On September 1, 1859, the sky erupted in color: "alternating great pillars, rolling cumuli shooting streamers, curdled and wisped and fleecy waves - rapidly changing its hue from red to orange, orange to yellow, and yellow to white, and back in the same order to brilliant red," read a New York Times account. This was the aurora seen around the world.
Meanwhile, the telegraph operators were perplexed to find that the system suddenly failed. None of the lines worked, and telegraph paper spontaneously caught on fire. The aurora and disconnected telegraphs were both the working of the largest solar storm recorded in history.
OAs charged particles from the sun showered down onto Earth, people in 1859 didn't quite know what to think. Matthew Lasar over at Ars Technica has collected historical accounts from reporters, telegraph operators, astronomers, and people who believed it was the end of the world. As science writers ourselves, we were especially curious to read this:
It's easy to look at this now and laugh at the clueless media of 1859. But 150 years from, people will read us and probably think the same thing.In the months shortly after the incident, newspapers and scientific journals found other possible causes. Scientific American postulated falling debris from active volcanoes, the San Francisco Herald theorized about "nebulous matter" from "planetary spaces," and Harper's Weekly settled on reflections from distant icebergs.