I have recently received a handful of uninformed responses from people who have read my series of essays on the possible influence of electricity in the solar system - including the electric nature of comets.

Several have written to me claiming that I was not giving proper credit to astrophysicist James McCanney, even asserting that McCanney "originated" the electric comet theory. Some have further stated that "electric universe" theorist Wallace Thornhill has "borrowed" from McCanney's theories without acknowledging a debt to McCanney.

Both of these assertions are false.

McCanney did not "originate" the electric comet theory, because:
  1. the theory has roots in many 19th century speculations about comets
  2. the catalytic work on the electric sun and electric comets was that of the twentieth century pioneer Ralph Juergens, whose published papers on the subject pre-date those of McCanney by several years
  3. Thornhill's thesis was directly inspired by Juergens', whose work Thornhill diligently followed from the beginning
  4. the hypothesis was favored by Thornhill, to which he has added many nuances, and differs significantly from McCanney's
  5. the core of McCanney's thesis is thrown into doubt by space age discovery, while Thornhill's is not
Nevertheless, McCanney must be given credit for having explored cometary phenomena from a unique electrical vantage point and having added to scientific discussion of the "electric comet."

A brief historical outline of the evolution of the electric comet theory may be helpful.

It is clear that at least by the second half of the 19th century, many scientists believed that comet tails were fundamentally electrical. For example, in 1872, Scientific American (July 27th, p. 57), informed its readers that "Professor Zollner of Leipsic" ascribes the "self-luminosity" of comets to "electrical excitement."

According to the article, Zollner suggests that,
"the nuclei of comets, as masses, are subject to gravitation, while the vapors developed from them, which consist of very small particles, yield to the action of the free electricity of the sun...."
Also in the 19th century, the August 11, 1882 English Mechanic and World of Science, pp. 516-7, wrote of cometary tails:
"...There seems to be a rapidly growing feeling amongst physicists that both the self-light of comets and the phenomena of their tails belong to the order of electrical phenomena."
Similar ideas about comet's tails appear in Nature, No. 1370, Vol. 53, Jan 30, 1896, p. 306:
"It has long been imagined that the phenomenon of comet's tails are in some way due to a solar electrical repulsion, and additional light is thrown on this subject by recent physical researches."
Over subsequent decades, however, science moved away from ANY consideration of electrical phenomena in space, a turn of events which is only now being reversed.

A major catalyst for independent re-consideration of electricity and magnetism in space came in 1950, with the publication of Immanuel Velikovsky's World in Collision. The controversial theorist had proposed an extraordinary idea. He suggested that, only a few thousand years ago, the planet Venus appeared in the sky as a great comet.

The theory was ridiculed by the scientific mainstream, since all well-accredited scientists "knew" that gases could not escape from a planet-sized body to produce the kind of "cometary tail" Velikovsky had envisioned. Velikovsky was not ignorant of the "escape velocity" cited by physicists, but his examination of ancient records suggested to him that our ancestors witnessed extremely intense electrical activity in the sky, including electrical arcing between planets moving on unstable courses.

Velikovsky said that the only way the evidence could be reconciled with current scientific knowledge would be through consideration of ELECTROMAGNETISM.

In Worlds in Collision, he wrote:
"I became skeptical of the great theories concerning the celestial motions that were formulated when the historical facts described here were not known to science....Fundamental principles in celestial mechanics, including the law of gravitation, must come into question if the sun possesses a charge sufficient to influence the planets and their orbits, or the comets in theirs. In the Newtonian celestial mechanics, based on the theory of gravitation, electricity and magnetism play no role."
In the 1960's, a Flagstaff, AZ engineer named Ralph Juergens - a former associate editor of a McGraw-Hill technical publication - began collaborating directly with Velikovsky, inspired by the historical evidence for electrical events in the heavens. This evidence prompted Juergens to begin an extended investigation of the electrical properties of celestial bodies. He came to see the sun as the most positively charged body at the center of an electrical system.

In the fall of 1972, Juergens published the first in a series of articles offering a revolutionary hypothesis on the "electric sun." The articles appeared in Pensee magazine's series, "Immanuel Velikovsky Reconsidered," p. 6:
"The known characteristics of the interplanetary medium suggest not only that the sun and the planets are electrically charged, but that the sun itself is the focus of a cosmic electric discharge - the probable source of all its radiant energy."
While Juergens' model focused most fundamentally on the Sun, its implications for comet theory were inescapable.

I'll skip most of the technical details concerning the formation of a "plasma sheath" around charged bodies in space, but in the Juergens hypothesis, a comet spends most of its time in the outermost regions of the solar system, where the electric field will be most negative. The comet nucleus, Juergens said, naturally acquires the negative charge of its environment. This leads to electrical stresses on the comet as it falls towards the sun.

