Humans have gazed at the northern lights with wonder for thousands of years. We understand them a little better now, but these once mysterious phenomena still evoke awe. Most of our knowledge about the northern lights came in the last century or two. Astronomers and meteorologists of the 1800s worked for years to understand if the Aurora was a feature of Earth's atmospheric weather, of outer space or something that straddled the boundary in-between. This centuries-old attempt to understand the northern lights was an immense, international-scale project, and, through fortunate happenstance, it even helped inspire one of the underlying foundations of modern society.

Cleveland Abbe was the man who led the quest to understand the aurora borealis in the 1870s. The father of the National Weather Service, Abbe, broadcasted some of the first reliable, consistent, and accurate weather reports from his base in Cincinnati, Ohio. A powerful solar storm in April 1874 gave him a unique opportunity to study the northern lights.

The Aurora Borealis creates stunning displays of dancing light. This particular aurora was captured by Sebastian Kowalski in Norway on March 1, 2017. Credit: Sebastian Kowalski, Wikimedia Commons.

The solar wind interacting with charged particles in the Earth's magnetosphere is what causes the Auroras. When these particles are bombarded in the upper atmosphere, they release light energy in spectacular fashion, creating curtains of green and blue. Aurora aficionados will know that solar flares can increase the Aurora's color and vibrancy, but also its breadth. The Aurora can be seen across huge swaths of the United States and mid-latitude regions worldwide when strong solar storms push it into more southerly latitudes.

On April 7, 1874, one of these storms caused a particularly memorable display, though it was a moderate storm compared to the famous Carrington event of 1859, at the time still easily within living memory. Abbe jumped at the chance to study the Aurora, hoping to learn more about its altitude above the Earth and compare it to weather phenomena and magnetic observations.

In order to carry out this task, Abbe needed multiple data points from multiple sites across the country. Abbe had a network of contacts across the USA who helped him gather data for his weather reports. They were put to work observing the northern lights. This team was made up of about 80 public volunteers and 20 expert observers, making it an early example of a citizen science collaboration.

This is the oldest surviving photograph of the northern lights. It was taken on January 6, 1892 by Martin Brendel in Bossekop, Alta, Norway. Credit: World Heritage Rock Art Centre – Alta Museum.

The project did not go as planned. The problem was that the volunteers scattered across the country used their own local time systems to take their observations. It was difficult to compare the observations in order to draw useful conclusions. The uncertainty of this important matter will be found to throw upon obscurity because the errors of the observers are not stated.

The problem was so pervasive that Abbe decided to take matters into his own hands and work with the AMS to try and find a solution. Benjamin Peirce, an AMS member and mathematician, proposed to break up the country into hour-wide time zones.

Sandford Fleming, a Canadian railroad engineer, wrote a letter to Abbe a few years later, trying to find a way to standardize time on cross-continental railroads. The idea of establishing time zones in the United States was taken to Congress by Abbe and Fleming. The railways adopted them first. An international conference in Washington D.C. established a global prime meridian for timekeeping. Over the next few decades, countries around the world began adopting time zones based on this meridian.

The delegates to the International Meridian Conference, 1884, where Greenwich was chosen as the Prime Meridian. Cleveland Abbe is in the back, second from the left (partially obscured by white-bearded astronomer Lewis Rutherfurd standing in front of him). Wikimedia Commons.

Time zones are all over the place. Time zones are often attributed to the railroads, but it is worth remembering that time zones grew out of the needs of curious people trying to understand our world and its place in the Universe. Cleveland Abbe and his group of citizen scientists, who just wanted a better way to keep time while they watched the northern lights dance overhead, changed the world we live in. It speaks to the power of curiosity and collaboration to make a difference.

The northern lights tend to appear between altitudes of about 100-300 kilometers above the Earth, but low enough for atmospheric.

You can learn more.

The northern lights weren't the only phenomena that influenced timekeeping. The transit of Venus across the Sun in 1874 and again in 1882 had astronomer scrambling for a way to keep their clocks synchronized, so that their observations were not useless in comparison to one another.

The issue of global timekeeping was brought to the attention of the general public. Science and scientific research has a strong influence on culture and society.

You can find more about this story and others like it in The Clocks are telling lies: Science Society and the Construction of Time, a scholarly history of global timekeeping recently released by the University Press. Scott Alan Johnston was born in 2022.

Additional reading.

The Adoption of Standard Time was written by Ian Bartky.

Featured Image: Sophus Tromholt’s photo of his drawing of an auroral display (“auroral break-up”) observed at 7:55p.m. on October 6, 1882. The northern lights were notoriously difficult to capture with early cameras. Tromholt wrote in 1885: “Every attempt I made to photograph the Aurora Borealis failed…in spite of using the most sensitive dry plates, and exposing them from four to seven minutes, I did not succeed in obtaining even the very faintest trace of a negative. The reason is, I am convinced, the small strength of light, and its limited chemical action. The illustrations, therefore, of the Aurora Borealis at Koutokeino accompanying this work are… photographic reproductions of my own drawings”. Sophus Tromholt, Under the Rays of the Aurora Borealis, English translation by Carl Siewers, published in London, 1885. Credit: Sophus Tromholt, UBB collection.