History, Theory and Practice of the Electric Telegraph, George B. Prescott, 1860, pages 318-326:
THE AURORA BOREALIS.
Our attention was first called in 1847 to the probability of the aurora's producing an effect upon the wires; but, although having an excellent opportunity to observe such an effect, we were not fortunate enough to do so until the winter of 1850, and then, owing to the feeble displays of the aurora, only to a limited extent. In September, 1851, however, there was a remarkable aurora, which took complete possession of all the telegraph lines in New England, and prevented any business from being transacted during its continuance. The following winter there was another remarkable display, which occurred on the 19th of February, 1852. It was exceedingly brilliant throughout the northern portion of our Continent. We extract the following account of its effects upon the wires from our journal of that date. We should premise, that the system of telegraphing used upon the wires, during the observation of February, 1852, was Bain's chemical. No batteries were kept constantly upon the line, as in the Morse and other magnetic systems. The main wire was connected directly with the chemically prepared paper on the disc, so that any atmospheric currents were recorded with the greatest accuracy. Our usual battery current, decomposing the salts in the paper, and uniting with the iron point of the pen-wire, left a light blue mark on the white paper, or, if the current were strong, a dark one,--the color of the mark depending upon the quantity of the current upon the wire.
"Thursday, February 19, 1852.
"Towards evening a heavy blue line appeared upon the paper, which gradually increased in size for the space of half a minute, when a flame of fire succeeded to the blue line, of sufficient intensity to burn through a dozen thicknesses of the moistened paper. The current then subsided as gradually as it had come on, until it entirely ceased, and was then succeeded by a negative current (which bleaches, instead of coloring, the paper). This gradually increased, in the same manner as the positive current, until it also, in turn, produced its flame of fire, and burned through many thicknesses of the prepared paper; it then subsided, again to be followed by the positive current. This state of things continued during the entire evening, and effectually prevented any business being done over the wires."
Never, however, since the establishment of the telegraphic system in this country, have the wires been so greatly affected by the aurora as upon Sunday night, the 28th of August, 1859. Throughout the entire northern portion of the United States and Canada the lines were rendered useless for all business purposes through its action. So strongly was the atmosphere charged with the electric fluid, that lines or circuits of only twelve miles in length were so seriously affected by it as to render operation difficult, and at times impossible.
The effects of this magnetic storm were apparent upon the wires during a considerable portion of Saturday evening, and during the whole of the next day. At six P. M. the line between Boston and New Bedford (sixty miles in length) could be worked only at intervals, although, of course, no signs of the aurora were apparent to the eye at that hour. The same was true of the wires running eastward through the State of Maine, as well as those to the north.
The wire between Boston and Fall River had no battery upon it Sunday, and yet there was an artificial current upon it, which increased and decreased in intensity, producing upon the electromagnets in the offices the same effect as would be produced by constantly opening and closing the circuit at intervals of half a minute. This current, which came from the aurora, was strong enough to have worked the line, although not sufficiently steady for regular use.
The current from the aurora borealis comes in waves,--light at first, then stronger, until we have frequently a strength of current equal to that produced by a battery of two hundred Grove cups. The waves occupy about fifteen seconds each, ordinarily, but we have known them to last a full minute; though this is rare. As soon as one wave passes, another, of the reverse polarity, always succeeds. We have never known this to fail, and it may be set down as an invariable rule. When the poles of the aurora are in unison with the poles of the current upon the line, its effect is to increase the current; but when they are opposed, the current from the battery is neutralized,--null. These effects were observed at times during Saturday, Saturday evening, and Sunday, but were very marked during Sunday evening.
It is hardly necessary to add here, that the effect of the aurora borealis, or magnetic storm, is totally unlike that of common or free electricity, with which the atmosphere is charged during a thunder-storm. The electricity evolved during a thunder-storm, as soon as it reaches a conductor, explodes with a spark, and becomes at once dissipated. The other, on the contrary, is of very low tension, remains upon the wires sometimes half a minute, produces magnetism, decomposes chemicals, deflects the needle, and is capable of being used for telegraphic purposes, although, of course, imperfectly.
Mr. O. S. Wood, Superintendent of the Canadian telegraph lines, says; "I never, in my experience of fifteen years in the working of telegraph lines, witnessed anything like the extraordinary effect of the aurora borealis, between Quebec and Father's Point, last night. The line was in most perfect order, and well-skilled operators worked incessantly from eight o'clock last evening till one o'clock this morning, to get over, in even a tolerably intelligible form, about four hundred words of the steamer Indian's report for the press; but at the latter hour, so completely were the wires under the influence of the aurora borealis, that it was found utterly impossible to communicate between the telegraph stations, and the line was closed for the night."
