Prelude

The word “electrocute” would not be invented for another 30 years…

On August 30th, 1859, with a blinding flash of light and a deadly rush of radioactive particles, a massive flare belched from the Sun. It flung more energy outward into space in one second than had been used by all of humankind in its entire existence. The fierce solar wind blasted outward, directly toward the Earth.

One day later a second blast, even more powerful than the first, threw still more of the Sun’s skin Earthward. The particles from the second blast followed in the same path as the first, on a direct path to our home planet.

***

Bloomington, Illinois
31 August 1859, 7:30 p.m.
E-159 years, 2 months, 12 days

Fletcher Jarvis sat down at his telegraph station with a message to send. The message was destined for up the line. The first Pullman sleeping car to go into service was due to leave the following day for Chicago, and Fletcher Jarvis had to send the confirmation message to the destination station master.

The Chicago and Alton line would carry the inaugural car, and there were ceremonies planned to greet the arrival.

Fletcher Jarvis adjusted his cap, leaned forward, and reached for the key.

The bang and the flash came together. Fletcher’s eyes shut instinctively as he heard and felt the bang. His left hand flew off the Morse code key; his whole arm numb, buzzing. Jarvis thought it felt like he had struck his funny bone, but worse. He smelled a hint of something in the air, and a little plume of smoke coiled upward above his desk. He had no idea what Ozone smelled like.

What in tarnation was that?, wondered Fletcher Jarvis. He blinked several times, shook his arm, and waited for the ringing in his ears to subside. He picked himself off the floor and walked over to the array of batteries connected to the telegraph system. They were warm to the touch; something he had never felt before. Fletcher figured the flash and bang was due to some kind of overload. He gingerly disconnected the batteries from the power bus.

But, seconds later, the usual “clickety-click” of the telegraph characters came out of the sounder. That’s impossible, thought Fletcher. He had disconnected the power, and the whole thing should be dead. But the clicks continued; some of them accompanied by small bright sparks as the sounder’s points met and parted.

Fletcher sat back down and started to copy down the Morse code message. It was Chicago, asking for an update on the Pullman sleeping car. Would it arrive tomorrow as scheduled? Please acknowledge, it said.

Fletcher–once burned–was very shy about putting his hand anywhere near that key again. The message from Chicago repeated. Fletcher stared at the sounder, winced, and looked warily at his key. More clacking sounds.

22, 24, 134

In Morse code shorthand, Western Union style, those digits meant, respectively, “Wire test, Repeat this back, Who is at the key?”

Fletcher grabbed a nearby yardstick and, from a distance, looked away as he tapped at the top of his key. It clicked, but there was no flash and no loud noise like before. He sat down, emboldened, and placed his hand back on the key. There was no flash, no bang.

“Chgo Blmgtn. Jarvis at key. Batts disconnected. Had explosion. No damage. Pullman leaving to arrive tmrw on sched. 30.”

Chicago answered with the acknowledgment, and eventually regular message traffic resumed. Fletcher Jarvis went back to work, sending the scores of messages that had piled up in the basket, and he copied dozens more from Chicago; the memory of the earlier shock fading from his attention.

After a few more hours, the sounder became weak and some clicks were barely audible. Jarvis decided to reconnect the battery bank to the bus. The sounder came to life, but there were no further flashes or bangs until his shift ended.

Although his injury was more emotional than physical, Fletcher Jarvis became the first human to feel the physical effects of the Aurora Borealis; the northern lights. Solar flares had propelled gigawatts of powerful radiation deep into Earth’s magnetic field. The magnetic field coupled with the new telegraph wires on the Bloomington to Chicago line, and induced energy into those wires; energy that searched frantically for ground, as all electricity is wont to do. Ground made its appearance through Fletcher Jarvis’s hand, and nature took her course.

It would be the last time such a massive solar flare would occur with only minor effects on Earth’s technology.

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