On this date in 1859 the night sky was about as bright as it’s ever been, thanks to a geomagnetic storm that was off the charts.

Today it’s known as the Carrington Event, because of the astronomer who spotted the start of the phenomenon.

On September 1, Richard Carrington was looking at the sun through his special telescope when he saw two intensely bright white lights coming from sunspots for five minutes.

He had seen a coronal mass injection, a huge mass of plasma coming out of the sun.

And this one headed toward Earth.

The next day was wild.

Earth saw the most intense geomagnetic storm on record.

Auroras stretched across the sky, far beyond where they were normally seen, and they were so bright that birds woke up and started chirping, thinking it was day.

Skywatchers were amazed; other people freaked out, thinking this was the end of the world.

But the people who probably saw the weirdest effects were telegraph operators.

We know today that geomagnetic storms are bad news for electronics; in fact a storm the size of the Carrington Event today would cause huge outages and trillions of dollars in damage.

The telegraph lines were the 19th Century version of the internet.

And the storm fried some of them, and zapped some of the people who ran them.

In many areas the telegraphs were simply down, but in a few they found an amazing workaround.

Operators who unplugged the batteries on their units found they could still send messages to other telegraphs using what was called auroral current, the electricity in the air.

So, of course, they spent the time sending each other messages about how they were sending each other messages using only the electricity in the air.

Tomorrow is the start of what’s called “Colorado’s most colorful event.”

The Denver Chalk Art Festival is three days of artists producing, as you might guess, sidewalk and street chalk murals.

Telegraphs Ran On Electric Air in Crazy 1859 Magnetic Storm (WIRED)

Colorado’s Most Colorful Event –  Denver Chalk Art Festival

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Photo by Studiolit via Flickr/Creative Commons