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September 1st, 1859: The Week the Sun Touched the Earth
May 3, 2012 1:46 PM   Subscribe

Boston telegraph operator, (to Portland telegraph operator): "Please cut off your battery entirely from the line for fifteen minutes."
Portland operator: "Will do so. It is now disconnected."
Boston: "Mine is disconnected, and we are working with the auroral current. How do you receive my writing?"
Portland: "Better than with our batteries on. Current comes and goes gradually."
Boston: "My current is very strong at times, and we can work better without the 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."
Portland: "Very well. Shall I go ahead with business?"
Boston: "Yes. Go ahead." — Ars Technica covers the story of the Great Auroral Storm of 1859, and the awe it inspired.
posted by Toekneesan (23 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite

 
I knew there'd be stories like this after the April event. Cool as heck. From the article:
The good news is that our Sun surface-watching technology is now sophisticated enough to get the word out about an impending magneto-disruption a lot faster than lone Carrington did. That gives network and grid managers time to prepare.
Time to prepare? My understanding is that this would entail un-grounding all electrical circuits (or at least disconnecting from circuits that are permanently grounded) for a period of several days, if not longer. Right? If so, wouldn't that make preparation exceedingly difficult? And that's not even considering orbiting satellites.
posted by resurrexit at 1:59 PM on May 3, 2012


I saw an interview with a UK power grid engineer who was saying that preparation for a solar storm involves turning everything on, in order to give as many lines to ground for the current to dissipate through, to decrease the likelihood of any one link being overloaded and setting fire to a transformer substation.
posted by Dysk at 2:05 PM on May 3, 2012


From what I can tell, this would in essence be a day-long EMP pulse. We've realized since the 1980s that a couple of atomic bombs in high orbit would knock out most of the electronics in the whole country, and this would be like getting hit constantly with that much power for at least a day.

I suspect the results would be far less pleasant than in 1859. Hopefully we'd have enough warning to unplug as much as we could, but the country would all but stop for the duration, and we'd lose an awful, awful lot of equipment.
posted by Malor at 2:06 PM on May 3, 2012


I like everything about that article except that they didn't say that the cost estimates were in 1859 dollars (I have to assume they were, since there's no way the total revenue generated by one telegraph station would be as low as $75 per day in 2012 dollars).

If the total figure of business losses estimated--$300,000--is indeed in 1859 dollars, that's 6 to 10 million dollars. Not chump change by any means.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:10 PM on May 3, 2012


This is incredibily interesting.

It boggles my mind to think how little we knew about electricty just over 150 years ago to what we can do with it today.

Truly awesome stuff.
posted by Twain Device at 2:28 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just love how these guys just unhooked the batteries and kept going. Sky lit up like a Christmas tree? Telegraph lines going crazy for unknown or poorly understood reasons? Fuck it, we'll do it live.

(I'm also imagining them wearing top hats.)
posted by jcreigh at 2:32 PM on May 3, 2012 [18 favorites]


(I'm also imagining them wearing top hats.)

I should hope so. Otherwise their monocles would look pretty silly.
posted by The Tensor at 2:34 PM on May 3, 2012 [20 favorites]


Cool.

And am the only one who loves the "Suppose we ______?" construction to mean "Do you want to _____?"
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:35 PM on May 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


It is also interesting that since the Sun operates on such an astronomically(pardon the pun) longer scale, we've not had large scale electrical disturbances caused by it (That I'm aware of. Please correct me if I'm wrong), since we've not had electronics for all that long (in the grand scheme of things).
posted by Twain Device at 2:38 PM on May 3, 2012


Aaron: Okay, let's go over this again. Two batteries, right? 24 volts? What are we pulling out of this one? Just for fun.
Abe: Twelve volts.
[Aaron unplugs the 12-volt battery and kicks it away from the device, which continues to hum with power]

Aaron: How about this one?
Abe: This would be... twelve volts.
[Aaron unplugs the second 12-volt battery and kicks it away from the device, which continues to hum with power. He shrugs]

Aaron: So what the hell is this thing?
posted by ceribus peribus at 2:41 PM on May 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


Noon approached on September 1, 1859, and British astronomer Richard Christopher Carrington was busy with his favorite pastime: tracking sunspots, those huge regions of the star darkened by shifts in its magnetic field. He projected the Sun's image from his viewing device onto a plate of glass stained a "pale straw colour," which gave him a picture of the fiery globe one inch shy of a foot in diameter.

