The Great Auroral Display of 1859: The Carrington/ Stewart Super-flares

1 Conversation

Under Construction. Delays Possible.

The State of The Art.

Prior to the 19th century it was not obvious to anyone that electricity and magnetism was two aspects of the same basic principles but that was all about to change. In 1819 Hans Christian Ørsted had noticed that an electric current would deflect a compass needle away from it. He deduced that the passage of an electric current through a conductor like a wire, produced a magnetic field around the wire.

Ten years later in 1830 Joseph Henry, an American and the Englishman Michael Faraday both independently discovered that what Ørsted discovered could be reversed: moving a coil of wire through a magnetic field would 'induce' a current in a conductor. However because Faraday published his results first in 1833 he is generally recognised and accredited with discovering electromagnetic induction, Though others, more important to our story, were more familiar with Henry's work over Faraday's it was Faraday's contribution in framing his law of induction that would be of the more incalculable value to electricity generation.

Faraday's law

Any change in the magnetic environment of a coil of wire will cause a charge to be "induced" in the coil. No matter how the change is produced, the charge will be generated. The change could be produced by changing the magnetic field strength, moving a magnet toward or away from the coil, moving the coil into or out of the magnetic field, or rotating the coil relative to the magnet.

The German physicist Lenz, took Farday's discovery of magnetic motion and induced current and used it to show how the polarity of the magnetic field that accompnaies the the induced current was always in opposition to the field of the moving magnet. These discoveries along with Maxwell's equations for describing electric field equations would in time lead to the development of electrical dynamos and the generation of electricity as we know it today with massive magnets rotating in coils of wire. Workable dynamos would not be developed until towards the end of the century. Thus completing the arc of progression that had begun with the ancient Greeks.

They had long ago learnt that agitating some amber with fur could make it attract small objects like hair. It's the same effect you get if you rapidly comb your hair with a plastic comb and hold the comb over some small pieces of paper. The comb is charged through friction the paper isn't and opposite charges attract so the paper goes towards the comb.

The Greek for Amber is 'electron' and it is from there that all words associated with electricity derive their etymological links 1 because what the Greeks were playing with is what we would today recognise as static electricity.

As the name implies 'static' electricity tends to stay in one place until it is discharged. What this means in modern scientific terms is demonstrated by thinking about conductive materials. Conductive and non-conductive materials induct differently in the presence of electricity.
The atomic structure of conductive materials is such that they are able to share 'free' electrons that flow between atoms. This is the principle behind an electric current.
Non conductive materials, however, behave differently. Instead of 'free' electrons flowing between atomic nuclei the electrons in non conductive materials are bonded by the nuclear forces holding them in place. However, opposite charges still attract, so while the electrons passing around the nucleus cannot be shed they can spend a little bit more time on one side rather than the other. The electrons of the atomic nuclei therefore will deform to towards the opposite charge but never leave the nucleus. And so in this manner positive and negative charges can still attract in non-conductive materials. The charge if it can be induced to develop has to stay where it is (it can't 'flow away'), and it can still be attracted to oppositely charged objects. This is why non conductive rubber balloons can be made to stick to walls if you rub them vigourously enough against your sleeve. The static electricity holds them in place by being attracted to the wall.

The earliest work on powering devices like the telegraph also focussed on static electricity leading into the 1800s. Various experiments were performed through out the late 1700's in pursuit of that goal but with limited success: the charge, having built up, would simply dissipate when released. In 1748, Benjamin Franklin discharged a Leyden Jar through a wire across the Schuylkill River, demonstrating the ability of a contained charge to ignite flares on opposite banks simultaneously. But critical in this experiment is that static electricity just discharges - there was no concept of keeping the charge within a circuit.2

The Approach of The Small World.

If the circuit was to close the loop on electricity, then with the dawning of the 19th century and throughout into the 20th, the telegraph would close the loop around the world and bring the first era of mass communication to life.

The word telegraph literally means far-writing, from the Greek prefix/suffix, and in this sense a telegraph has a history dating to Homer's writing of Agamemnon sending message of victory at Troy back to Mycenae via signal fires. There any message communicated over distance and inscribed upon receipt is effectively a telegraph.

The type of telegraph familiar to most, however, and hence the pre-amble, is the electric telegraph.

The first commercial usage is introduced along railway lines for short distance communication3 - advances in battery technology and therefore available energy meant distances between sending and receiving stations for over-ground signal transmission, steadily increased throughout the 1800s.

Mines were detonated as early as 1812 via underwater wires, but the science and the technology for signal transmission was someway behind this early advance. hence the obvious incentive to run them parallel with rails. Rivers were a problem.

Legend records that the extraordinary Dr W.B O'Shaughnessy4 first crossed a river with a telegraph cable, bisecting The Hooghly in India, in 1839. This is incredibly early and it's possible the line was suspended over rather than being submerged but nevertheless a significant achievement, though some doubt lingers over the authenticity. Much of early telegraph lore is subject to some apocrypha and tall tales. Of more certain veracity are the tales from America which describe well-attested river-crossings.

In 1845 the cable across the Hudson was submerged but ripped out by ice. On the second attempt, the cable was suspended on high masts with the only problem being that the cable had to be lowered every time a ship passed by! By the turn of the decade the craft was advancing: At Cape Girardeauin, Missouri the river was crossed successfully in 1852; the Ohio River at Padducah in 1853.

These were relatively small-scale success, for in truth the real challenge involved greater stretches of water. Significant amongst these, in 1850 a submarine cable was lain between Dover and Cape Grisnez. Dover to Calais followed a year later.

In the Southern Hemisphere, Australia first erected and operated an internal telegraph between Melbourne and it's port in 1854, however the colonies were still isolated and disparate. In 1856 the East Indies around Java received their first telegraph cable. but it was only in 1872 via a submarine cable through Darwin that Austraila became connected to the rest of the world. This is significant in terms of communication milestones as it demarcates the change between the isolated events afflicting far -flung colonists and the very concept of 'news.' Compare when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 the news was carried by SS Nova Scotia then conveyed by the whaling vessel to Londonderry and from there by telegraph to London, to be rushed to print 12 days after it happened5. In 1889, when the Volcano Krakataoa exploded and decimated the colonies of the Dutch East Indies all along the coasts of Sumatra and Java, the headlines appeared in The Times of London the next day.6
Worldwide, development of the electric telegraph was exploding: the era of the electric telegraph had arrived

By the the first half of the 19th century, telegraph lines stretched out into the great American plains (though the two coasts had yet to be joined). With the repair of the transatlantic cable in 1866: the world was officially a little bit smaller. As Krakatoa destruction demonstrated a few years hence - yesterday's events were now tomorrow's headlines.

Duplex transmissions (two way communication) follow in 1870 and Quadraplex (four-way) by the early 1890s.7 In had taken a century but in 1902, the telegraph encircled the globe.

Connecting the dots

It should of course be remembered than when we speak of 'the telegraph' there was rarely any one kind rather at many times throughout the 19th century many different kinds and the types and technology involved varied tremendously, and these were often in open competition with each other. For example, Wheatstone and Cooke's needle telegraph in 1837 used a grid of letters and five independent free-turning needles to oscilate left or right, deflected by the direction of a passage of an electric current.8 The Needle Telegraph used a grid to identify the the row and the letter the needle pointed to. Without wishing to enumerate them fully, there were many downsides to this system, amongst them: each needle needed it's own conductor to transverse the distance between sender and recipient. Thus was required an awful lot of wire. Even so, this was an improvement over earlier prototypes, where needless multiplication saw every letter independently wired. The Needle Telegraph grid got around this by not using all the letters in the alphabet - only letters four per needle. It also required trained operators to read off the telegraphs output and record it. This took time and introduced error. In spite of these significant limitations, this early telegraph was incredibly successful and paved the way for others to follow.

