Find Your WWII Soldier’s Story in Newspapers!

On May 8th, we celebrate the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, the formal acceptance of Germany’s unconditional surrender in Europe. To honor the legacy of our WWII soldiers, we want to help you tell their story. Historical newspapers are a great way to research your WWII veteran. Here are some tips and tricks for researching your soldier’s story in Newspapers.com.

  1. Begin your search by name. Just enter your soldier’s name in the search tab. You can narrow the results by refining dates, locations, or keywords. Maybe the local paper ran a story about your soldier enlisting. This can provide valuable clues about which branch of the service your soldier served in. You might even learn what regiment or company he or she belonged to. Hometown newspapers often reported when a local soldier was injured or killed, home on leave, or discharged. If multiple siblings served from one family, search all names, including the parents. Newspapers often include photographs of soldiers too. If you don’t find your soldier in a name search, don’t despair, there are some other tricks!
  2. Search for specific battles. If you know your soldier fought in a specific battle, use that battle as your search keyword. You might not find your soldier specifically mentioned, but others provided first-hand accounts. These details can help you construct a story.
  3. Search by battalion, division, company, name of a Navy ship, etc. Did your soldier’s company/battalion have a famous nickname? Or do you know the name of the commanding officer? These searches can also provide valuable results. Newspapers tracked the movements of our soldiers and reported daily on skirmishes and battles. You can create a timeline of your soldier’s movements by tracking those stories.
  4. Search by date. If you have records showing your soldier was wounded or killed on a specific date, search for battles fought at that same time and place.
  5. Search by location. Do you know, for example, that your soldier was part of the Japanese occupation force? Use that in your search term. When we searched that term and filtered the dates from 1944-1947, it returned more than 300,000 search results. Do you have a Navy veteran that served in the Solomon Islands? You could search “Asiatic-Pacific Theater”. The more details you have, the more you can narrow your search.
  6. Personal interviews. Over the years, many of our WWII veterans have given lengthy interviews in newspapers. These first-hand narratives provide amazing insight into what our soldiers experienced. Expand your search beyond the war years, some of these soldiers didn’t share their story for decades.
  7. Search the names of fellow soldiers. Do you have records, photographs, or journals that mention the names of soldiers that served with your ancestor? Research those soldier’s names for more detail.
  8. Search post-war clubs and associations. Many soldiers joined clubs, fraternal organizations, and associations after returning from their service. For example, the American Legion changed its charter after WWII to allow returning soldiers to join its ranks.
  9. Search obituaries. Often the families of deceased soldiers shared details and stories of their military service in their obituaries, even decades later. Even if you are not related to this person, their obituary may shed light on your own ancestor’s service.

Preserving the story of our WWII veterans is a great way to honor their service! Please share your finds in the comments below. Get started searching your WWII veteran on Newspapers.com today!

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April 29, 1903: The Frank Slide

In the pre-dawn hours of April 29, 1903, a huge landslide broke loose from Turtle Mountain in Alberta, Canada. Residents in the town of Frank heard rumbling and wondered if there had been an explosion in a nearby coal mine. Within minutes, approximately 90 million tons of limestone crashed down, entombing more than 90 of the town’s residents under 150 feet of boulders.

Calgary Herald – April 6, 1906

Turtle Mountain is located in a picturesque section of Crowsnest Pass in southwest Alberta. In the 1880s, settlers discovered a seam of coal in the area. In 1901, American entrepreneurs Henry Frank and Sam Gebo opened a coal mine, and shortly after the town of Frank became the first incorporated village in the Pass. By 1903, 1000 people lived in Frank and a dozen nearby coal mines were operating.

Coal miners honeycombed tunnels through Turtle Mountain without realizing that they were further weakening the already unstable geological structure of the mountain. Layers of sedimentary rock had been tilted to almost vertical over time and erosion in the lower part of the mountain created a dangerous overhang of rock on top. For millennia, water seeped into cracks in the rock. Repeated freeze-thaw cycles caused the cracks to widen, creating more instability.