That device sounds cool as hell and I want one. I imagine his 'viewing device' was something similar to this setup, no?
posted by FatherDagon at 2:43 PM on May 3, 2012


That device sounds cool as hell and I want one. I imagine his 'viewing device' was something similar to this setup, no?

Yeah, just take a telescope, aim it at the sun, and put a piece of paper in the path of the output.
posted by delmoi at 2:48 PM on May 3, 2012


Boston operator, (to Portland operator): Unplug your battery.

Portland operator: You're fucking nuts bro.

Boston: We'll work with the auroral current.

Portland: I work with oral current from your sister.

Boston: STFU. We got word that a schooner full of loose, plague-infected monkeys is hours out of Portland Harbor.

Portland: Whatevah. I'm gonna go get baked and watch the lights in the sky. Good night, you fucking cock.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:03 PM on May 3, 2012 [10 favorites]


What a well-crafted FPP! I'm completely drawn in.
posted by sidereal at 3:06 PM on May 3, 2012


What I'm wondering about is this—"It is now disconnected." So he's on his device, he turns it off, and then he uses it to tell the other guy he turned it off. What a leap of faith. Could he tell it was still transmitting while he was tapping? How?

And how about that one-in-eight chance of a similar event occurring in the next 18 years. Heavens to Murgatroyd!
posted by Toekneesan at 3:26 PM on May 3, 2012


What I'm wondering about is this—"It is now disconnected." So he's on his device, he turns it off, and then he uses it to tell the other guy he turned it off. What a leap of faith.

"Can you hear me now?"
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:03 PM on May 3, 2012


"Unplugging it and turning it back on" since 1859.
posted by littlesq at 4:32 PM on May 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


The first line made me think that this was the first ever recorded transmission to and from a helpdesk.
posted by Grimgrin at 4:32 PM on May 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


A lot of this article comes from an Elsevier journal article which anyone can purchase for $31.50.





Really Elsevier? $31.50 for a collection of newspaper articles from the Nineteenth Century?

Thank you, Ars Technica, for making that purchase unnecessary.
posted by Toekneesan at 5:30 PM on May 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


He projected the Sun's image from his viewing device onto a plate of glass stained a "pale straw colour," which gave him a picture of the fiery globe one inch shy of a foot in diameter.

I've done this with a tiny hole in a piece of paper but I wonder how you'd build something like this where you could actually make out the details of the sun.
posted by photoslob at 7:07 PM on May 3, 2012


Man, Comic Sans is older than I thought.
posted by barnacles at 8:52 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


The North American Electric Reliability Corporation's 2012 Special Reliability Assessment Interim Report: Effects of Geomagnetic Disturbances on the Bulk Power System.
posted by scalefree at 12:27 AM on May 4, 2012


Yeah, just take a telescope, aim it at the sun, and put a piece of paper in the path of the output.

"When viewing the Sun via the projection method, follow these precautions for safe viewing:

*Cover the finderscope.

* Don’t aim the telescope at the Sun by sighting along the tube. Rather, move the tube until its shadow on the ground is smallest, while watching at a distance for light to come blazing out of the eyepiece.

* Use a low-power eyepiece. If it has cemented lenses, as almost all modern ones do, stop the telescope aperture down to 2 or 3 inches by cutting a round hole in a piece of cardboard and fitting it over the front of the tube. More than a few inches of aperture will allow too much heat and light into the telescope. This heat can damage the clear cement between eyepiece lens elements. The best eyepiece for solar projection is an old fashioned Huygens or Ramsden, which has no cemented lenses.

* Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes in particular must be stopped down. Excess heat can damage the adhesive that holds the secondary mirror to its mounting in most Schmidt-Cassegrains. "

http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/objects/sun/Viewing_the_Sun_Safely.html?page=2&c=y

You can look directly into the eyepiece if you put a filter on the objective lens. Metallized mylar or coated glass. Again, cover the finderscope and steer the telescope by looking at its shadow on the ground.

http://www.oneminuteastronomer.com/999/choose-solar-filter/
http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/objects/sun/Viewing_the_Sun_Safely.html
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:57 AM on May 4, 2012


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