In 1842, Alexander Bain used a chemical process to mark or bleach specially prepared paper soaked in ammonium nitrate and potassium ferrocyanide. This resulted in a blue mark appearing on the page in response to a current. The chief advantage of this process was speed: Bain's chemical reactions far surpassed all competitors in the reproduction of letters which relied on comparatively slow mechanical techniques or even worse the transcription of human hands. However he attracted the wrath and litigious attention of the titan of this era, Samuel Morse. Morse successfully charged that Bain's system violated his patent on moving paper tape. Thus, though the methods differ quite substantially, Bain's system was never widely adopted and is found only sporadically in England, and America.

Being pursued by Samuel Morse for a patent violation was not an uncommon event. Morse was dogged in seeking legal protection and accreditation for what he thought of as his invention; indeed as the front man for the business he created, he is foremost responsible for the former rather than the later. Acutely brand-sensitive, Morse was extremely canny in seeking to promote his name and no other as the basis of a secure marketing strategy. To that end credit was almost never shared and sometimes revoked. His success was undeniable, people still connect the telegraph with the morse code even today but the story of Morse and his code is as noted, in spite of it's success one of many of the era.

What Hath God Wrought?

Although Morse had begun experimenting originally with electromagnets modelled on a design pioneered by William Sturgeon, he was inspired after meeting Dr Leonard Gale, to abandon these and use instead the electromagnetic designs of Joseph Henry.

Gale helped Morse build electromagnets based on Henry's designs and as credit, he would become a minor share holder in Morse's company in return. From Morse's point of view this lent the project some much needed scientific credibility. An engineer Alfred Vail attended one of Morse's public demonstrations and was sufficiently impressed to offer his services to Morse. Practically all of Vail's contributions are significant to the success of the enterprise he joined. Vail would quickly rise to the senior role of a partner in Morse's business and held the title of chief engineer.

Morse's real talent was as a the salesmen. He was actively lobbying congress for funds to develop the electric telegraph in America even going so far in his exuberance as to string wires between committee rooms in The Capitol and send signals back and forth. This approach was successful and Congress appropriated to Morse a sum of $30,000 to develop a line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. This would culminate in the spectacular events of On May 24, 1844, when Morse would demonstrate his technology to a rapt audience of Whigs.

The daughter of the patent commissioner Morse had been steadily wooing, Henry Ellsworth, selected a passage from The Bible. Annie Ellsworth chose Chapter 23, Verse 23 from The Book of Numbers which begins "What hath God wrought" - four simple words that went down in history as the the first 'official' message to be transmitted from what would become the site of the first telegraph office. Congress had granted fundamental patent rights to Morse in 1840; these were renewed in 1854 , but finally expired in 1860. During this time Morse pursued a lawsuit to be named as 'the inventor of the telegraph', as well as buying Gale's shares for $15,000.

During a sabbatical in 1845 Alfred Vail writes a bookThe American Electro-Magnetic Telegraph in which he omits to credit Joseph Harvey's electromagnets. . His contribution was to take Morse's tinkering and bravado and deliver a technical and practical system that worked. Morse was himself little involved in the final design of the key and register that bore his name: Vail acquiesced to Morse's insistence on brand identification. Thus obliterating Vail's involvement just as Vail had de facto obliterated Henry's contribution. Vail also did not benefit financially from his involvement with Morse, even though after Morse he was the second biggest shareholder in the enterprise.

Other patentees with significant roles in developing the companies infrastructure as it struck out west. Notable amongst these "Fog" Smith, a man with political contacts and influence who would organise the digging and erection of telegraph cabling and Amos Kendell who became Morse's Business Manager but who started life as a Government Postmaster before dedicated himself to constructing the line through Richmond to New Orleans which was completed in 1848.

Thus Morse and his invention undergo very rapid and aggressive expansion, however what they had was a new model of an old idea. The Needle Telegraph was already in operation in England, though on a smaller scale than what Morse would eventually cover, and though technologically inferior it demonstrated the principle that Morse would capitalise on: messages transmitted over wire. Joseph Henry who had be so scorned to be omitted in Vail's history had already pioneered the electromagnetic relay (the means by which the Morse telegraph key actually operates) when Henry was able to use a current to ring a bell at a distance of one mile. Thus in terms of scientific and technological progress, all the principle parts of the electric telegraph predate Morse, and though in his defence he was unaware of this, his success lies in using his flair, guile and the talents of others to synthesise all of these elements into his own totally successful product.

The Morse telegraph worked by using indentation to record the encoded message. Thus it fals somewhere in between the needle and bains chemicals for speed. The system operated by depressing a plunger on a specially designed (and patented) transmission key.

Pressing down on the transmission switch, the operator would in effect close a circuit. This engaged the battery that would send a current along the line of the telegraph. On the receiving end was the other key tool in this story: the register. It worked via a simple electromagnet: the incoming electricity passed through a coil of wire. This produced a magnetic attraction that drew an armature towards it. As the current peaked and dipped so the arm would rise and fall in a see-saw motion as the transmission key on the other end was tapped.

On the other end of the oscillating armature was a steel stylus that indented a roll of paper that passed underneath by means of a series of rollers powered by clockwork. The steel needle was the result of several re-designs. It replaced originally a pencil (which had required sharpening too often), then an ink pen (which would clog and blot) until eventually the stylus was added to the design. This embossing method was maintained in The United States but as Morse's designs spread around the Globe it was commonly adapted to use a rolling 'inker' which was dipped into a reservoir and made contact with the paper in the manner as the steel stylus. And it was the variation that became popular throughout Europe. These patented designs of the Morse-key on the transmission end and the Register on the at the receiving station where the principle mechanism that could deliver the trademark series of dots and dashes that has become synonymous with him.9


1859 was an interesting year for a good many reasons, one of the least significant however is that it was the penultimate year before Morse's patents would naturally expire. What this meant in practical terms was that there was fierce competition telegraphy business. Morse's proprietary ways had secured him a sizeable chuck of a lucrative market but he was not the only telegraph operator with a going concern. Telegraph offices often housed many of the different companies transmission units, The Telegraph Office at Washington DC for example where Morse had made history in 1844 would have units for Morse and Bain transmission. Though with the expiary of the patent's looming Morse's technology was soon going to become fair game for generic reproduction. As a consequence the move was already on to replaced the pneumatic and chemical systems as they were imanently about to become redundant. The Morse transmission system and code was widely recognised for the speed at which it let complex messages be sent. There was considerable excitement about the new era of less restricted ownership. But 1859 remains the transition point. Morse's patents are still in effect and so while gradually most telegraph station would take up Morse's way of doing things in 1859 there is still a considerable variation between offices and areas which operate different systems.

As much as these regions differed however, what they shared in common was the means of transmission. All the these telegraphs no matter they be Wheatstone and Cooke, Bain or Morse all of them were based around using of electrical signals conducted over wires to send messages. To do that took energy.


Some will no doubt recall from school being told that technically a battery of the type that we plug into various gadgets is a single 'cell' and the term 'battery', borrowed from the military in reference to artillery, refers to arrangements of many cells. There is probably no better demonstration of this fact than how telegraphs were powered in the mid 1800's.

Static electricity had been the starting point, but lacking any apparent use for a charge that just dissipated it was an interesting curiosity but not practical. The breakthrough came when in 1800, Alessandro Volta - after whom the the Volt is named - demonstrated the principle of generating an electrical current through chemical action rather than just a single static charge. At this the Galvanic cell and shortly the battery were born.10
However there is quiet some distance that separates Volta's "pile" from batteries as implemented on the telegraph. Volta had experimented with charges from metals placed in proximity: the 'pile' took advantage of this: layering several sheets of copper and zinc plates, separated by material soaked in sulphuric acid.