When the residents of Frank went to bed the night of April 28, 1903, they had no idea of the power of nature about to be unleashed in their town. At 4:10 a.m. on the morning of April 29th, a loud rumbling awakened them. The sound was reportedly heard by residents living nearly 100 miles away. An avalanche of rock broke free from the mountain and careened down, traveling over 180 miles per hour. It reached the valley floor in just 100 seconds

The Province, Vancouver, British Columbia – December 14, 1946

George Hie was a miner in Frank and recalled hearing a cracking noise coming from the mine about two weeks before the slide. “The pressure was so great at this place that a six-inch timber was broken,” he said. The morning the Frank Slide broke loose, Hie was sleeping in his bunk. “I was thrown violently out by pressure. I ran outside and was startled to see a gigantic mountain passing down only twenty-five feet away from me.” After the dust settled, Hie saw the corner of a house protruding from the rocks. He heard a cry for help and frantically helped dig out a trapped woman. Her two children died. Later, Hie found the bodies of two boys about 200 feet from their cabin. “They were clad in pajamas. Their bodies never had a mark on them.” Hie wondered if they had time to run or if the force of the blast carried them there. 

The Vancouver Sun – August 12, 1944

Three young girls were among the survivors, dug out alive hours after the slide. Sadly, their parents and brothers perished in the disaster. The three sisters were adopted by separate families and reunited for the first time in 41 years in 1944. The bodies of most of those killed remain buried under tons of rock in Frank, and the scar from the rockslide serves as a visible reminder of the tragedy that occurred 117 years ago this month.

If you would like to learn more about the Frank Slide, search Newspapers.com today!

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March 14, 1942: First American Treated with Penicillin

In March 1942, 33-year-old Anne Miller lay near death in a Connecticut hospital, her body ravaged with a burning fever for weeks. She had developed septicemia, or blood poisoning, following a miscarriage. Doctors tried every known treatment, and in a last-ditch effort to save her life, decided to gamble on a new experimental drug called penicillin. The government released nearly half of its entire supply – roughly a tablespoon. Within a day, Anne’s temperature returned to normal and she was on the road to recovery. Anne became the first American treated with penicillin. This newly developed miracle drug would ultimately save the lives of millions, including countless soldiers during WWII.

In 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming was experimenting with the flu virus in a London hospital laboratory when he discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin by accident. A staphylococcus culture plate inadvertently became contaminated with mold, and Fleming noticed the mold prevented the growth of staphylococci.

Fleming published his findings and Oxford researchers Howard Flory and Ernest Chain continued the research. After intense German bombings in London in 1940 made research difficult, Flory and biochemist Norman Heatley collaborated with the US government and the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research and began work in a research lab in Peoria, Illinois. The first human trials involving penicillin started in London in 1941, but the US government didn’t approve a trial until Anne Miller’s doctor successfully lobbied for the drug in 1942. It was a huge success. After it became clear that penicillin could dramatically reduce infection, the US government ramped up production rapidly.

The use of penicillin to treat soldier’s wounds and amputations revolutionized combat medicine during WWII. Doctors reported that wounded soldiers who were weak and delirious began to improve almost immediately after being injected with penicillin. One soldier being treated at Bushnell’s Veteran Hospital in Utah lay sick in a hospital bed for 14 months. His festering wounds contained bits of uniform, missile fragments, and shattered bone. Doctors did not dare operate on the gangrenous wound. Once the soldier began receiving penicillin injections, he began to improve almost immediately. This soldier who suffered terribly for 14 months recovered in just 27 days.

Anne Miller may have been the first patient treated with penicillin in the US, but to date, penicillin is credited with saving the lives of millions and ushering in the age of antibiotics. These advances had a huge impact on medical care for wounded WWII soldiers, turning penicillin into the war’s miracle drug. Anne Miller went on to live another 57 years after that first dose of penicillin. She died in 1999 at the age of 90. To read more about the development of penicillin and its use during WWII, search Newspapers.com today!

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Madam C.J. Walker: America’s First African-American Female Millionaire

In the early 1900s, Sarah Breedlove Walker’s dreams came true – literally. She had a dream where a man appeared to her and told her what ingredients to use to make a line of hair products for African-Americans. Her hair products were wildly successful, and Walker became the first African-American woman self-made millionaire and philanthropist.

