Image: Frederic Edwin Church's 1865 painting.

The Week the Sun Reached Out and Touched Us

The Carrington Flare happened at the last moment humanity could collectively appreciate it. /

Think first of the darkness. Consider your apprehension to leave your home, the lonely aura of violence that looms outside. If you lived in a city, perhaps it adopted gas street lamps—at least within the last generation—but “they didn’t so much light the way as provide distant points of brightness to aim for,” as Bill Bryson writes in At Home. Miles from urban areas, where you likely lived along with the majority of your countrymen and women, you looked up at the moon and up at the stars.

Inside, you potentially relied on a wad of meadow rushes dipped in animal fat and set on fire once nightfall came. Perhaps you burned dung or perpetually dripping tallow candles, or perhaps you spent your hard-earned money for the durability and longevity of beeswax. Perhaps you could afford the dim consistency of a gas lamp. Or perhaps you sat in darkness.

So many nights you had barely enough illumination to catch your family member’s eye at the dinner table. You let your pupils dilate and your eyes grow heavy. You slept—at least once, but maybe twice—until the sun returned. Fluorescent and LED bulbs did not artificially enhance and elongate your evening. Neither a backlit device nor a talking and glowing box kept you up long after your body indicated its fatigue. It was 20 years before Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. It was 1859, and you could still appreciate the wonder that came in the last days of summer, the last days of winter.

It was the end of August, and something had happened to the sun.

“I have just been watching, with considerable interest, the first specimen that I have ever witnessed of the Southern Aurora,” the Sydney Observatory’s William Scott wrote to his local Australian newspaper, the Herald. “I was in the act of observing a transit of our Pole Star when I was struck with the redness of the southern sky. Attributing it to some distant fire, I continued the observation and … immediately afterwards I was surprised to find a considerable portion of the southern sky in a glow of red light, similar to that which sometimes precedes the rising of the sun.”

Several days later, Richard Carrington was crunching numbers at his desk in an English observatory when a solar flare exploded. The curious young astronomer sprang into action, rigging his optical telescope to project an image of the sun onto a white screen to record observations of the sunspots traveling across Earth’s surface. After some time, “two patches of intensely bright light broke out,” wrote the self-described “unprepared witness” in a paper he later published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The patches grew. An astounded Carrington noted the time before sprinting off to find a witness.

But “on returning within 60 seconds, [I] was mortified to find that it was already much changed and enfeebled,” he wrote. “Very shortly afterwards the last trace was gone.”

In the course of a week, gold miners awoke at their camp in the Colorado Rockies and began cooking breakfast. It was one o’clock in the morning but the glow of the aurora borealis behind the clouds led them to assume that dawn had broken.

In Massachusetts, Vermont, and New York, residents discovered they could read a newspaper with the aid of the Northern Lights. Islanders registered their radiance in Cuba and Hawaii; West African villagers took in the sight from the Sahel and rainforest of what’s now Senegal and Mauritania.

A New Orleans paper reported on man shooting three birds dead at one in the morning while “the beautiful aurora borealis was at its height.”

The “larks were no doubt deceived by the bright appearance of everything and came forth innocently, supposing it was day,” wrote the New Orleans Daily Picayune.

The sky turned green and red and purple. The creator: a white-light solar flare caused by the “tremendous amount of energy” released by the rearrangement and reconnection of the sun’s magnetic field lines.

The magnetic reconfiguration played pranks on the telegraph network. Hardly a generation old, sparks shocked operators of the global communication system and lit their papers on fire. Terrified employees disconnected the batteries fueling the lines only to find that they could still send and receive messages on the aurora’s energy alone.

“Please cut off your battery entirely from the line for fifteen minutes,” a Boston telegraph operator messaged his counterpart in Portland, Maine.

“Will do so,” he replied. “It is now disconnected.”

“Mine is also disconnected, and we are working with the auroral current. How do you receive my writing?”

“Better than with our batteries on. Current comes and goes gradually.”

“My current is very strong at times, and we can work better without batteries, as the Aurora seems to neutralize and augment our batteries alternately, making current too strong at times for our Relay magnets. Suppose we work without batteries while we are affected by this trouble.”

“Very well. Shall I go ahead with business?”

“Yes. Go ahead.”

But it was the sky they would remember most.

“The light appeared in streams, sometimes of a pure milky whiteness and sometimes of a light crimson,” the Washington Daily Nation Intelligencer reported after the first storm. “The white and rose-red waves of light as they swept to and from the corona were beautiful beyond description, and a friend nearby us, while looking to the zenith with the whole heavens and earth lighted up at a greater brilliancy than is afforded by the full moon, said that it was like resting beneath the wings of the Almighty.”

“Nothing could exceed the grandeur and beauty of the sight,” wrote the San Francisco Herald. “The effect was almost bewildering and was witnessed with mingled feelings of awe and delight by thousands.”

In 2016, you cannot secretly wish for an encore of what became known as the Carrington Flare. Not unless you want to fulfill predications of “a cosmic Katrina,” with “billions of dollars of damage to satellites, power grids and radio communications.” You cannot silently hope for aurora borealis in your southern backyard. You cannot clandestinely crave Nordic illumination at the equator when the world relies on GPS technology and cell phones—and a solar flare threatens this very infrastructure. And you might not want to admit that with your car headlights and your street lamps and your overhead lights and your phone, you might even miss it if it happened after all.

So imagine the darkness. Imagine its consistency, its pervasiveness, its impenetrability. And imagine the magic in 1859, when the sky dazzled and the world looked up.

Morgan Lee is an assistant editor at Christianity Today and wrote “The Breaking with Dawn” for The Behemoth’s issue 33.

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