The Greatest Light Show Ever

northern lightsSnippets 88.  In the last snippet we looked at an account of the northern lights seen in London in 1739, published in the Royal Society of London Journal, one of the greatest sources of historical information available. Established in 1665 as the first exclusively scientific journal in the world, it has been in continuous publication ever since.

Fast forward 120 years and we find in the same journal an account of perhaps the most spectacular aurora seen in recorded history, written by Balfour Stewart. A noted physicist from Scotland, Stewart was appointed director of Kew Observatory in the same year, and would go on to be awarded the Rumford Medal by the Royal Society in 1868. The amazing sights described were caused by an intense solar flare.

During the latter part of August, and the beginning of September, 1859, auroral displays of almost unprecedented magnificence were observed very widely throughout our globe, accompanied (as is invariably the case) with excessive disturbances of the magnetic needle….

The auroral displays above mentioned were very attentively observed throughout Europe, America, and Australia. In many places these were of the most gorgeous character, while other places were visited by this meteor where its appearance was an event of very rare occurrence. Even from as low a latitude as Cuba we have a description of it by the Director of the Havannah Observatory, accompanied with the remark that only four previous displays had been recorded in the traditions of the island. In not a few instances telegraphic communication was interrupted, owing to the current produced in the wires; and in some cases this proved so powerful that it was used instead of the ordinary current, the batteries being cut off and the wires simply connected with the earth…

At about 7pm, August 29, the violence of the disturbance had somewhat abated, and things remained nearly in this state until 5am, September 2, about which time another very abrupt disturbance simultaneously affected all the elements, continuing with great violence until about 4 pm of the same day, when it became somewhat less. The elements, notwithstanding, remained in a state of considerable disturbance until September 5, and scarcely attained their normal state even on September 7 or 8…

Such is a brief and very imperfect description of the leading features of this great magnetic storm, which for excessive violence of character and length of duration, I have been assured by General Sabine, has never been surpassed by any similar phenomenon which has occurred in his long and varied experience.

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