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’?

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

Climate Change in the Regency -the terrible summer of 1816

Today there is no doubt what happened to the weather in Europe and North America in 1816- it was the worse summer weather that has been known in living  memory. In Europe it is called the Year without a summer and in the Americas, sometimes “Eighteen- hundred and froze to death”. The  cause is known too; the eruption of Mount Tambora in present day Indonesia. We now know that volcanic eruptions cause wet and cold summers and that it leads to poor harvests. It happened in the 1880s when Krakatoa erupted. The more scientific discussions around that time  identified 1816 as being the worst example of climate change caused by volcanic eruptions. The first use of the expression ” year without a summer” dates to the early 1880s too.
At the time of course, it was much harder to gain that perspective, but there are some indications that people thought 1816 was different enough to cause concern. In both the USA and Britain, panic about the weather did not start until the middle of the year. Indeed in the USA, most of the continent had experienced the mildest January and February that anybody could remember. However there was unseasonable snow in April, May was cold and June was the coldest in memory, killing recently planted crops and destroying any green living thing.
People in Britain knew about patterns in the weather, but nobody could remember conditions like this. In July 1816 the Cambridge Chronicle reported that “The oldest man living does not recollect such unseasonable weather as we have lately experienced”. This would include the dreadful summers of 1812 and 1799.Many other newspapers asked their oldest readers about the weather and got the same answer- it was never as bad as this
Newspapers were generally sceptical when their correspondents queried the “ alteration of the seasons” People naturally turned to early records to convince themselves that the extraordinary weather was within normal bounds, despite it being within nobody’s experience. It was pointed out that the summer of 1695 consisted of three sunny days only. The Perthshire Chronicle related that terrible cold summer of 1698, but even then there was not snow at the end of May. It went as far as describing 1816 as an “unnatural season”; but for most of the time, most people simply thought that they were unlucky.
Reporting the weather was commonplace and important in regency newspapers; people’s lives depended on it, but there were still many examples of weather beyond normal expectations. July was a month of snow, hail and thunder all over Britain . In that month in Cumbria, two inch hailstones smashed 700 panes of glass at Sir James Graham’s glasshouses at Netherby ; more rain than could ever be remembered fell in Glasgow. On August 5th, in the village of Fettercairn, Scotland a mere 12 miles from the German Ocean ( North Sea) there was five foot of snow, and even the oldest residents could only remember any snow up to June. Ten Children in Spilsby, Yorkshire, were blackened head to foot as torrential rain poured down the chimney, pushing out the soot. In Manchester it rained heavily for 28 days in July and did not rain in 3, which is bad, even for Manchester.
It was the same all over North Western Europe .In July 1816 Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein in Lake Geneva, the incessant rain and lightening keeping her indoors, and she wrote her famous novel about a creature being brought back to life by electric fluid ( lightening)
Newspapers remained optimistic about the wheat crop but by late August prices were spiralling out of the reach of the poor. Luckily, September was better and premature crops were left to grow in the fields. Harvests were still being brought in October ; by the 10th it looked in many parts of Britain as there was no sunlight at all.
People looked for reasons. They noticed the visible spots on the sun and believed that this was responsible- it was relevant but it was not the cause. For some it was an unexpected visitation from heaven, although there was no obvious blaming of people or sin . On the 30th August 1816, the Leicester Chronicle printed a letter using astrology to explain the poor weather, but prefaced the letter with “the present WEATHER is so much at present subject to enquiry, that we doubt not our readers may derive some amusement from this letter!”.
Prayers were held in church ,especially in July, when the rumour spread that the word was about to end dues to weather and the clearly visible sunspots. There are more details on my blogpost;

Hay and Clover were in such bad condition that they were composted into manure; they was no summer  work for haymakers. This, from the Carlisle Patriot July 1816;



The poor still suffered. A clergymen writing in the Western Daily Press ( October 1879) retold the story of the oldest residents, who remembered women and children picking tiny out pieces of wheat from the fields on St. Thomas’s day- December 21st. They were desperate.


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