While lightning has terrified humanity for centuries – with good reason, since it sometimes killed people, and often destroyed their property – not all atmospheric phenomena are fearsome.
The aurora borealis is a beautiful and mysterious, even astounding, phenomenon that was eventually attributed to geomagnetism and charged particles in the atmosphere. One of the most widely viewed displays of the aurora took place from August 28 to September 4, 1859, visible from many parts of the globe but celebrated particularly in Europe and North America. K.J. Clement wrote about the event, known as Great Auroral Exhibition of 1859, in his Das grosse Nordlicht in der Nacht zum 29 Augustus 1859, as did Elias Loomis in The Great Auroral Exhibition of Aug. 28th to Sept. 4th, 1859, and the Geographical Distribution of Auroras and Thunder Storms.
However beautiful the auroras were, they were difficult to capture visually before the advent of color photography. Nonetheless, the efforts of artists to express the ethereal nature of the auroras have given us some of the most striking illustrations in the Vail Collection, such as these images from John H. Morgan’s An Account of the Aurora Borealis, Seen Near Cambridge, October the 24th, 1847, and Selim Lemström’s L’aurore boréale.
Return to Magnetism