The Daniell Cell

The Daniell Cell (1836) also known as a 'bluestone battery' due to the production of deep-blue copper sulphate crystals in the process of operation was invented by professor of Chemistry at Kings, John Frederic Daniel in 1836 and was capable of producing about 1v of current.

The design made use of copper and zinc electrodes as pioneered by Volta, with the zinc partially covered in sulphuric acid. Daniell's key contribution was the inclusion of a porous cup that kept the solutions separate but allowed ions to pass through distributing the electric charge. Eventually copper deposition on the porous cup rendered it unusable. However It was a significant improvement in technological terms over Volta.

The Crow's Foot

In 1870, the Daniell Cell was modified by a Frenchman name of Callaud who removed Daniell's signature porous cup and instituted instead liquid zinc sulphate poured onto of liquid copper sulphate. The zinc was less dense than the copper so it floated on top. Ordinarily they would begin to diffuse but provided a current was continually drawn , the migrating ions kept them separated. The Zinc anode (negative terminal) that was donating electrons in the chemical exchange had an odd shape splayed out like a crow's foot to maximise surface area - for this reason Callaud's design was known as a crow's foot battery. This was a popular and successful form of what is known as a 'gravity cell' which persisted well until the invention of the modern 'secondary' battery which doesn't use liquid components but rather gels and other semi-solids to much the same effect.

The Grove Cell

The Grove Cell was invented by the Welshman Sir William Robert Grove during 1837-1840. It's popularity was mainly due to the fact that it was the preferred battery of Morse's Engineer Alfred Vail for their telegraph network.

The Cell itself was a series of jars made of a glass tumbler containing a zinc cylinder. A pottery cup went inside the zinc cylinder and platinum foil connected the cell to it's neighbours. Nitric acid was introduced to the pottery cup containing one end of the foil, while diluted sulphuric acid was added to the glass tumbler. Wires were soldered to the battery and now it was live. The platinum formed the positive terminal, the zinc negative.
The acids decomposed the zinc produced a current that could be drawn without polarising the cell; with the downside that this also produced a poisonous fume of Nitric Oxide which has some nasty vascular effects and isn't to be confused with laughing gas, Nitrous Oxide.

Nevertheless, the Grove cell was a tremendous success. It was able to produce almost double the voltage of rival and earlier zinc-copper batteries; The Grove could produce per cell around 2 volts. A rough ratio for telegraph operation would be 1 cell per 20 miles, although American telegraph cables were especially prone to high resistance in the wire, as well as leakage, damage and theft. In any event 100 miles of grade 9 telegraph cabling is estimated to have had about 1600 ohms of resistance . As a result Telegraph Operators would experience intermittent and fluctuating current which would make transmission of difficult. To get around this one simply added more cells. Piles of 50 or more batteries of Grove Cells were not uncommon, and could provide enough current to transmit over an 800 mile relay system.

The Planté Battery

This was common battery in Europe could store energy in secondary cells, and was mainly used in Germany during the same period. This storage battery used the reversible chemical change of the oxidation of lead in a dilute sulphuric acid solution. Their cheif benefit was on closed systems with similar voltages that could be run from a single battery where they benefited from considerably lower resistance than if they had been independent.

Celestial Batteries

In the dying days of summer in 1859, during the last weeks of August and the onset of September, something decidedly odd was happening along the Telegraph cables of North America.

August 28th was the start of a new Lunar cycle, the skies cloudless and clear, the air slightly chilly, as E.W Culligan was tending the telegraph Office in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania on the evening shift. He began trying to transmit messages but found the intensity of the current along the wires would dip and change in waves, at times barely detectable and then in an instant sweeping through the magnets and charging them to their utmost capacity.

The transmission key he was using began to heat up, the helices of tightly coiled wire in the register began in the to glow, becoming so hot he could bear to place his hand near it. Fearful this could start a fire, he tried to disconnect the battery that powered his relay station. Hurriedly, he wrenched apart the connection which fissured in a shower of sparks.

Picking himself up of the floor, Culligan stared out at the looming figures of telegraph poles that snaked away over the horizon; in the eerie gloom he was left to wonder what on earth had just happened.

Washington DC

Further north in the nation's capitol, Frederick Royce, a telegraph operator wore a look of professional pessismism. There appeared to be a storm in Richmond away to the south that was affecting the line's capacity to transmit. Little was getting through, if at all. the problems seemed to be coming in waves that were playing havoc with the magnets. He'd never seen a storm like it.

Electrical surges from passing thunderstorms were dangerous enough and an actual lightning strike, on part of the miles of cabling and poles that stretched out from the cities over the plains, could be catastrophic: An excess of electrical current would attempt to discharge by the nearest available route, as Mr Royce discovered:

For five or ten minutes I would have no trouble, then the current would change, and become so weak that it could hardly be felt. It would then gradually change to a ‘ground’ so strong that I could not lift the magnet. I was calling Richmond and I had one hand on the iron plate. Happening to lean towards the sounder, [...] my forehead grazed a ground wire. Immediately I received a very severe electric shock which stunned me. [...] An old man was was sitting facing me but a few feet distant said he saw a spark of fire jump from my head to my shoulder."

Boston and The Junction at Fall River

The next day the junction at Fall River received an unexpected visit from the incredulous Superintendent of the Boston Telegraph office, George Prescott. Prescott had travelled some forty miles for this conversation. He was there to quiz the staff about the lunatic ravings of Ms Susan Allen - one of his telegraph operators in Boston - who had insisted that she had conversed with the operator at the Depot at the Fall River Railway Station on the night of the disturbance. The Railway telegraph operator was fetched and brought before Mr Prescott to explain. Prescott accompanied him to the depot. The operator demonstrated how, through a mechanical system and by means of a switch, he could disconnect the battery and connect the telegraph wire directly to the ground.

Prescott, of course, was familair with this system. It was a duplicate of the type used in Boston, the same used by Ms Allen on the night in question when she had insisted she had disconnected her battery as well.

Having risen to rank of superintendent, Prescott knew telegraph systems intimately. As well as anything, he knew the impossibility of two stations in communication with neither of their batteries connected and no current on the line. Irritated he had not found the answer he had come for, he checked one last time:

'And your sure you spoke to Ms Allen over the wires?' , "Oh yes" beamed the operator, "for nearly 2 full hours we did a fair old trade of transmissions before the current died again." 'And you haven't changed anything since last night?" Prescot said pushing the disconnection switch experimentally. "No it's remained undisturbed precisely as you requested."

Prescott thanked the operator for his time and satisfying himself that were no intermediary batteries between Boston and Fall River, Prescott departed more chastened and confounded than when he had arrived: the words of Ms Allen ringing in his ears no doubt. "Celestial batteries, indeed!"

Mr Prescott's reticence to believe his naive and female operator was challenged by simialr reports he receved from the men operator the Boston to Portland line a few days later. This time Prescott himself was present when the batteries were disconnected. It was 8.o'clock September 2nd on a Friday morning and the Boston to Portland line was showing the familiar signs of the unusual disturbance that had been going on all week. It didn't matter which system was used Morse, Bain they were all equally affected. At Prescott's instruction the Boston Operator sent a final message before disconnecting his battery that the Portland line do the same. There would be no business done today.

To their astonishment the operator received a reply!

Portland: I have done so. Will you do the same?

Boston: I have cut my battery off and connected the line with the earth. [...]
How do you receive my writing?

Portland: Very well indeed; much better than with the batteries on! [...]
Suppose we continue to work [like this]?

Boston: Agreed. Are you ready for business?

Portland: Yes go ahead.

The Boston Operator then commenced sending private dispatches and continued to use the wire in this manner for a further two hours.11

Lights in the sky.

