The Sun-Spot Panic of 1816

‘This year has been a very uncommon one. The spring was exceeding cold and backward or rather there was no spring, the summer was cold and wet, or rather we had no summer. The crop was very bad and unproductive. The harvest was very late, the crop was not well got in’

Dairy of Thomas Lucas, Stirling, Scotland, 31 December 1816

When the vulgar and uneducated Georgian masses peered at the sun, what did they see? They saw a great ball of fire which provided daylight and warmth for all, and grew the food. Civilisation would end if the sun ever went out, and fires did go out; their vague recollection of Christian end-time stories told them that the the fading of the light would be the first sign of Armageddon.

Their betters, as their name implied, knew better. The Sun was no kind of fire, although they did struggle to explain how its energy was created. It was a star which revolved around its axis every twenty-four days (actually nearer twenty-seven). Its diameter was estimated at about 880,000 according to the Manchester Mercury and other papers (867, 000 in reality). It produced both heat and light, which people strongly believed were the same thing, but had not yet proved to everybody’s satisfaction. It was about 96 million miles from earth, it was estimated, and they were wrong by only a few million. It needs to be remembered that the (rich) Georgians were scientific!

The poor’s ignorance about the sun (nor indeed the knowledge of their social superiors) did not matter until the summer of 1816. Astronomers had been watching sunspots through telescopes for two hundred years, and the average English gentleman would have been able to assuage the fears of the masses from about 1750.

Sunspots became democratic in 1816; they were so numerous that they could be seen by all everybody with a piece of coloured glass as protection, and sometimes even without it on a hazy early morning (there were lots of them in 1816, another mystery). When they looked, the poor, who struggled to eat and did not buy a spyglasses or telescopes, drew different conclusions to the rich. The great moving blanknesses on the disc would put out the sun and the end of the word was nigh. There was a particular panic on July 18, 1816, the day when an Italian prophesied the end of the world. The Italian astronomer gave a few months notice  of the sun going out, and the newspapers all printed the same scoffing refutation.

A typical letter to the newspaper. Just the beginning, mind. They went on for ever.

The scare was easy to refute. The experts had all the facts.  The Morning Post on the very day that the sun was due to go out pointed out that the two summers of 1718 and 1719 were both the hottest on record and the last time there were so many sunspots. The year 1812 was spotless, and the weather and the harvest were calamitous. Most years had sunspots, and they could be tracked across the disc; they proved that the sun revolved around its axis. The sunspots were not lakes of water, or like a hole appearing in an old suit, suggesting the whole textile was worn.  ‘It would be useless to accumulate more facts to show that the spots on the sun ought not to create any uneasiness’, sniffed every newspaper in the land.

Frederick William Herschel, with the sun on his mind

This negative knowledge of sunspots was all they had. They did not know what sunspots were; Herschel’s view that they were solar mountains, some three hundred miles high, was treated with respect; some letters to the Gentleman’s Magazine suggested they were the shadows from other stars; but they did know that they could not make the sun go out.

The poor and ignorant were condemned out of hand by every amateur gentleman astrologer with a spyglass, but there was some justification for the concerns of the masses. The weather in Europe and North America had been appalling since the beginning of the year. Thomas Lucas of Stirling noted the events in his diary;

Several spots or holes in the sun has been observed by astronomers this summer and the summer has been uncommonly rainy but it is not pretended that the great and almost incessant rains that we have had of late is on that account.

Lucas was a surgeon, an educated middle-class man who knew the world was not ending, but his diary comment flagged up a real phenomenon. Something had gone wrong with the weather. It rained all of the time, temperatures were low, and the sky was dark and the seasons were not proceeding as they normally did. It was not only bad, but unpredictable beyond the experience of anybody living.  The Leicester Journal (July 1816) commented that ‘such inclement weather is scarcely remembered by the oldest person living’.  It was also cruel; spring brought repeated thaws and freezes, killing off the harvests and killing them again when replanted.  There was a dry yellow fog in the sky, which did not recede as the day warmed up, which made the sunspots easier to see, and to blame. You did not always need a piece of coloured glass; everybody could panic now.

Nobody really knew what was happening until the 1880s; the climate change was caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora a year earlier that caused a temporary lowering of the average temperature by about 1.5 percent, enough to cause a  climate catastrophe,  and is well documented. This was the ‘Year without a Summer’ in Britain and ‘Nine Hundred and Frozen to Death   in the USA’  

Chester Chronicle

The sun spots vanished in August and reappeared in September. They were even larger than those of June, and the world did not end then either. But this was definitely temporary climate change; it caused global starvation, including Britain, and increased pandemic diseases. Just imagine how bad permanent climate change would be?. Or is that ‘will be’?

Please consider my two books on the Georgian and Victorian Era

The Dark Days of Georgian Britain– a political and social history of the Regency. More details here

Passengers – a social history of Britain 1780-1840 told through travel, transport, roads and hospitality. More details here