We have seen from the foregoing examples that the aurora borealis produces remarkable effects upon the telegraph lines during its entire manifestation. We have, however, to record yet more wonderful effects of the aurora upon the wires; namely, the use of the auroral current for transmitting and receiving telegraphic despatches. This almost incredible feat was accomplished in the forenoon of September 2, between the hours of half past eight and eleven o'clock, on the wires of the American Telegraph Company between Boston and Portland, upon the wires of the Old Colony and Fall River Railroad Company between South Braintree and Fall River, and upon other lines in various parts of the country.
The auroral influence was observed upon all the lines running out of the office in Boston at the hour of commencing business (eight o'clock, A. M.), and it continued so strong up to half past eight as to prevent any business being done; the ordinary current upon the wires being at times neutralized by the magnetism of the aurora, and at other times so greatly augmented as to render operations impracticable. At this juncture it was suggested that the batteries should be cut off, and the wires simply connected with the earth.
It is proper to remark here, that, the current from the aurora coming in waves of greater or less intensity, there are times, both while the wave is approaching and while it is receding, when the instruments are enabled to work; but the time, varying according to the rapidity of the vibrations of the auroral bands, is only from a quarter of a minute to one minute in duration. Therefore, whatever business is done upon the wires during these displays has to be accomplished in brief intervals of from a quarter to half a minute in duration.
During one of these intervals, the Boston operator said to the one at Portland: "Please cut off your battery, and let us see if we cannot work with the auroral current alone."
The Portland operator replied: "I will do so. Will you do the same?"
"I have already done so," was the answer. "We are working with the aid of the aurora alone. How do you receive my writing?"
"Very well indeed," responds the operator at Portland; "much better than when the batteries were on; the current is steadier and more reliable. Suppose we continue to work so until the aurora subsides?"
"Agreed," replied the Boston operator. "Are you ready for business?"
"Yes; go ahead," was the answer.
The Boston operator, Mr. Milliken, then commenced sending private despatches, which he was able to do much more satisfactorily than when the batteries were on, although, of course, not so well as he could have done with his own batteries without celestial assistance.
The line was worked in this manner more than two hours, when, the aurora having subsided, the batteries were resumed. While this remarkable phenomenon was taking place upon the wires between Boston and Portland, the operator at South Braintree informed us that he was working the wire between that station and Fall River--a distance of about forty miles--with the current from the aurora alone, he continued to do so for some time, the line working comparatively well. Since then we have visited Fall River, and have the following account from the intelligent operator in the railroad office at that place. The office at the station is about half a mile from the regular office in the village. The battery is kept at the latter place, but the operator at the station is provided with a switch, by which be can throw the battery off the line and put the wire in connection with the earth at pleasure. The battery at the other terminus of the line is at Boston; but the operator at South Braintree is furnished with a similar switch, which enables him to dispense with its use at pleasure. There arc no intermediate batteries; consequently, if the Fall River operator put his end of the wire in connection with the earth, and the South Braintree operator do the same, the line is without battery, and of course without an electrical current. Such was the state of the line on the 2d of September, 1859, when for more than an hour they held communication over the wire with the aid of the celestial batteries alone.
We extract the following communications, on the influence of the aurora borealis upon the electric telegraph-wires, from the American Journal of Science, for January, 1860:--
Observations made at White River Junction, Vt., communicated by J. H. NORRIS Telegraph Superintendent.
During the forenoon of September 2d, an unusual current of varying intensity was present most of the time on the wires of the Vermont and Boston telegraph. The polarity of this current appeared to change frequently, sometimes being opposite to, and nearly or quite neutralizing, the battery current when an attempt was made to use the line; at other times much increasing the force of the battery current. The auroral current produced the same marks upon our chemical paper (we use the Bain or chemical system of telegraph) as those produced by the use of the battery. Signals and messages were transmitted between Boston and Manchester by the sole use of the auroral current.
Observations made at Springfield, Mass., by J. E. SELDEN.
On the evening of August 28th, upon the Boston and New York circuit, at one moment there was a very heavy current on the wire, and the next none at all. On the Albany and Springfield circuit, a flash passed across from the break-key of the telegraph apparatus to the iron frame, the flame of which was about half the size of an ordinary jet of gas. It was accompanied by a humming sound, similar to a heavy current passing between two metal points almost in contact. The heat was sufficient to cause the smell of scorched wood and paint to be plainly perceptible.
Observations made at New York by J. C. CROSSON, Telegraph Operator.
On the evening of August 28th, at 7½ o'clock, I experienced considerable difficulty in working, on account of the variation of current. I could work south by constantly altering the adjustment of my magnets, but the magnetism on the eastern circuit was so nearly destroyed that I could do nothing. About ten o'clock I could see nothing of the aurora in the southern hemisphere, yet the same variations of current were manifest upon the line for an hour afterward. There was during this time a very strong turning current from the east, which resembled a reversed current so much that I disconnected my battery and put on a "ground," but I could not then get magnetism sufficient to work a simple armature. At 12h. 30m. the current from the east assumed a new feature, producing enough magnetism to work quite well, yet wavering and varying in intensity.