If the telegraph systems along the the east coast of the Americas and into Canada powering themselves, not once but twice, were not mystery enough, what would bring people out onto the streets in amazement and terror, from Brisbane to Granada was what was happening to the sky.

Newspaper reports gathered from the period indicate that over a period of nights in August and early September, the sky appeared to be completely over-arched with shimmering red aurorae. These scenes lasted for several hours, appearing to stretch from horizon to horizon, before vanishing. The Aurorae Borealis and Aurora Australis had never before produced such a spectacle. And since no-one knew what caused the aurora12 it shook scientific orthodoxy as much as it inspired some to imagine the apocalypse was upon them, while others read into the strange glow, a fire in the valley beyond, a great conflagration coming to consume them. The light was so intense, it was said by one sea captain that fine print could be easily read by it at night 13

Sydney, Australia

Yesterday morning at about 10
o’clock, the wires of the electric telegraph were seized with an unaccountable fit of restiveness; they did not altogether refuse to work, but acted irregularly, the adjustment of the instruments altering so frequently that it was almost impossible
to get any continuous message through. Everywhere the instruments were jammed. The wires continued to display their obstinacy till the evening, when the cause of the
mystery was, to some extent, cleared up. A bright red light in the south-west quarter of the heavens, made many at first suspect that a great fire had broken out somewhere,
but the changing hues and forms of light revealed at last to the initiated the Aurora Australis


The most lively and brilliant succession
of flashes, forcibly reminding one of that prophetic scene
described by St. Peter, whose language is – ‘‘Wherein the
heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements
shall melt with fervent heat.’’

The Rocky Mountains

We were high up on the Rocky Mountains sleeping in the open air. A little after midnight we were awakened by the auroral light [...] Some of the party insisted that it was daylight and began the preparation of breakfast.16

New Orleans

‘Crowds of people gathered at the street corners, admiring
and commenting upon the singular spectacle. Many took it to be a sign of some great disaster or important event, citing numerous instances when such warnings have
been given.

Normally confined to the polar regions, the lights were seen as far south as Rome, and sub-Saharan Africa, within 15° of the equator and by sea captains out of port. This was an event on a truly global scale, belied by the local temporal miscalculations of mountaineers and dispossessed telegraph engineers.

Observations from Inagua, Bahama Islands, latitude 21° 18’

The aurora was distinctly seen from this place. It was supposed to have been a large fire in the neighbourhood.

Observations at Cohe Cuba, Latitude 20°

A Spanish mechanic who worked for me called me out of bed to see the great light in the northern sky. He was much struck with it and said the people of Jago de Cuba would think the end of the world was at hand.18

Observations made at Kingston, Jamaica, Latitude 17° 58’

An extraordinary light appeared in the north [...] it appeared as if there was a colossal fire on earth which reflected it's flames on the heavens. The whole island was illuminated. It appeared as Cuba was on fire and many believed that a portion of the island had been destroyed by a conflagration.

Observations at Guadeloupe, West Indies, Latitude 16° 12’

From 11 until daylight an Aurora Borealis was seen at Guadeloupe to the great astonishment of the population. It's ruddy light was noticeable in the interior of houses.

Observations at La Union, San Salvador, Latitude 13°, 18’

A most extraordinary phenomenon was witnessed [...] The light was equal to that of daybreak but was not sufficient to eclipse the light of the stars. The sea reflected it's colour [...] and it lasted until 3 in the morning. In the city of Salvador the red light was so vivid the roofs of the houses and the leaves of the trees appeared as if covered in blood.

It sparked furious calls for papers to scientific journals, observatory measurements, collection of lighthouse and ship's logs, letters to the editor and even some poetry.

It is conceded that there is much connected with the aural light which has not yet been fully explained [...] it is unquestionably one of the most important of meteorological phenomena [...] it is then to the highest importance to science that we should ascertain what the aurora is [...] It has been decided therefore to make a strenuous effort to investigate the laws of this auroral exhibition. For this purpose we need a careful collection of all the observed facts; and it is earnestly requested that every person who made accurate observations of the aurora [...] would communicate them to us for publication. This appeal is addressed to all men of science in every part North America , it is also addressed to observers on the ocean and indeed throughout every portion of the globe.19

. . .O ye wonderful shapes

With your streamers of light

Blazing out o’er the earth

From your ramparts of night;

With your strange hazy hues;

With your swift-changing forms,

Light the red-lightning rush

Of fierce tropic storms –

O ye terrible shapes!

Yet through all still appear

Yonder love-speaking eyes

Of the far starry sphere;

So ‘mid terror, we still

Can a symbol behold

Of the Heavenly Love

In the flame o’er us rolled;

Evermore, evermore

Though in mantles of fire,

There are pitying smiles

From our God and our Sire –

O Lights of the North! As in eons ago,

Not in vain from your home do ye over us glow!

Meteor and Meteorology

It is notable in the quotation taken from The American Journal of Science, that Aurora were still considered by many authorities to be phenomena of the atmosphere, like lightning, indeed some speculated that aurora were a special form of lightning.21
The world in 1859 was more full of apparent mystery than now; the New York Times report into the events opens with the following sublimely mystical passage:

The present generation have listened with wonder and admiration to the stories their fathers and mothers have told them of auroras and meteors. they have opened ears and mouths and eyes as they heard of stars falling from the heavens like rain, of the sky at night becoming as red as blood and of the day time being so darkened that the stars were visible.22

The article, in common with many eyewitness reports then go on at length about the weather, whether it was cool or warm, whether a wind had been blowing and if so from what direction, it's duration and estimates of it's strength.

Ignorance ran high, and so people grappled naturally with what was familiar. There was no good reason to think that aurora were not a weather phenomena: storms after all are routinely electrified and produce great displays of light. However, facts rather than speculation were hard to come by. For instance, it was not known if the aurora touched the ground at any point or even the altitude at which they occurred. and it was certainly unknown what caused them.

All that would change after 1859. Nature began to be revealed and the processes understood, but not until this moment did anyone get the first glimpse of where the truth lay and it was quite literally out of this world!

The Observatory at Redhill and The Flare in White Light.

Sun spots, famously were first identified by Galileo in the 17th Century, and really after that not a great deal else happened until the mid 19th century when interest once again peaked. In 1826 a German pharmacist began counting sunspots daily. Three years later he sold his business to take up the study full-time. He published his results in 1844. His name was Samuel Heinrich Schwabe, and it is to him that we owe the discovery of the 11-year cycle of solar activity. His work was popularised by Baron Albert Von Humbolt, in the third volume of his Kosmos in 1850.

Meanwhile, Colonel Edward Sabine was the superintendent of British Magnetic observatories on the Isle of St Helena, The Cape of Good Hope, Horbart and Toronto. It was to his good fortune that news of Schwabe via Humbolt arrived23. In 1851 he published his results deducing the 11 year cycle of maximal and minimal solar activity to the same pattern in magnetic storm activity on Earth using data from his Hobart and Toronto stations24
Apart from the birthing of solar-terrestrial physics that was taking place in Europe, the preceding years leading up to 1859 had been a boon for solar observations generally. Observations of Total Solar Eclipses were yielding fresh theories about the corona,the prominences and 'Baileys Beeds' (the light cast through the valleys on the moon as the disc reaches eclipses) in 1836, 1842 and 1851 Total solar Eclipses were observed throughout European and with the suggestion of a solar-magnetic link the interest in the sun in scientific circles was at fever pitch.

And this was the state of play when Richard Carrington enters our tale. The son of a wealthy brewer and a self-established astronomer he was committed to studying sun-spots and already a member of the Royal Society. He maintained a small private observatory at Redhill in London, from where he made many unique discoveries such as latitudinal variation amongst sunspots and the differential rotation in the sun's surface (it spins faster at the equator) It was during his daily observance of sunspots that he bore witness to the event with which eh would share his name. The White Light Solar Flare of 1859.

