How The Carrington Event Let Telegraphs Run on Aurora Power

The Carrington Event of 1859 has become a kind of sun-powered bogeyman. It was a solar storm that, today, would disrupt nearly every society in the world. In 1859, all did was to make for some very strange telegraph conversations.

In early September of 1859, the telegraph was still a relatively new invention, but it was such a useful invention that it had still gone world-wide. Cables had been laid down along sea beds and strung across nations. People had come to rely on the fact that they could communicate across large distances instantly. They'd become used to getting their news the day it happened. Some few people had staked fortunes on the technology.


The point is, no one was happy when the telegraph machines started setting their telegraph paper on fire. Telegraph operators nursed sore hands after their own machinery shocked them. Others dutifully typed out long streams of gibberish. A few just watched the sparks fly. It must have seemed like the rise of the machines.

Not all machines were malfunctioning. Operators in Portland and Boston found that, even though they had turned off their batteries, they could still communicate perfectly. (I would have found that even more unsettling than getting shocked, but remember this was 125 years before The Terminator came out.) The two operators continued with business as usual.

How? Everyone knew it had something to do with the intensely bright auroras in the sky. The first sign that these were coming was unknowingly recorded by Richard Christopher Carrington, man of means and enthusiastic astronomer. Carrington enjoyed observing sunspots. On the morning of September 1st, he had been observing the surface of the sun (through tinted glass) when he spotted bright white light that at first caused him to believe his safety equipment had cracked.


These white lights were eruptions of particles caused by a sudden readjustment in the sun's magnetic field. The particles came zooming towards Earth, and hit it straight on. The particles, charging through Earth's magnetic field, making magnetic readjustments of their own. Compasses start acting up, pointing away from magnetic north. The shifting magnetic fields induced electric currents in pipelines and power grids. For some lines, like the Boston to Portland line, that meant the operators could chat away without batteries. Others experience the storm more like an explosion of energy. Telegraph operators reported that the platinum connections on their machines were on the point of melting due to the surge of power.

In 1859, the solar storm was not much of a problem. Most telegraph lines were up and working again the next day, and only a few machines needed repairs. Today, scientists are worried that another Carrington Event could cost the world trillions and cause enough damage in some areas to take out power for years. So let's hope we don't see any more bright patches on the sun. Or that we still have those telegraph cables in place.


Top Image: Frank Olsen

[Sources: 1859's "Great Auroral Storm", A Super Solar Flare, Solar Storms, Behind the Power and the Beauty of Northern Lights.]


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