Born in 1867 on a cotton plantation near Delta, Louisiana, Sarah was the daughter of freed slaves and orphaned at just 7-years-old. She married at age 14 and found herself widowed and a single mother by the time she was 22.

Madame C.J. Walker in her Model T

Struggling to survive, Sarah and her daughter moved to St. Louis where she worked as a laundress. Sarah earned just enough to send her daughter to school and took evening classes whenever possible. She married a second time, but the marriage ended in divorce.

About that time, Walker developed a scalp condition that led to hair loss. She tried a variety of remedies to cure the condition without success. Sarah got a job selling hair products and moved to Denver, Colorado where she met Charles J. Walker, who would become her third husband. He worked in advertising and later helped promote her business.

One night, Sarah had a dream where a man appeared to her and told her what products to use to create a new hair product. When she woke up, she mixed up the concoction and worked it into her scalp. After a few weeks, she noticed her hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out. The scalp problems that had plagued her cleared up. Sarah formed her own company in 1903, calling it “Madam C. J. Walker”.

The Madam C. J. Walker Company revolutionized hair care for African-American women. The company developed a system of hair care known as the Walker System and sold products directly to African-American customers. Sarah also hired a team of saleswomen, known as Walker Agents who used that direct sales model and worked door-to-door in their own black communities across the country. The company opened a beauty school in Pittsburgh followed by additional schools in other locations.

As the company grew, so did Sarah’s net worth. One year before women had the right to vote in America, Sarah became the country’s first female African-American self-made millionaire. She bought luxury homes including one called Villa Lewaro at Irvington-on-the-Hudson in New York. It was designed by black architect Vertner Taney, the first African-American registered architect in that state. It was located in an exclusive neighborhood. She also gave generously to multiple organizations including the NAACP, the black YMCA and funded scholarships at the Tuskegee Institute. In addition, she championed female employees and encouraged her employees to donate to local charities in their communities.

About a year after moving into Villa Lewaro, Sarah became sick while traveling. She died in 1919 of kidney failure caused by hypertension. The life of Madam C. J. Walker will be celebrated in an upcoming series set to premiere on Netflix this March. If you would like to learn more about Sarah Breedlove Walker, her amazing life and her company, Madam C. J. Walker, search Newspapers.com today!

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January 30, 1945: The Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff

On January 30, 1945, the greatest maritime disaster in history occurred when the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, a German luxury liner turned military transport ship sank in the Baltic Sea after being torpedoed by a Russian submarine. The sinking ship resulted in the loss of an estimated 9,300 victims, including 5,000 children. Those on board included 9,000 civilians fleeing an advancing Red Army, German soldiers, and the crew. The fatalities were six times that of the Titanic.

The Ottawa Journal February 19, 1945

Three months earlier, in October 1944, the Russian Army broke through German defense lines in East Prussia, inflicting atrocities on German civilians. Fearing the approaching army, thousands began to flee west. The temperatures were freezing, and many suffered frostbite, exposure, and starvation. In January 1945, the refugees converged on the docks at Gotenhafen (today Gdynia, Poland) and tried desperately to obtain passage on transport ships appropriated by German officials. The Gustloff, which launched in 1937 as a luxury liner, was now transporting soldiers to western Germany but allowed refugees to board as well. The ship was built to accommodate roughly 1,900 people but quickly filled beyond capacity as some 10,000 boarded the ship. Shortly after noon, the ship set sail.

Just beyond the Gulf of Danzig, the Russian submarine S-13 under the command of Capt. Alexander Marinesko patrolled the waters. On the evening of January 30th, the sub surfaced and spotted the Gustloff sailing in deep waters to avoid the heavily mined area closer to the coast. Suspecting the ship held German combatants, Marinesko decided to attack. He maneuvered S-13 alongside the ship until shortly after 9:00 p.m., when he ordered the launching of three torpedoes. All three impacted the ship’s port side.  