At The Gathering of The Royal Society

Description of a singular appearance seen in the Sun
on 1 September 1859

While engaged in the forenoon of Thursday, September
in taking my customary observation of the
form and positions of the solar spots, an appearance
was witnessed which I believe to be exceedingly rare.

The image of the Sun s disk was, as usual with me, projected
on a plate of glass with distemper of a pale straw
color, and at a distance and under a power which presented
a picture of about 11 in. diameter. I had secured
diagrams of all the groups and detached spot
[...] when
within the area of the great north group (the size of
which had previously excited general remark), two
patches of intensely white and bright light broke out,
in the positions indicated in the appended diagram
by the letters A and B, and of the forms of the
spaces left white.

My first impression was that by some
chance a ray of light had penetrated a hole in the screen
attached to the object-glass, by which the general image
is thrown into shade, for the brilliancy was fully equal to
that of direct sun-light; but, by
[...] causing the image to
move by turning the R.A. handle, I saw I was an unprepared
witness of a very different affair. I thereupon
noted down the time by the chronometer, and seeing
the outburst to be very rapidly on the increase, and
being somewhat flurried by the surprise, I hastily ran
to call some one to witness the exhibition with me,
and on returning within 60 s, was mortified to find that
it was already much changed and enfeebled. Very
shortly afterwards the last trace was gone, and although
I maintained a strict watch for nearly an hour, no recurrence
took place.
The last traces were at C and D, the patches having traveled considerably from their first position and vanishing as two rapidly fading dots of white light. The instant of the first outburst was not 15 s different from 11 h:18 min Greenwich mean time, and
11 h:23 min was taken for the time of disappearance.’’

A solar flare is an explosion on the Sun that happens when energy stored in twisted magnetic fields (usually above sunspots) is suddenly released. Flares produce a burst of radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to x-rays and gamma-rays. Flares are classified into three classes according to their x-ray brightness. There are three categories: C class flares are small and the weakest of flare events, relatively massive, their effects on the Earth are minimal. M-class flares are medium-sized and terrestrial effects tend to be concentrated towards the poles, manifest in damage to technology and radio blackouts, and radiation storms.
The biggest flare on this scale is the X class. These are major explosions of stellar material quiet capable of triggering planet-wide effects, devastating electrical systems over a wide area and prolonged radiation storms.

Richard Carrington had witnessed the first recorded X-Class Flare in white light Thursday, September 1, 1859. He was fortunate therefore, given it's brevity, and lack of record upon the surface of the sun save what he could describe, that there was another pair of witnesses in London that day.

From Highgate Richard Hodgson was another astronomical observer who that morning was also studying the heavens and he was able to confirm Carrington's record to The Royal Astronomical Society in a statement entitled:

‘‘On a curious appearance seen in the Sun’’

‘‘While observing a group of sunspots on the 1st September, I was suddenly surprised at the curious appearance of a
very bright star of light, much brighter than the Sun 's
surface, most dazzling to the protected eye, illuminating
the upper edges of the adjacent spots and streaks, not
unlike in effect the edging of the clouds at sunset; the
rays extended in all directions; and the centre might be
compared to the dazzling brilliancy of the bright star
It lasted for some five minutes, and disappeared instantaneously
about 11.25 a.m.’’

Crochet at Kew

History benefits that the only self-recording magnetographs in operation25were to be found at Kew Gardens in London, the project of the newly appointed director, Balfour Stewart.

These would provide some of the best data of the events as they occurred, and support the observations and conclusions that would be presented to The Royal Society.

Part of the record of the Kew Magnetograph for the Carrington Super FLare is reprinted in this paper on the 1859 flares26 It shows how intimately the relationship between the Earth and it's star is. Confirming Carrington and Hodgeson's accounts , between 11am and Midday on September 1st, the eruption of solar material known in a large Solar Flare Event or a Magnetic Crochet Loop, produces a jump in the Earth Magnetic Field. A mammoth cloud of highly charged energetic particles and detached magnetic loops left the sun's surface and approached Earth. The Magnetic Crochet records the moment that the flare happened. The ejecta travelled exceptionally fast. Most coronal mass ejections reach Earth orbit 93 millions miles away within two or three days, the CME's of 1859 made the trip in a little less than 18 hours. This is confirmed on the Kew magnetic strip data, when the line starts to move erratically and then suddenly drove the magnetosphere track off the scale.

Swallows in Summer

If Sabine had drawn the first tentative connection between solar activity and events on Earth, Carrington's super flare seemed primed to extend it. No-one at the Royal Astronomical Society meeting in November could deny the extraordinary events that had occurred, all would have seen the glowing red Aurora; the Academic Journals were full of accounts from regions were Aurora rarely trespass, and the stories criss-crossed the telegraph wires of impossible transmitting conditions and rarer still, tales of telegraphs drawing their current from the very air itself.

In the event the significance is more historical than actual and a true understanding of the relationship between this planet and it's star took many more years to come to fruition. This reluctance is typified by Richard Carrington's remarks to the Royal Society. Even when viewing the remarkable data of Solar activity and magnetic disturbance obtained from Kew, he would not move "towards hastily connecting them" taciturnly commenting
"one swallows does not a summer make."

Carrington's reticence was characteristic of the period for caution but is tempered by the enthusiasm of Balfour Stewart who's exuberance is obvious
‘‘If no connexion27 had been known to subsist between these two classes of phenomena28 it would, perhaps, be wrong to consider this in any other light than a casual coincidence; but since General Sabine has proved that a relation subsists between magnetic disturbances and sun spots, it is not impossible to suppose that in this case our luminary was taken in the act29

Lord Kelvin gets it wrong....again!

Carrington's retisence is understandable if one takes it in context. Take for example this address by William Thomson (Later Lord Kelvin) who ascened to become President of the Royal Society in 1890 and later in 1892 gave this address, casting characteristic doubt and scorn on the reality of solar events and geomagnetic storms on the Earth, thirty years after the events themselves.
[Our star was] ‘‘absolutely’’ [incapable of powering even a moderate-sized magnetic storm through] ‘‘magnetic action [...] or [...] any kind of
dynamical action taking place within the sun, or in connexion30 with hurricanes in his atmosphere, or anywhere near the sun outside.’’
‘‘It seems as if we may also be forced to conclude that the supposed connexion between magnetic storms and sun-spots is unreal, and that the seeming agreement between the periods has been a mere coincidence.’’31

Absent from Thomson 's understanding was the possibility that solar plasmas and magnetic fields could be ejected from the sun and traverse through space and result in geomagnetic storms on Earth. Otherwise his analysis is correct, given what he assumed to be true. The flaw lay in not accounting for reality first.32

The Modern Perspective

So what really happened?

Recent reviews33 of the eye-wittness reports and scientific measurements taken in 1859, as well as recent modelling and estimates of the energies involved, including new lines of research have re-appraised the events of 1859 and reached some startling conclusions.

1859 saw aurora activity increase throughout the year with reports of mid-latitudinal aurora visible throughout late April with geomagnetic recordings to match. Magnetic needle variation occurs in July and aurora were active again throughout August. This is suggestive of a highly energetic period of solar activity.

Things reach a climax heading into September. Remarkably there seems to have been not simple one but two separate and distinct Coronal Mass Ejections - when masses of highly energetic solar material, , gas and plasma, and detached magnetic loops are shed by the star is a tumultuous explosion. The first of these relates to events concentrated around the final days of August 28th to 29th, and the later, associated with events of September 1st through 2nd and continuing until the 5th.

