September had just rolled around and amateur astronomer Richard Carrington was staring at a projection of the sun.
In his recently built observatory, The Dome, built in Redhill, Surrey in England, he had set up the lenses of his telescope to project the image of the sun out to a foot to 14 inches wide, thus being able to not only track solar rotation, but also establish surface currents and most particularly to record emerging sunspots. On the first of September, in 1859 he noted bright spots within large sunspots he had been tracking and recording. Another astronomer, Richard Hodgson, viewing from his own observatory at Claybury, Essex, also viewed this occurrence, although it was Carrington who was able to label this as a 'Solar Flare', the world's first observation and discovery. Based on his previous studies of solar activity, he predicted this flare would cause electrical disturbances across the Northern Hemisphere.
He was right.
The ensuing Aurora Borealis was so bright that northeastern US residents were able to read their newspapers by it, streets were bathed in glowing shimmering reflection, and the aurora could be seen in the Sahara Desert and the mountains of Colombia. Telegraph operatives received electric shocks from their contraptions and in some cases the poles burst into flame.
Carrington was only able to observe for under a decade, eventually needing to sell his family home and observatory, of which Redhill's only tower block now stands. Over his several thousand observances of solar activity, scientists were later able to extrapolate the existence of a solar cycle, or the 11 year period in which the magnetic activity of the sun fluctuates from 'quiet' to 'quite busy', with the busy part being when solar flare activity is most active. The solar event of 1859 was dubbed 'The Carrington Event', in the astronomer's name, evoking both a Sherlock Holmes and a Lovecraftian theme to it.
With our ever-growing reliance on electricity to power our communication, travel, and comfort, it's become increasingly important to know of when and in what direction solar flare activity is occurring. One errant blast in the busy cycle could either fritz out our satellites or even cause blackouts greater than a nuclear blast's EMP. Only recently, on October 13, 2016, did American President Obama issue an executive order for 'Coordinating Efforts to Prepare the Nation for Space Weather Events', a preparation long overdue, and possibly just in time to limit the effects down to sparking phones, rainbow-lit nights, and post-midnight shadow-play.