What People in 1859 Thought of the Great Solar Storm (Hint: They Were Very Confused)

By Sarah Zhang | May 9, 2012 1:41 pm

An 1865 painting by Frederic Edwin Church, possibly inspired by the aurora of 1859.

On September 1, 1859, the sky erupted in color: “alternating great pillars, rolling cumuli shooting streamers, curdled and wisped and fleecy waves—rapidly changing its hue from red to orange, orange to yellow, and yellow to white, and back in the same order to brilliant red,” read a New York Times account. This was the aurora seen around the world.

Meanwhile, the telegraph operators were perplexed to find that the system suddenly failed. None of the lines worked, and telegraph paper spontaneously caught on fire. The aurora and disconnected telegraphs were both the working of the largest solar storm recorded in history.

As charged particles from the sun showered down onto Earth, people in 1859 didn’t quite know what to think. Matthew Lasar over at Ars Technica has collected historical accounts from reporters, telegraph operators, astronomers, and people who believed it was the end of the world. As science writers ourselves, we were especially curious to read this:

In the months shortly after the incident, newspapers and scientific journals found other possible causes. Scientific American postulated falling debris from active volcanoes, the San Francisco Herald theorized about “nebulous matter” from “planetary spaces,” and Harper’s Weekly settled on reflections from distant icebergs.

It’s easy to look at this now and laugh at the clueless media of 1859. But 150 years from, people will read us and probably think the same thing.

[via Ars Technica]

Image via Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Space
  • Hemo_jr

    “nebulous matter” from “planetary spaces,” sounds fairly accurate. The plasma from a CME could be described as nebulous matter (in a fast moving ionic form). And it certainly traveled from the sun to the Earth through planetary spaces.

  • http://Information.Architecture.Abacurial.com tOM Trottier

    Not much electronics 160 years ago to be damaged. But when the next one hits?

  • Paul

    The bigger concern is not electronics, but transformers on the power grid. Burn out enough of these and you shut down the economy for months or years.

  • Julie Cochrane

    The generators–the dynamos–in all the power plants of the side of the Earth facing the Sun when the worst of the storm hits. They all get fried. Replace, not repair, kind of fried. And they’re multi-million dollar machines, made specifically for where they’re being put in, and you can’t stockpile them as parts, because you can’t just bury them, because you can’t shield the storm out. At the power level of storm we’re talking about, it goes right through everything–the only reason the stuff on the other side of the planet doesn’t get hit is because the bulk of the planet *is* enough to stop it.

    Frankly, it’s just not pretty, and it’s not easy to prepare for. It can be done. At some point there’s a “deep enough” and so on, but it’s a very non-trivial problem, and we’re really doing nothing meaningful to prepare for it.

  • Mike

    I’ve wondered for the last couple of years why the power companies don’t have a plan to deal with large solar flares. It seems to me that by isolating the grid into smaller sectors so huge voltage spikes couldn’t be generated you could minimize the damage. If area residents were provided with instructions couldn’t the generators be shut down and people living near the big breakers installed on power poles could throw those thus isolating the lines into short sections that wouldn’t generate large amounts of electricity. A day of inconvenience seems better then the possibilty of months.

  • ADHD Adult

    Burning out transformers on the power grid? Stupid Megatron.

  • http://www.youtube.com/franknomustard Frank, no mustard

    I am afraid Paul is not that far off. We rely on electronics an awful lot, but if we don’t put together a self-healing power grid, including off the shelf replaceable transformers, an EMP could have us stuck in the 19th century for a long time.

  • Entropy

    What would happen if it happened tomorrow? Transformers, really?

  • Daniel

    I don’t understand why we would laugh at these folks for being confused about this phenomenon. Sure I understand why the aurora happens now but that’s only because it was explained to me by greater minds…. or at last more learned ones. Otherwise I’d be just add clueless as those in 1859. The guesses they put out there didn’t seem overly fantastical. Perhaps Sarah Zhang would have figured this on her own and that makes her superior.

  • Messier Tidy Upper

    Good article – love that pianting, cheers. :-)

    Co-incidentally enough, I’m currently reading ‘The Sun Kings -The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington & the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began’ by Stuart Clark in which the 1859 flare plays a key role. Great non-fiction book that I’d highly recommend if I may say so here.

    I’d also like to answer (#2) tOM Trottier’s question with this link :


    Via Ethan Siegel’s Starts with a Bang blog if that’s okay. My apologies and please let me know if not.

  • odin

    LOL, if a solar storm is strong enough to fry transformers on a power grid, I’m afraid transformers are the least of your worries.

  • http://www.iaminman.com Pablo

    I just hope future solar flares will not be strong enough to affect the electrical workings of neurons. Furthermore, if ever, I hope the effect will be on the positive side.

  • Anne

    From what I’ve heard, the nuclear power stations are the biggest worry.

    Because they rely on ordinary power to drive their cooling plants.

    And the diesel to run the back-up generator is only stock-piled for periods like a week.

    When what we are looking at with this sort of solar-induced power shutdown is years.

    Which means every nuclear power station on earth melting down like (or worse) Fukushima.

    Which is why we should be urgently starting to shut down every nuclear power plant on earth right now (they take years to shut down too).

    This is serious.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    Oh Mike! lol! u said
    “If area residents were provided with instructions couldn’t the generators be shut down and people living near the big breakers installed on power poles could throw those”

    Lol again. I see fried people all over the continent. High voltage work is the domain of properly trained High Voltage Electricians. It is not a Saturday afternoon 2 hour lecture!

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    Oh Anne.
    Nuclear generated power and diesel generated power and hydro generated power all make the same kind of electricity, the kind that works and runs things for us. Once a nuke is running it has the power to run all of it’s own subsystems, even the air conditioner and coffee pot.
    Also if the nuke plant operators see a 2 year window for the next diesel delivery they would conduct an orderly shutdown, not just run until there is a catastrophe.
    Give your head a shake.

  • DP

    wow! Imagine a world without cell phones or texting. – the end is near

  • http://www.elijahthomson.com ET

    Meh, I have an acoustic guitar and a bike.

  • http://Netzero Willard 23

    I worked in a power plant for 33 years. I believe in 2004 the east coast experience a backout that last two days simple because some branches got into some power lines and started a cascaded that finally was stopped by opening interconnects that tie most of the power grid together over the entire country. It would only reqire that some transformers burn up or be effected. I believe the power grid in Canada experieced a sever effect from a flare several years ago. If the generator rotors are fried then you could be looking at a year to eighteen months to get a new one. Main power transformers at least one year.

  • Kyle

    Most cars rely on tiny computers to start their engines and the countries that are facing the sun the cars will suddenly not start.

    The government wants us to go *electric* and we do not have anywhere near enough electricity to handle it as they require lots of charging.
    Sure you can put up lots of stations but they still take power.

    It’s not about what kind of resources you use for energy but how wisely you use it. Getting rid of Nuclear power plants will only spell more trouble as they are the cleanest if ran properly and the people in charge don’t cut corners on taking care of them.
    The power plant in Japan that blew up was overdue for a syst check and they recently made a new kind Nuclear power plant that eliminates the waste build up though I cannot remember what I heard. :(

    Why can’t we be like the 1950s in terms of spirit with a great vision of sustainable energy for the future instead of shutting down everything we’ve got because of this or that issue which causes the *Greenies* to fling crap at anybody who dares voice an opposite view?


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