The Carrington Event: the geomagnetic solar Perfect Storm of 1859

Solar Storm

Image of solar flare from NASA website

Science can make important discoveries through hard work and dedication, but luck (good and bad) has its part to play. Let’s start with a quick oversight of the major players in this historical event.

Richard Carrington was an astronomer with experience and training, you will often see him referred to as an amateur astronomer, but this is because he was not in the employ of an academic organisation when he had his most famous observation. He had trained and worked as an observer for the University of Durham, and had a paper published. His admission as a member of the Royal Astronomical Society, 14 March 1851, also proves he was more than a mere amateur. He was the younger son of a wealthy brewer, and had the means to construct his own observatory. Astronomy might have been his passion, but he was a reliable and trusted observer, and recognised as one of England’s foremost solar astronomers.

Richard Hodgson had a great deal in common with Carrington. He was wealthy enough to build his own observatory. Hodgson was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a Fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society, because of his work with telescopes and microscopes. However, he was a talented amateur, with no academic training; he was originally a successful publisher (this would indicate that he was a high intelligence).

Sunspots as sketched by Richard Carrington on September 1st, 1859.

The lives of these two men became intertwined on September 1, 1859. Carrington was using his telescope to project an 11-inch-wide image of the sun onto a screen, he was observing and drawing the sunspots. At 11:18am, he watched as the sunspots disappeared under the flare of two bright spots, and for five minutes observed how this bright spots grew and then faded. Hodgson also witnessed and recorded the event. They has witnessed an enormous solar flare, the biggest on record, even today.

The Carrington Event of 1859 was a solar coronal mass ejection hitting Earth’s magnetosphere and induced one of the largest geomagnetic storms on record. If a similar storm was to happen today, it would be a disaster for our electronics, on which we are so dependant. One of the most obvious effects in 1859 were aurora all over the world, even at the tropics, showing the bombardment on our magnetosphere. Telegraph systems all over the world failed, and telegraph pylons were observed throwing sparks.

PSM V11 D270 Balfour Stewart.jpg

Balfour Stewart

The event was recorded on the magnetometer of the Kew Observatory by its director, Balfour Stewart, a physicist. Between this record and effects of the worldwide magnetic storm, Carrington suspected a connection between the storm and his solar event. When Elias Loomis wrote up the event, he named it the Carrington Event because of Carrington’s detailed observations, with Hodgson’s & Stewart’s supporting evidence.

As a Steampunk writer, the Carrington Event is pure gold for inspiration. Instead of having a human villain, you can have your protagonists fighting to survive an unexpected disaster caused by something like the Carrington event. Imagine a plot where a Victorian-era rocket loses all its electronics? Or missing an important message because the telegraph lines are out of commission. The possibilities for building a plot around such an Event are endless.



Filed under Historical Personage, History, Plot, Science, Steampunk Genre, writing

8 responses to “The Carrington Event: the geomagnetic solar Perfect Storm of 1859

  1. Reblogged this on jasonagriswold and commented:
    Very interesting post from one of my favorite blogs.

  2. Thanks for sharing this incredible event. I think I’d heard of it before and it’s filed there somewhere at the back of my brain.
    I am wondering how my son would cope if such a disaster hit his electronics, especially Minecraft. Did you mention something about steam??!!

    • Ah, the beauty is … steam powered engines wouldn’t be affected! A event like this, taking place today, might send us back to an age of steam. However, you’d find me whimpering in a foetal position, as I would miss my computer and the internet. This is lovely as a ‘What if?’ but the reality would be horrific.

      • You’ve planted a few seeds in the thinking department introducing me to punk steam as a genre. Yesterday, we had a 1.5 hour drive to my aunt’s place in Sydney and I decided to hold a writing workshop while my kids were a captive audience. Awhile back, I bought an excellent writing book for my son called “Write Stuff: Creative Writing for Boys”. It’s extremely structured and takes you through things Simple Simon but has a bit of a technology feel to the topics. We came up with some great twists and turns with the four of us pooling our efforts. My husband is an avid reading and we had a great think tank going on. Jotted down some great ideas and have developed a few characters, which hopefully the kids can turn into something. These characters were using technology but we also put a bit of retro in there as well. We had a lot of fun!

      • Welcome to the Dark Side. We have cookies…

  3. In my novel “To Rule the Skies”, my protagonist recalls the Carrington Event and realizes it’s a clue to solving the great mystery in the story.

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