delivered a weather report, which was syndicated, for the entire country, region by region. In the summer of 1919, Porta began predicting a "pending meteorological doom."

How Porta, who ran his own self-created "institute" in California, became associated with the University of Michigan is not entirely clear, but Clarke suggests it was an accidental consequence of public dismissals of Porta's predictions from William J. Hussey, a professor of astronomy at the University of Michigan with serious academic credentials. Hussey considered Porta's predictions absurd and told the press, "The scare is of the type the people of the dark ages were frightened with every few weeks, but has no place in an enlightened world like that of today." According to Clarke, "it was [Hussey's] vehement rebuttals that may have led to Porta becoming associated with U-M in the first place."
It was only after newspaper accounts carrying Hussey's dismissals, and his position at Ann Arbor, that Porta somehow was lumped into the U-M faculty. It was perhaps the error of a copy editor merging stories, or a rewrite man up against a deadline at a wire service. No matter. Newspapers around the globe now routinely published dire, end-of-the-world forecasts attributed to "Professor Porta of the University of Michigan."
Although, as the Columbia Republican reported, the good citizens of Hudson went about their business on December 17, 1919, and left superstitious people to worry, elsewhere in the Capital Region the prediction had tragic consequences. Clarke reports that on December 17, 1919:
. . . in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Samuel Heaslip prepared to bury his 54-year-old wife, Anna. She killed herself the day before, unable to face the end of the world.
Acknowledgment In this post, Gossips relies heavily on "Professor Porta's Predictions," by Kim Clarke. The article contains much more information than was included here, and it is recommended reading for those curious about this century-old prediction about the "gigantic explosion of flaming gases" that was to bring about the end of the world.

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