It was the second auroral expansion and geomagnetic disturbance that is associated with the solar flare witnessed by Richard Carrington on September 1st 1859. That alone makes it historic - the first direct observance of a solar flare event - what makes this truly unique however is it's magnitude.

Recent discoveries of spikes in nitrate deposits in Antarctic ice cores have provided a strong evidentiary basis for concluding that these can be used to track the magnitude of solar proton events as they demonstrate a casual relationship. This confirms that for a period of going back some 450 years the events in September 1859 contain the largest solar proton event on record. Amongst X-class flares September 1859 shows twice the amount of protons than a similar flare in 1895 and more than four-times the proton delivery of a solar storm in 1972.

The pattern in the data of magnetic record, indicates the presence of the sudden commencement of geomagnetic storm activity was caused by a CME in August with ta second, more powerful event arriving even swifter a day or two later. The first CME on August 28th was not witnessed but must be instead inferred from the data, much of which was provided by the magnetometers operated by Balfour Stewart at Kew Gardens, hence it bears his name - The Stewart Super Flare. The second Coronal Mass Ejection was directly observed by Richard Carrington at Redhill in London, hence it is known as The Carrington Super-Flare emerged from The Sun on September 1st, and within 18 hours had traversed the distance at incredible speed and impact on September 2nd.

it is believed both CME's originated from around the same region on the Sun, however, while a region of mid-laterality can be determined for The Carrington Super-Flare, it is impossible to know for certain, from where the Stewart CME originated, though it is likely the same are known as The Central Meridian. For the Carrington Super-Flare to originate in the centre of The Sun's disc in line with the axis of rotation however means one thing - that it was aligned with the Earth almost exactly. Solar emanations are frequent, today satellites such as S.O.H.O study the sun to observe precisely these phenomena that emerge and travel in all directions from the star. On that day in 1859, Earth was staring down the barrel of a loaded gun.

It has since been observed34 in other solar emanation events that CMEs move at different rates through space. In periods of rapid CME expulsion this can lead to faster moving CME's intersecting and interacting with slower -moving CMEs ahead of them.

The effect of one CME ploughing through another is to produce an even greater shock-wave. It is this intersects and compresses the magnetosphere of our planet causing the extension of the auroral coverage, and the increase in currents around the Earth that signify the onset of a solar storm.

It is thought that this may account for why the period of activity in September is so much more pronounced than in August. The rate at which the Carrington CME arrives (based on the observation of the white-light flare by Carrington and associated magnetic data from around the world) shows this CME took a little under 18 hours to span 93 million miles. Such data lends this hypothesis weight that the second explosion was significantly more violent than the first, to account for the rapid rate at which the CME progressed in our direction.
By the time they arrived they had sufficiently interacted to produce complex effects on The Earth surface, generating ionosphoric currents that severely degraded the performance of some 200,000km of telegraph wire in North America, Europe, Australia and Asia, distorting the magnetosphere and extending auroral coverage to latitudes of around 25° (August 28th-29th) and to somewhere less than 18° (September 2nd-3rd). There is a troublesome outlier reading taken from Bombay (today Mumbai, India) to which I'll turn in a moment that suggests that the magnetic anomaly at one point neared total coverage of the earth's surface.

The Magnetosphere

The Magnetosphere is a volume of space covering The Earth (or in principle any astronomical magnetic body) within which the influence of the magnetic field generated within the planet's core can exert influence. The magnetic field lines emerge from the base of planet, travel in loops familiar to any school child who's ever held a bar magnet and been let loose with the iron filings, and re-enter the poles of the planet at the top35
In the case of the Earth the loops are flattened, as they meet broadside the solar wind, a constant discharge of ionised particles and plasma coming from the sun. Because they are charged particles magnetic and electric fields affect them. Consequently when encountering the magnetosphere these are ordinarily channelled along to the poles where they appear as auroras, through interacting with gases in the atmosphere causing gases to glow.

Within the Magnetosphere is a convection called The Ring Current that lies horizontally across the equator, charged particles trapped in the magnetosphere slowly precess around the Earth. The ions drift westwards and the electrons drift eastwards, giving rise to a net westward current circulating around the Earth. During a geomagnetic storm the number of charged particles in the ring current increases leading to a local degeneration in the magnetic field. On the ground this would be recorded as a negative decrease in magnetic field strength in the horizontal movement of the current.

A geomagnetic storm occurs when the Earth encounters an interplanetary shock-wave typically caused by CME's or a Solar Flare that eject massive quantities of solar plasma violently into space. The impact of the shock-wave and the introduction of the CME material following immediately behind can distort the field lines of the magnetosphere broadening the Auroral Oval, which normally resides with the polar regions. The charged particles that are introduced affect the electrical conductivity that normally occurs within the magnetosphere which is temporarily overwhelmed with charged particles, altering the magnetic field in ways that can be detected on earth by measuring fluctuations in field strength and direction.

A Geomagnetic Storm occurs as the magnetosphere is compressed by the shockwave, the precipitates in two phases: the main compression phase and the recovery phase.
and these are measured according the the severity of the disturbance on the Disturbance Storm Time Index.36
Measuring the Earth magnetic field at any particular point requires that you have values for the direction and intensity of the field this is given through 7 separate parameters:
  1. Declination
  2. Inclination
  3. Vertical intensity
  4. Horizontal Intensity
  5. Horizontal Intensity (North)
  6. Horizontal Intensity (East)
  7. Total Intensity

Magnetic Declination is the angle between magnetic North and True North.
The parameters describing the direction of the magnetic field are Declination and Inclination and they are are measured in units of degrees, positive east for Declination and positive down for Inclination. The intensity of the Total Field is reported in units of nanoTesla.

The Dst is based on the average value of the horizontal component of the Earth's magnetic field. The strength of a geomagnetic storm can be calculated this way because the earth's magnetic field is inversely proportional to the ring current. It increases in density (of charged particles in the ionosphere) during a geomagnetic storm in a direct relationship with the magnetic field strength, which decreases proportionally.

The Dst also takes measure of the Magnetopause current - the point where the pressure of the solar wind and the magnetosphere are equal charged particles caught in the magnetosphere can be released back into the solar wind plasma that is streaming by, like object caught on the bow a ship falling back into the wake.

Nano Teslas are a international standard derived unit of measure of magnetic field the convention for SI units is the the first letter of the named individual is given as a capital, hence nanoTesla or abbreviated as nT. Tesla the electro-physicist is largely responsible for developing the theoretical work behind alternating current.

The strength of the Earth's magnetic field at the Earth's surface is variable. It ranges from less than 30,000 nanoTeslas in an area including most of South America and South Africa to over 60,000 nanoTeslas around the magnetic poles where the field lines are narrower.

A space storm's impact is measured in drop in nano-Teslas (nT) of the field strength. The lower the figure, the more powerful the storm. A moderate storm can be around -100 nT; extreme and damaging storms have been logged at around -300 nT.

On the 13th March 1989 a coronal mass ejection destroyed transformers that connect cirquits which in turn knocked out power to all of Quebec, and Northern Canada. Plunging six-million people into the dark. It measured -589 nT. The power of the 1859 Auraul events associated with the Stewart and Carrington Super-Flares is now calculated to have been -1,600 nT. This further represents why the 1859 solar events can be considered the largest magnetic storm ever observed and defines how it set new records never yet overcome for the levels of intensity which magnetic storms could reach.

The Magnetometer at Mumbai.