Juergens writes,
"A space-charge sheath will begin to form to shield the interplanetary plasma from the comet's alien field. As the comet races toward the sun, its sheath takes the form of a long tail stretching away from the sun...."
Juergens' model of the electric sun and of electrically discharging comets was immediately taken up by Earl Milton, professor of physics at Lethbridge University in Canada.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the Society of Interdisciplinary Studies in April 1980, Milton offered a ringing endorsement of Juergens' hypothesis:
"The cometary body takes on the properties (author's note: electric charge) of the space in which it has spent most of its time. On those infrequent apparitions when it comes into the space of the inner SOLAR SYSTEM, the body of the comet gets out of equilibrium because it now moving in an electrically different environment than the one it is adjusted to. An electrical flow then occurs to rectify the situation. The sheath which builds around the cometary body glows brightly and assumes the characteristic shape of the comet's head and tail."
Several years after Juergens' revolutionary papers on the electric sun, James McCanney, then a lecturer in the physics and mathematics department of Cornell University, prepared the first in a series of three articles in Kronos magazine on "The Nature and Origin of Comets and the Evolution of Celestial Bodies."

In his own words,
"This paper was produced during the 1979-80, 1980-81 academic years."
The article is copyrighted 1981 and 1983.

One other researcher, Australian physicist Wallace Thornhill, has also contributed significantly to modern speculations about "electric comets." Thornhill,s interest was provoked by the Pensee magazine series in the early seventies, and his greatest interest was in the revolutionary work of Ralph Juergens. This was an active interest that brought him to America in 1974, to attend an international conference, "Velikovsky and the Recent History of the Solar System." Ralph Juergens was a principal speaker.

Over the following three decades, Thornhill accumulated a massive data base on comets, and much of this independent research is slated for publication in a series of volumes, beginning with the forthcoming book, Thunderbolts of the Gods, co-authored with David Talbott. (

Years after the Pensee series, James McCanney's articles on comets appeared in Kronos. Thornhill recognized that McCanney's hypothesis diverged significantly from the original Juergens hypothesis, and he preferred the Juergens model. Thus, Thornill saw the comet nucleus as a negatively charged body moving through an electric field of the sun, and experiencing increasing electrical stresses as it draws nearer to center of the field (the sun).

The view is stated in the monograph, The Electric Universe, now being prepared for publication:
"As a comet accelerates toward the Sun and electrons are stripped from the comet's surface, it first develops a huge visible glow discharge, or coma, then the discharge switches to the arc mode. This results in a number of bright cathode 'spots' of high current density on the surface, etching circular craters and burning the surface black, giving the surface its extreme darkness. Each arc forms a 'cathode jet' that electrically accelerates the excavated and vaporized material into space."
This point is particularly worth mentioning, because it distinguishes the Juergens-Milton-Thornhill model from that of James McCanney. It was McCanney's hypothesis that cometary nuclei ACCRETE material, and that this accretion process, continuing over long periods of time, would give rise to a PLANET. In contrast to this model, Thornhill's hypothesis predicts the progressive DEGRADATION of comet nuclei, with sharply defined surface features from the electrical etching process. This distinction between the two models amounts to an ACID TEST.

In his article, "The Nature of and Origins of Comets and the Evolution of Celestial Bodies" (Part 1), Kronos, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall 1983, McCanney writes,
"...a comet involved in the discharge of the solar capacitor will continue to grow in size and mass...."

"Curved tails, such as in Donati's comet, when it neared the Sun, are a result of the matter in the Zodiacal disk falling into the comet nucleus...."

"This causes a buildup of material on the asteroidal comet nucleus....Comets eventually evolve into planets...."
More specifically, in Appendix 2, Part II, Kronos Vol. 9, No. 3, Summer 1984, McCanney offered as a DEFINITIVE TEST his prediction that tail material "will be detected by DIRECT OBSERVATION to move TOWARDS the comet nucleus."

We have now visited several comets. Such movement has not been detected, and it is quite evident that violent jets are removing material and accelerating it into space...

It should be obvious that no one can claim a monopoly on the electric comet theory. But it is only appropriate that innovative pioneers (in this case, Velikovsky and Juergens) receive due credit for having opened the doors to revolutionary possibilities.

From the beginning Thornhill has consistently credited Velikovsky and Juergens for the direction of his life's work.

James McCanney's contributions should also be welcomed, but any perception that he "originated" electric comet theory, and/or that Wallace Thornhill has unfairly "borrowed" from McCanney's work, is quite clearly erroneous.