Sunday Things - historical edition

posted in Links by Cargo Cult on Sunday February 10 2013

Apparently, the UK is prepared for a solar superstorm, like the "'Carrington storm' of September 1859". The what, I thought? Cue the intertubes - the solar storm of 1859, in which the Earth was hit by a major coronal mass ejection, causing intense aurorae across almost the entire planet - and driving early telegraphy systems bezerk.

'The Carrington Event' sounds like the result of a Quatermass Experiment.

While reading some of the associated articles, I found this fantastic work of sarcasm in the Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser (page two, column one) - seemingly a response to a correspondent's frankly implausible letter on obtaining a piece of the aurora borealis - it seems the storm of early September was preceded by lesser, still-intense aurorae. I transcribe it here for posterity:

MERIAM ON THE AURORA - Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, September 3, 1859

In the city of Brooklyn there dwells a most extraordinary person. His name is Meriam. He is a philosopher - the greatest America can boast. What Wise is to politics, Meriam is to the weather. Letter writing is the forte of the one, and letter writing is the forte of the other; both are profuse, verbose, and veracious. If the epistles of the two were collected and published, the world would possess a complete and extensive library of political and meteorological knowledge. Even Mr. Douglas, aided by the Harper Brothers, would not be able to add to this library, for it would contain all that he professes to believe, and more than he knows.

Brooklyn is the dormitory to which the money-loving sons of Gotham retire to sleep. But Meriam never sleeps, except by cat-naps. In former years, he had a dog trained to wake him every half hour in the night. The dog is dead, but Meriam still rises, punctual to the moment, and rushes in his unmentionable garment into the cold night air to ascertain the state of the thermometer, the barometer, the weather-cock, the rain-guage, and the dew-point. No change, however slight, in the weathers escapes his vigilance. He is something of an astronomer, and devotes not a little of his time to the stars. He dotes on electricity in all of its varied manifestations, and keeps a strict account of deaths by lightning. Also by sun-stroke, and perhaps by railroad accidents, although cars do not come properly under the head of meteorological phenomena. Volcanos, earthquakes, rain and snow storms, hurricanes and shipwrecks at sea, are held to strict account by him; indeed everything not pertaining to that peculiar science which Messrs. Wise and Douglas have taken in charge, is regularly entered in his day-book, or more properly speaking, his day-and-night book.

It is not quite clear that Meriam considers himself as running a letter-writing race with the eccentric Governor of Virginia; still, it is very certain that somehow or somewhy the man of the weather has managed to keep pretty even, letter for letter, with the men of manoeuvre. But within a few weeks past Meriam was distanced - apparently hopelessly distanced. Wise was ahead - Meriam was nowhere. Wise had written a letter to Donelly - Meriam had not. From Father Point to the Balize, from the Capes of the Chesapeake to Pike's Peak, Wise was the theme of universal confabulation, while the name of Meriam was mentioned not even once. What was to be done? There was no Donelly in physical science to whom Meriam could communicate the matured plan of an intrigue; what could the poor man do? He was in danger of being completely "mowed under" by Wise. Was there no escape?

There was. As if perfectly to eclipse the great glory of Donelly's friend, there came, on Sunday evening, August 28th. 1859, (memorable day) an extraordinary manifestation of that most curious, brilliant, and mysterious phenomena, the Aurora Borealis. That this occurrence took place for the benifit of Meriam, none who know the greatness of the man, and the magnitude of his epistolary antagonist can doubt. There was an Aurora, and there came, of course, forthwith, a letter from Meriam. We have read this letter attentively, and loath as we are to say it, we are constrained to pronounce it unequal to the "Donelly letter." - That we are sincere in this opinion is proved by the fact that now and here we boldly make the prediction that it will not create more than one-half of the sensation produced by the letter to Donelly. Nevertheless, it is no ordinary letter. Space forbids us to notice more than two of its points. Point first reads thus:

"The auroral light sometimes is composed of threads like the silken warp of a web; these sometimes become broken and fall to the earth, and possess exquisite softness and a silvery lustre, and I denominate these as the products of the silkery of the skies. I once obtained a small piece which I preserved."

This is a stunning statement. He picked up a "piece" of light and "preserved" it. Uncommon feat! Really, there is no single paragraph in the Donelly letter superior to this. If permitted, we would ask Mr. Meriam how this "piece of light" felt, what did it taste like, how smelt it, what were the effects of acids and alkalies upon it, was it soluble, was it combustible? &c., &c. How long did he preserve it, did he pickle it or preserve it in sugar, what became of it, did it evaporate, and if not what will he take for it, and why didn't he sell it to Barnum in the first place? These questions might be deemed impertinent if Mr. Meriam did not know as every one else knows, that the later physicists do not consider light a substance in any sense, but a condition.

The second point which we shall notice makes Mr. Meriam's first point still more stunning. He says: "The auroral light of last night, when inhaled, was found to be very invigorating."

He picks up light in a solid thread, he preserves it, no doubt, in a jar, and next he inhales it and finds it to be very invigorating. Peculiar, entirely peculiar man. Inhales the "silkery of the skies," and, so far from getting his nose cobwebbed and stopped up, finds its "very invigorating," a good tonic, equal perhaps to "Oxygenated bitters."

Now we believe every word of this. Nay more. We believe that Mr. Meriam felt sore [illegible] the Donelly letter and thought it incumbent upon him to do his very best to supercede what was startling in politics by what was stunning in physics. If he has failed, it is not his fault. But failed you have, Meriam, - failed signally. Wise has got you down. Try again Meriam.

It seems Mr. Meriam went on making outlandish claims about the aurora - or rather, "electricity discharged from the craters of volcanoes", "concentrated into a gelatinous substance forming meteors" - "sometimes reach[ing] the earth before dissolving, and resembl[ing] thin starch."

I love the nineteenth-century view of science. Forget crappy steampunk, this world of luminiferous æther and Lamarckism and geosynclines and caloric theory is worthy of far more investigation...

Headline designed for me.

Buoyed by these expeditions through newspaper archives, I was amused when the Guardian dug up some 1930s articles on the Tunguska event - how can you not love something that begins with the headline above?

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