In 2003 a paper was published37 which discussed for the first time the magnetometer readings taken at the Colaba Observatory in Bombay (now Mumbai), India.
Excitingly, in the records of the 1859 event, as it is the only magnetometer that did not go off the scale during the storm. This makes it unique.
In comparison to Kew, it was still manually operated which meant there were no records taken on Sundays. as a result there is no data at all from Mumbai for the August 28th-29th, however unlike Kew, during September 2nd-3rd, it recorded statistical data of the field strength.
At the same moment that Kew records the Sudden Commencement of the Geomagnetic Storm on September 2nd, Mumbai records a drop in the field strength of on the Dst index of -1760nT. It is shortly after this on the morning of the 2nd, along the East coast on America when the Boston and Portland Operators discover they can operate their telegraphs without their batteries, drawing their current directly from the charged particles surging through the atmosphere above them.

The Telegraph

Now unlike today where such an event would cripple modern society, the only truly susceptible technology in 1859, was the telegraph network. And the events along the Boston and Portland line are rightly seen as atypical and extraordinary. The experience of most telegraph operators in Europe and elsewhere was frustration as the waves of current in magnetosphere would arrive in waves that made it impossible to communicate over them. These accounts give a sense of the chaos and disruption.

Prof. Christoph Hansteen, Christiania, Norway

The effect was noticed from the opening of
the stations at 7am38 On the 29th communication was interrupted till 11am on almost all the lines and likewise Sept. 2nd, but with a long repetition after 2pm [...] The intensity of the currents was greatest upon the longest lines going towards the north, on which sparks and uninterrupted discharges were from time to time observed. Pieces of paper were set on fire by the sparks of these discharges. In Bergen where the line to Stavanger runs in a north and south direction,
the current was at times so strong, especially Sept 2nd and 3rd, that it was necessary to connect the lines with the earth in order to save the apparatus from destruction.

Paris, from the Comptes
Rendus de l'Académie des sciences

From the evening of Aug. 28th until the morning
of the 29th the needles of the magnetic telegraph at Paris were almost constantly in motion, as if a permanent current was passing through the telegraph wires.
Business was therefore entirely interrupted, and could not be resumed until 11 A.M. Aug. 29th. The same effect was noticed on the telegraph lines from 4h to 8h on the morning of Sept. 2d, although no aurora was noticed on that day. Business was again interrupted, the needles were disturbed, and the bells were rung.

M. Quetelet, Brussels

About midnight Aug. 28th, the employees in the
telegraph office at Brussels noticed signals from their bells, such as often occur during a storm. The employees in the offices at Mons, Antwerp, Gand and Ostend were also awakened by their bells, and enquired what was wanted. Communications with
Paris, London, and Berlin were interrupted
[...] Paris and London inquired of our operators if they saw a light in the heavens. The effect ceased at 1:30am on all the lines except the submarine line from Ostend to Dover, which was charged with electricity
throughout the entire morning. It was not till 3:30am, and after nearly doubling the battery, that communication was re-established.
[On] September 2, between 5am and 6am, there was a second disturbance on all the telegraph lines, and communication between Brussels, Paris, and London was interrupted.

Charles V. Walker, Superintendent of Telegraphs in

The Dover clerk writes on September 2, ‘‘This morning,
on opening the office, I found the needles of both instruments firmly blocked over to the left, and although the handles were firmly held over to the right to counteract the current, to my surprise I found that our battery power had not the slightest effect
[...] I am sorry to say there is not the slightest possibility of our working the instrument; needles continuing firmly fixed over, and which has continued for upwards of half an hour. [The currents...] greatly exceed what are considered good telegraph signals and hence we are not surprised to find that the ordinary battery current [...] has not power enough in many instance to neutralise them.

Recall Faraday's law:

Any change in the magnetic environment of a coil of wire will cause a charge to be "induced" in the coil. No matter how the change is produced, the charge will be generated. The change could be produced by changing the magnetic field strength, moving a magnet toward or away from the coil, moving the coil into or out of the magnetic field, or rotating the coil relative to the magnet.

The injection of the highly charged solar material into the Earth's atmosphere produced a drastic change in the earth magnetic field, this induces in accordance with the law a current within all conductible materials along the ground. Variations in the field generate different flow rates of current and accounts for the 'waves' of alternating and pulsing current describe by telegraph operators the world over.

Such phenomena first documented in 1859 are what we recognise today as space weather. Clearly not weather in the conventional sense but changes in the local environment of the planet within the solar system which have direct impact in the Earth's atmosphere or at the surface. As the Quebec incident in 1989 shows solar storms still have the capacity to wreck havoc on our modern infrastructure, where conductive materials and networks are no longer restricted to a few thousand miles of telegraph cabling but include all wired communications, and pipes at ground level as well as all communications satellites in orbit.

The threat of space weather is taken sufficiently seriously that utility companies insulate and have systems in place to divert excess current if it occurs and transit companies routinely liaise with bodies who monitor weather to monitor any ongoing solar activity that can affect the earth or any object in flight. In the United States the N.O.A.A monitor space weather, in the UK the M.E.T Office is partnered locally with the British National Space Centre and Internationally with with the European Space Agency.

A Worst-Case Scenario

One of the many things that makes the Carrington Super-flare unique is that it was visible in white light from the Earth's surface. That it was visible is remarkable but from a scientific point of view it is also descriptive of how the energy of the photon eruption was distributed.

People are familiar with the penetrative properties of Röntgen radiation also known as X-rays. This has to do with the spectral distribution of the energy the more energetic the radiation the greater it's propensity to pass through shielding. X-rays comes in two types, 'soft' and 'hard', the former is a magnitude smaller than the later, ranging from 0.12 - 12KeV (Kilo electronvolts)

I'm guessing it's to do with the frequency of the radiation range of energies is distributed amongst the photons if it's nearer towards an x-ray or a gamma ray

Economic Impact in 1859

This article started life as a quiz question amongst h2g2 very own QI Society. QI stands for Quite Interesting; we hope you agree this is, and will consent to join in in our game.

Icy North
1William Gilbert in his 1601 work De Magnte coined the term 'electricus' meaning 'like amber.'2In a demonstration that good ideas are often anticipated, Harrison Gray Dyar predates other luminaries of telegraphy, such as Samuel Morse, by proposing creating, in 1826, a telegraph to transmit messages between New York and Philadelphia using static electricity. He even built a prototype to demonstrate the principle was sound. This line ran line around the race course on Long Island in 1828. Dyar's method involved using using iron wires on glass insulators, and a ground return arranged on 'poles' and strung between trees. The static charge was produced through friction and similar to Alexander Bain's chemicals, the transmission was detected by changes on litmus paper. The Dyar Telegraph met a swift end however when he was threatened with prosecution for sending secret communications in advance of the mail

Also it would never have worked, because the circuit allowed too much charge to escape, and none of the later more successful pioneers were ever aware of Dyar therefore his actual contribution is minimal and merits only this footnote , however, he is nevertheless an extraordinary fellow with a quite interesting place in the history of telegraph for 'sending the first telegraphed signal in America years, in advance of Morse and for the manner in which he anticipates many later developments. For example, Dyar had constructed an alphabet of symbols, based on numbers of "dots."
3In 1839 Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Sir Charles Wheatstone developed the 'Needle Telegraph for this purpose running a distance of thirteen miles between Paddington and West Drayton4A remarkable career follows this man: Born in Limerick in 1801, he trained in medicine at Edinburgh using cadavers supplied by none other than the sometimes murderers Burke and Hare. He moves to London carrying out detailed examination for courts and hospitals.

His blood-work leads to the still-recognised treatment for Cholera. (In 1841 - John Snow would later pioneer the science of epidemiology and vector transmission by tracing an outbreak of Cholera to a water pump in Broad Street) but It was O'Shaughnessy who wrote to The Lancet identifying sever dehydration and electrolyte loss caused by diarrhoea and suggesting treatments for Cholera patients should include saline solutions. This led to a 50% improval in the survival rate.