Observations made at Philadelphia, communicated by H. EMMONS THAYER, Telegraph Superintendent.
On the evening of August 28th, about 8 o'clock, we lost current on all our four wires running from Philadelphia to New York, and we had strong circuit, as if from a near ground connection; but there was no interruption on wires running south to Baltimore and Washington. At 9h. 10m. the wires were relieved to a great extent from the influence of the aurora, giving us our usual working current.
On testing wires at 8 o'clock on the morning of September 2d, I found two of our wires, those running via Camden and Amboy to New York, strongly under the influence of an aurora. The effect was different from that of August 28th. There was an intensity of current which gave a severe shock when testing, giving a reversed current, neutralizing our batteries, and destroying magnetism. On removing the batteries we had a very strong circuit, giving powerful magnetism, but could not raise New York. On the line running from this city to Pittsburg, the operator, Mr. Steacy, succeeded in transmitting a business message to Pittsburg wholly on the auroral current. The current was changeable, suddenly disappearing and returning at intervals of from five to ten minutes. The signals were distinct, and the conversation lasted four or five minutes, the operators exchanging remarks as to the singularity of the phenomenon. At 9 A. M. all the wires were relieved from the effects of the aurora, and worked well as usual.
Observations made at Washington, D. C., by FREDERICK W. ROYCE, Telegraph Operator.
On the evening of August 28th I had great difficulty in working the line to Richmond, Va. It seemed as if there was a storm at Richmond. I therefore abandoned that wire, and tried to work the northern wire, but met with the same difficulty. For five or ten minutes I would have no trouble; then the current would change, and become so weak that it could hardly be felt. It would then gradually change to a "ground" so strong that I could not lift the magnet. The aurora disappeared at a little after ten o'clock, after which we had no difficulty. During the auroral display, I was calling Richmond, and had one hand on the iron plate. Happening to lean towards the sounder, which is against the wall, my forehead grazed a ground wire. Immediately I received a
very severe electric shock, which stunned me for an instant. An old man who was sitting facing me, and but a few feet distant, said that he saw a spark of fire jump from my forehead to the sounder.
Observations made at Pittsburg, Pa., communicated by E. W. CULGAN, Telegraph Manager.
During the aurora of August 28th, the intensity of the current evolved from it varied very much, being at times no stronger than an ordinary battery, and then, suddenly changing the poles of the magnets, it would sweep through them, charging them to their utmost capacity, and compelling a cessation of work while it continued.
On the morning of September 2d, at my request, the Philadelphia operator detached his battery, mine being already off. We then worked with each other at intervals as long as the auroral current continued, which varied from thirty to ninety seconds. During these working intervals we exchanged messages with much satisfaction, and we worked more steadily when the batteries were off than when they were attached. On the night of August 28th the batteries were attached, and on breaking the circuit there were seen not only sparks (that do not appear in the normal condition of a working line), but at intervals regular streams of fire, which, had they been permitted to last more than an instant, would certainly have fused the platinum points of the key, and the helices became so hot that the hand could not be kept on them. These effects could not have been produced by the batteries.
This seems almost too wonderful for belief, and yet the proof is incontestable. However, the fact being established that the currents from the aurora borealis do have a direct effect upon the telegraph wires, and that the currents are of both kinds, positive and negative, as we have shown in our remarks upon the aurora of 1852, which sometimes left a dark line upon the prepared paper, and at other times bleached it,--it is a natural consequence that the wires should work better without batteries than with them, whenever a current from the aurora has sufficient intensity to neutralize the current from the batteries.
We will try to be clear upon this point. lt makes no difference in working the Morse, or any other system of magnetic telegraph, whether we have the positive or the negative pole to the line; but whichever way we point in commencing, the same direction must be continued with all additional batteries put upon the line. Now if we put a battery upon the line at Boston, of say twenty-five cells, and point the positive pole eastward, and the same number of cells at Portland, pointing the positive pole westward, the current will be null, that is to say, each will neutralize the other. Now the aurora, in presenting its positive pole, we will say, increases the current upon the line beyond the power of the magnet-keeper spring to control it, and thus prevents the line from working, by surfeiting it with the electric current; until, presently, the wave recedes and is followed by a negative current, which neutralizes the battery current, and prevents the line from working for want of power. It is plain, therefore, that, if the batteries be taken off, the positive current of the aurora cannot increase, nor the negative decrease, the working state of the line to the same extent as when the batteries are connected; but that, whichever pole is presented, the magnetism can be made use of by the operator for the ordinary duties of the line.
At Springfield, a gentleman who observed the needle of the compass, during the auroral display of August 28th, noticed that it was deflected first to the west, and then to the east, while the waves of the aurora were in motion. The electrotype plates at the office of the "Republican" at that place were so seriously affected by the aurora, that they could not be printed from during the continuance of the phenomenon.