These days, with constant high-tech astronomical observation and our detailed knowledge of solar physics, solar storms are something we have come to expect, and rarely fear (remember this?).
But in 1859, a solar storm was unleashed with such power that you could read a book at midnight under the resulting aurora. Telegraph operators across the U.S. were forced to shut off their batteries, and sent messages across the wires using the current provided by the storm alone.
Painters like Frederic Edwin Church were inspired by the celestial fireworks, as shown in his 1865 painting above. Matthew Lasar has a gripping tale of that week in 1859 at Ars Technica.
Here’s a taste:
“Two patches of intensely bright and white light broke out.” … [Richard Christopher] Carrington puzzled over the flashes. “My first impression was that by some chance a ray of light had penetrated a hole in the screen attached to the object-glass,” he explained, given that “the brilliancy was fully equal to that of direct sun-light.”
The astronomer checked his gear. He moved the apparatus around a bit. To his surprise, the intense white patches stayed put. Realizing that he was an “unprepared witness of a very different affair,” Carrington ran out of his studios to find a second observer. But when he brought this person back, he was “mortified to find” that the bright sections were “already much changed and enfeebled.”
“Very shortly afterwards the last trace was gone,” Carrington wrote. He kept watch on the region for another hour, but saw nothing more. Meanwhile, the explosive energy that he had seen rushed towards him and everyone else on Earth.