Cholera was believed brought to Britain by soldiers returning from India, so in 1833 O'Shaughnessy travels to Calcutta with The East India Company. While there he helped found the Calcutta Medical College and wrote three early text books on biochemistry, utilising Indian medical knowledge of Herbology, that included The Bengal Dispensatory and The Bengal Pharmacopoeia.

These experiments include the medicinal uses of plant extracts including opium and cannabis, on a return to England in 1841 for his work he is elected to The Royal Society in 1844; legions of students and researchers use his recipes trying to isolate the compounds and active agents in these drugs for year, leading to their popular and recreational use and indirectly to The Opium Wars with China.

O'Shaughnessy returns to India in 1844 as assayist for the Mint - a job which involved seeing the development of the telegraph network across India in a bid to unify currency transactions. He had already bisected the Hoogly at Calcutta in 1838/39 using insulted iron wires but in a region where the local dangers including herds of elephants, who will think nothing of knocking down a few telegraph poles and The Monsoon so he helped develop the underground telegraph carried in iron rods sealed in cement. Between 1850-1852, O'Shaughnessy is responsible for connecting Alipore (south of Calcutta) and Diamond Harbor - a distance of 27 miles: The longest line in England at the time was a mere 18 miles - as well as connecting Calcutta and Kedgeree.

While in England to being knighted (March 1856 to December 1857), O'Shaughnessy met Samuel Morse at a telegraphing conference and the two remained firm friends.
O'Shaughnessy died in 1889 at the age of 80. His gravestone is in Southsea, Portsmouth, England.

Among his many exploits we are, however concerned with just one...
5In all deference to Homer it was a ship not a man that was responsible for the first Transatlantic telegraph cable, though they share a name. The cable ran from Ireland to Newfoundland. It was lain between 1857 and 1858 by HMS Agamemnon and USS Niagara; however it soon failed and wasn't repaired until 1866 - following the American Civil War.6The Volcano erupted on Tuesday 24th May, It arrived in the Foreign Intelligence Office in London 10pm the same day.

The message had been sent by a Reuter's agent by the name of Schuit who typically spent his days cataloguing the shipping arrivals back in the Sumatran port, Today, however, he was reporting on the waste and destruction brought about through tsunami and pyroclastic flows. Though he marked it URGENT his message laboriously had to be sent by way of Japan before being decoded in London from the Morse code. It was passed to the foreign news Editor at The Times and then to the Duty Editor.

Erroneously the telegraph operator in Java had in their haste misspelled the volcano as Krakatan, but when the duty editor of The Times came to correct this oversight he compounded the error with the phonetic slip: Krakatowa appeared in The Times headline on the Thursday, where - by a quirk of printing presses - the news first appeared in the Scottish edition, beating the London edition by several hours.
7Thomas Edison's (duplex) communication system differed from Samuel Morse's collaborator Alfred Vail's design in a significant way. Vail's required two wires to achieve duplexing, Edison found a way to use only one. Edison's triumph was selaed when a mere fours years later he outdoes himself by inventing quadraplex telegraphy (four separate signals transmitted and received on a single wire), obtaining the patent on his invention in 1892.8Discovered independently by the historically overlooked Gian Domenico Romagnosi and two decades hence, as mentioned above, by Hans Christian Ørsted. What Wheatstone and Cooke were doing were taking advantage of some of the early pioneering success of the science of electromagnetism. Though none could truly claim to understand the phenomena. It was by the third decade of that century well documented that a compass needle would deflect away from the current from a battery passing down a wire. Moreover if the direction of current was reversed (say by turning the battery around) then the needle would deflect in the other direction. A phenomena you can try out for yourself.9Although - few people know that the dot-dash code was not Morse's invention either but was yet another contribution of Morse's collaborator and engineer Alfred Vail. Morse's own system was a fiendishly complicated method of cryptic numeral encoding. Vale saw that this was impractical and slow, so instead pioneered the dot and the dash instead. Amongst Vail's other contributions was 'the independent circuit' this allowed for simultaneous transmission in both directions using two wires but only one battery a feat only betered when Thomas Edison turned his prodigous abilities to 'duplexing'. The success of Morse's Code owes much to the technical genius of Alfred Vail and though history may have forgotten him, we do not and now hopefully neither shall you.10Well, technically re-born; there are archeological finds in the 1940s of terracotta jars which function as primitive batteries, and which were found around Baghdad. They date to 250 BCE, during the reign of the Parthians. William König the German director of The Baghdad Museum found them in the museum storage. His hypothesis, not yet refuted despite considerable scepticism, is that these are early galvanic (current-producing) cells possibly used for electrostatic plating of gold onto objects. So either Volta gets the glory or The Parthians piped him to it by roughly a millennium and a bit. Consensus remains divided.11Prescott mentions Fall River and provides the transcript of the Boston to Portland exchange in his letter to The American Journal of Science. Vol: XXVIII. which were published in 1860 alongside articles relating to the first published discussion of Charles Darwin's Origin of The Species, one of the other great any things that 1859 is notable for.12They were variously attributed to "matter falling from volcanoes" (Scientific American,
November 12, 1859); or "‘‘Nebulous matter . . . known to exist in planetary
spaces’’ similar to meteors falling into the atmosphere" (San Francisco Herald, September 5, 1859) or "reflected light from icebergs" (New York
Herald, September 5, 1859
13Observations at sea, Latitude 28° 30’, Long 79° 30’ ~ Barque Pride of The Sea14The SydneyMorning
Herald, August 30, 1859, page 4
Transcript, Saturday September 2, 1859
16Rocky Mountain News,
September 17, 1859.
17New Orleans Daily Picayune, Monday,
August 29, 1859.
18 by George. F. Allen19American Journal of Science, Second Series, Vol XXVIII, November 185920William Ross Wallace21In a series of nine exchanges published in 1860 in the American journal of Science , Elias Loomis, professorship of natural philosophy and mathematics at the University of The City of New York, provided measurements of the height of the Aurora, he formerly believed it to be a high altitude form of lightning and hence of entirely terrestrial bound activity.
From his estimates he concluded the aurora in the 1859 event ranged from 50 - to 500 miles "thus" he concluded "we are led to consider that the auroral displays are no longer solely an atmospheric phenomenon and as being to an important extent the result of extraterrestrial forces."
22New York Times August 30th 185923It was fortuitous for Sabine that the German manuscript Kosmos was being translated by his wife for publishing in English. Thereby did Sabine get the drop on two contempories, Wolf and Gautier who both published similar a matter of months later in 185224between 1843 -1848; the six year period was all the data he needed.25Other magnetic observatories had them but Kew was ahead of the curve by arranging matters so they ran truly automatically in continuous operation without needing tending to thus leaving staff free to make other observations. The design was based on that of a surgeon and inventor Charles Brook but built by the Smithsonian Institute. The Royal Society had two, one at Kew and the other at Greenwich. However, only Kew's was running non-stop.26See page 40827[sic]28Solar and Geomagnetic29Original emphasis30[sic]31Quotation taken from The 1859 space weather event: Then and now E.W. Cliver32 Other famous blunders include remaining unpersuaded by reason of religion of Darwin's account of Evolution by Natural Selection, for which he earned the ire of Thomas Huxley who publicly reproached him when addressing the Geological Society of London. As a direct result of his faith Thompson also in 1862 underestimated the age of the earth by not accounting for the findings of geologists. In 1895 he publicly expressed his doubts that "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible."33Advances in Space Research
Volume 38, Issue 2, 2006
34Gopalswamy et al., J.-L. Radio signatures of coronal mass ejection interaction: coronal mass ejection cannibalism? Ap. J. 548, L91, 2001.35Periodically this changes direction every 250,000 years or so. Earth is due another magnetic reversal soon.....36or Dst for short37Tsurutani et al 200338Europe is GMT +1

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