Honolulu Star-Bulletin March 23, 1974

The torpedoes exploded and the initial impact likely killed hundreds. Startled passengers clambered to get up on deck and in the panic, some were trampled, while others drowned as water flooded in. As the Gustloff began to list, panicked passengers found the davits holding the lifeboats in place were coated with ice and inoperable. In the chaos, young mother Irmgard Harnecker clung to her baby daughter Ingrid. Suddenly, an icy wave swept over the deck ripping the baby from her arms. Harnecker also lost her sister in the tragedy. Another young mother had given birth to a baby boy less than 24-hours earlier in the ship’s hospital. She named him Egbert Worner. When the torpedoes hit the ship, she ran up on deck holding the newborn but struggled to descend a rope ladder to a rescue vessel. A nearby soldier called out, “give it to me, you’ll get it back right away.” She handed baby Egbert to the soldier, but the lifeboat was lowered before he handed the child back. She watched the ship sink and feared her child was dead. “I was quaking,” she said. When she boarded a rescue vessel several hours later, someone placed a bundle in her arms. Her baby had been saved!

Passengers recall the horrific screams as the Gustloff sunk below the surface within an hour of the torpedoes’ impact. Those in the sea quickly succumbed to the icy water. Rescue boats arrived and picked up as many as 900 survivors, but the surface of the sea was littered with the dead. The risk of enemy submarine attacks remained and rescue efforts abandoned after one navy barge was nearly struck by two more torpedoes, missing its hull by mere inches.  

The magnitude of the incident became somewhat lost in the headlines of war. World War II was months away from ending and Russia suppressed news of the disaster for another 50 years. The fate of the ship was not made public in Germany during the war and publishing tales of Germany’s hardship was prohibited in East Germany after the war. As we approach the 75th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, you can search for more news related to this maritime disaster on Newspapers.com today.

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A Nostalgic Look Back at the Sears Christmas Wish Book

For many children, the arrival of the Sears Christmas Wish Book heralded the official beginning of the holiday season. The catalogs were carefully studied, and toys longingly admired until the pages were dog-eared and tattered. The first Sears Christmas Book debuted in 1933 offering items like the “Miss Pigtails” doll, live singing canaries, fruitcake, and a Mickey Mouse watch.

Letter to Santa – 1933

Over the years, the pages of the Sears Wish Book were filled with toys and gifts that offered a historical snapshot of what was happening in middle-class America at the time.

In 1937, Sears advertised tractor sets and Shirley Temple dolls. Pedal cars were all the rage and sold for about $10. Just five years later, in 1942, the world was at war. The Sears Christmas Book urged Americans to send gifts to members of the Armed Forces. The Christmas Book also allowed families to do their Christmas shopping from home, filling a need when wartime rations on gasoline and tires prevented shopping excursions into town.

Roy Rogers Inspired Gifts 1949

In 1949, Western TV shows and movies exploded in popularity. Roy Rogers was known as the “King of the Cowboys” and that year, the Christmas Book offered a variety of Roy Rogers inspired Christmas gifts and even Roy Rogers school supplies

America entered the Space Race in the 1960s. Children everywhere dreamed of becoming an astronaut and in 1968 the Major Matt Mason astronaut action figure was a popular toy. That’s also the year that Sears embraced the nickname of its Christmas catalog and officially renamed it the Wish Book. Other popular toys during the 1968 holiday season included Hot Wheels cars and G.I. Joe.

In 1975 as Americans prepared to celebrate the Bicentennial, nostalgic American themed toys such as toy fife and drum sets, Colonial dolls and models of the USS Constitution were popular. In contrast, that was the same year that Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft. In a glimpse of the high-tech explosion soon to come, the Wish Book advertised the new electronic game Pong. It was described as a “fast-paced electronic ‘table tennis’ game you play on your own TV.”

Atari Pong Ad – 1975

Transformers exploded on the scene in 1984. The popular transforming robot toys proved wildly successful for kids. It was like getting two toys for the price of one. In 1984, a first-generation Optimus Prime sold for $22.99 in the Wish Book. That same toy is now highly collectible and according to some reports can sell for as much as $12,000

In 1993, as consumer shopping habits changed, Sears announced that it was dropping the Wish Book and getting out of the catalog business. Does the Wish Book bring back a flood of memories from your childhood? If you want to take a trip down memory lane, enjoy free access* to the Historic Catalogs of Sears, Roebuck and Co. on Ancestry through January 2, 2020; and search historic ads and news stories related to the Wish Book on Newspapers.com today!

