Solar-powered telegraphs during: 'The Carrington Event'
April 25, 2016
by Mark Ollig

In London, British astronomer Richard Carrington was drawing images being projected onto a “pale straw color” plate of glass from his telescope pointed at the sun.

The images he drew were of large dark spots, appearing on the surface of the sun.

Carrington was surprised by “two patches of intensely bright and white light” which suddenly showed on the dark spots; known today as sunspots.

This was 157 years ago. Carrington had witnessed a huge solar flare erupting from the sun – and this massive flare was headed directly towards Earth.

“The phenomenon took place at an elevation considerably above the general surface of the sun,” he later wrote in the November 1859 Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society publication.

Thursday, Sept. 1, 1859, the bright and powerful coronal mass ejection (CME) emitted from the sun, blanketed the upper Earth’s atmosphere.

This solar event caused confusion and wonderment; as the sky brightened, and then changed into a red, green, and purple swirling hue of a gigantic aurora borealis.

Over the course of several days, the resulting magnetic solar storm played serious havoc with devices using electricity – especially electrical telegraphs.

Telegraph systems, a commonly used communications device in 1859, required battery-power to operate.

A battery cell supplying the voltage was comprised of a glass jar filled with a chemical solution (such as copper sulfate) with copper and zinc electrodes immersed in the solution.

A chemical reaction between the electrodes and the solution created an electrical voltage.

Battery cells were connected together to produce the greater voltages needed for a telegraph to operate over long spans of telegraph wire.

I was surprised to learn about the many unique and distinctive styles, and makers of not only telegraphs, but electrically-powered magnetic clocks used in 1859.

However, let’s digress back to the CME, which has now reached Earth.

Upon entering the atmosphere, the solar storm wrapped its powerful flow of electrical current energy around miles of copper telegraph wire attached to wooden poles.

Telegraph wire connected the many individual telegraph stations located along the railroad tracks and towns.

At some stations, telegraph operators were physically being shocked by the solar storm’s electrical current surges on the brass or copper telegraphy break-key they used to tap out (key) coded messages.

There were reports of sparks, shooting out of the break-keys, causing paper used with the telegraph machine to be set on fire.

Telegraph operators hurriedly disconnected the batteries to their telegraph machines.

After doing this, many experienced a surprising discovery.

The electric current from the solar storm was powering their telegraph systems – without having any batteries connected.

I came across an astonishing personal account of a conversation between two telegraph operators, written in the 1859 Boston Evening Star newspaper.

This conversation was between the Boston, MA, and Portland, ME telegraph operators working on the American Telegraph Line.

Boston operator: (to Portland operator) Please cut off your battery entirely from the line for 15 minutes.

Portland operator: Will do so. It is now disconnected.

Boston operator: Mine is disconnected, and we are working with the auroral current. How do you receive my writing?

Portland operator: Better than with our batteries on. Current comes and goes gradually.

Boston operator: My current is very strong at times, and we can work better without 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 operator: Very well. Shall I go ahead with business?

Boston operator: Yes. Go ahead.

I read that the electrical current produced by this solar storm went up and down; but provided enough electricity for many telegraphs to operate for hours..

Although the telegraph operators needed to reconnect the batteries; for a brief while, there were actual working, “solar-powered” telegraphs in 1859.

Ground-based magnetometers, available in 1859, were able to measure the forces, or the “strength” from the solar storm.

Magnetometers plotted out a magnetogram graph of the solar event on an hourly basis, from Sept. 1 through Sept. 3.

Today, of course, we depend on many electronic devices and systems.

Most of them require a constant and uninterruptible supply of electricity.

As of 2013, there were more than 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines making up the national electric grid, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

The Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite was launched into space Feb. 10 of this year, by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The satellite’s primary purpose is to obtain information about the solar wind and charged particles constantly bombarding our planet’s magnetic field.

“These data help us to prepare for and respond to solar events that could disrupt our critical infrastructure,” said the official White House blog.

In 2009, the Department of Energy, along with private funding, invested $9.5 billion for modernizing the nation’s electrical grid.

“The consequences of a future solar storm like the Carrington Event of August-September 1859 are extensive and involve a range of potential economic impacts not unlike a major Force 5 hurricane or tsunami that could [immobilize] the present national electricity grid for an extended period,” states a White House file document titled: National Cyber Systems Infrastructure Security Review Concept Paper.

Stay tuned.

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