*You can explore this amazing collection for free now through 11:59 pm MT on 02 Jan 2020.

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Telephone Technology: Push Buttons and Party Lines

In the Spring of 1963, President John F. Kennedy sat down at his desk in the oval office. With cameras clicking, he picked up the handset of a telephone and pressed the numbers “1964”. The connection activated a countdown clock for the New York World’s Fair, set to open the following year. The photo opportunity was noteworthy, however, because Kennedy’s call showcased an amazing new technology – the push-button dial telephone

Later that year, on November 18, 1963, Bell Telephone officially rolled out push-button telephones to the public. A push-button interface meant customers no longer had to wind a rotary dial and wait for it to spin back when dialing each number. This technological achievement was the latest in a long line of telephone innovation that dated back to when Alexander Graham Bell received the first patent for a telephone in 1876.

Back then, Alexander Graham Bell and his colleague Thomas Watson shocked the world when they carried on a 30-minute telephone conversation from two miles apart. Their newly invented telephones converted sound into electric pulses that traveled along a wire connecting the phones.

The popularity of the telephone quickly grew and soon everybody wanted one. However, it wasn’t feasible to stretch a wire between every set of telephones, so inventors developed a telephone exchange. Each telephone connected to the exchange by wire. To place a call, a caller would pick up the phone and turn a crank. This illuminated a light at the switchboard at the central station and an operator would plug a wire into your jack and ask who you needed to reach. She then connected a wire to the appropriate customer and sent an electrical current down the line to alert them with a bell. 

Operators became a familiar voice to every telephone user. They generally worked with a relatively small group of customers and often knew each one. In 1903, one mother discovered a new use for her telephone when she opened the receiver and asked the operator to ring her at the neighbor’s house when her sleeping baby woke up! On any given day, an operator might soothe a frightened child, or even save a life. Rose Coppinger was an operator in Webber Falls, Oklahoma in 1914. When a fire raged through town, she refused to leave her post at the telephone exchange and warned neighbors of the approaching flames.

By 1918, ten million telephones were in use in the US. Rotary dials were the norm and party lines were common. A party line was a telephone line shared by more than one user and came at a reduced cost. It was not uncommon to pick up a telephone receiver and hear a conversation already occurring. The town’s news often traveled this way despite party line etiquette which dictated never listening in on another’s conversation. A party line presented challenges during emergencies, though, and tragedies occurred if users failed to yield the telephone during a crisis. The last operating party line in Woodbury, Connecticut shut down in 1991.

Technology has come a long way since party lines and push-button phones. Today, an estimated 5.3 billion people worldwide communicate daily using mobile devices. To learn more about the changing technology in telephone communication, search our archives today on Newspapers.com!

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The Texas Revolution

On October 2, 1835, ongoing clashes between American settlers in Texas and the Mexican government escalated into an open rebellion called the Texas Revolution, or the War of Texas Independence. Texas colonists led by Sam Houston fought against Mexican forces led by Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna of Mexico. The war resulted in Texas declaring independence from Mexico and the founding of the Republic of Texas which was later annexed by the United States.

The Richmond Enquirer October 23, 1835

In 1820, American Moses Austin asked the Spanish government in Mexico for permission to settle on a tract of land in Texas. Austin intended to establish a colony for 300 families to settle near the Brazos River. He died shortly after, and his son Stephen F. Austin took over the project. In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain and the Mexican government allowed American Colonists to occupy the land in its northern reaches that was primarily occupied by Native American tribes. They also suspended tariffs and taxes for the settlers under the Colonization Law of 1823.

In the following years, settlers poured into Texas until Americans outnumbered the Mexicans. Fearing the United States may want to annex Texas, the Mexican government sought to stem the tide of US citizens in Texas in 1830 by prohibiting any further immigration of US citizens. They also reinstated tariffs on the settlers already living there.

The Arkansas Gazette May 4, 1830

Unhappy with the new rules, in June 1832, American settlers clashed with Mexican military forces near modern-day Houston and the eastern bank of the Brazos River in the Battle of Velasco. They later organized conventions in 1832 and 1833 and asked the Mexican government to repeal the tariffs and immigration laws. During the conventions, Sam Houston was named commander-in-chief over Texan forces and David Burnet as provisional president. Americans were moving closer to a full-scale rebellion. Meanwhile, Gen. Santa Anna used heavy-handed tactics to suppress dissent and directed Mexican soldiers to move into Texas and retake a cannon that settlers had used in defense against Native Americans. When Mexican soldiers arrived, a skirmish ensued resulting in the first battle of the revolution, the Battle of Gonzales on October 2, 1835.

Additional battles were fought including the Battle of the Alamo, where Gen. Santa Anna’s forces overpowered a group of volunteer Texas soldiers occupying a mission near present-day San Antonio killing close to 200; and the Goliad Massacre, where more than 400 captured soldiers were executed by Santa Anna’s troops. The cruelty of the killings acted as a rallying cry for Texas troops who shouted, “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember Goliad!” during the final battle of the revolution, the Battle of San Jacinto, fought on April 21, 1836. The battle lasted just 18 minutes. Texas soldiers captured Gen. Santa Anna as he tried to flee, and his army retreated south. Held prisoner, Santa Anna was forced to sign the Treaty of Velasco recognizing Texas as an independent republic. In 1845, the United States annexed Texas and it became the 28th state. If you would like to learn more about the Texas Revolution, search Newspapers.com today.

To see more headlines from Texas history, see our Newspapers.com topic page.

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The Development of the Polio Vaccine

In 1894, doctors in Vermont noticed a strange illness spreading throughout the state. Symptoms included fever, sore throat, aches, and difficulty breathing. In some instances, the disease caused paralysis or even death. The virus attacked the nervous system and seemed to hit small children especially hard. The outbreak resulted in 18 deaths and 132 cases of permanent paralysis in Vermont that year. After careful study, doctors finally identified the culprit as poliomyelitis – or polio. Polio ravaged the country and terrified Americans for more than fifty years until a 1955 vaccine promised an 80-90% success rate in preventing the disease. However, within two weeks of being inoculated with the new vaccine, six children developed paralysis and the vaccine was found defective. This incident, known as the Cutter incident, led to changes including increased government oversight in the manufacture and regulation of vaccines.

The 1894 polio outbreak shined a spotlight on polio, which was often referred to as infantile paralysis, and sparked scientists to search for a cure. In 1916, a large polio epidemic hit New York City infecting more than 9,000, resulting in more than 2,000 deaths. Perhaps the most public figure diagnosed with polio was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He contracted the disease in 1921 at the time when nearly 15,000 new cases were diagnosed each year.

Advances in polio treatment led scientists to develop the iron lung in 1928. Some patients lost the ability to breathe on their own when polio paralyzed their chest muscles. The iron lung acted as a respirator using air pressure to expand and contract a patient’s diaphragm, essentially breathing for them at the rate of 16 times a minute. In 2008, America’s longest-living survivor in an iron lung passed away after a power outage shut down her iron lung and a backup generator failed.

In the 1930s, early efforts to create a polio vaccine were unsuccessful. By the 1950s, Dr. Jonas Salk experienced a breakthrough and successfully developed a vaccine using an inactivated strain of the poliovirus (IPV). His vaccine was based on three virulent strains of the virus that were inactivated using a formaldehyde solution. Salk was so confident in his work that in 1953, he vaccinated his own family. A larger trial began in 1954 that provided vaccinations for more than 1 million children, and in April 1955, authorities announced the trial was a success and mass vaccinations could begin. That meant the vaccine needed large scale production and the pharmaceutical industry stepped up to help.

The cheers and relief experienced by Americans quickly turned to shock when within two weeks of receiving the vaccine, six children became paralyzed. Officials discovered that all six children had been inoculated using a vaccine created by Cutter Laboratories in California. The Cutter vaccine was recalled but not before 380,000 of the company’s doses had been administered. It was discovered that the formaldehyde solution Cutter Laboratories used was defective and did not inactivate the virus. Instead, the vaccines administered contained the live poliovirus. The defective vaccine led to 220,000 new infections and caused 164 to become severely paralyzed. Ten children died. The Cutter incident led to a dramatic change in government oversight of vaccine production and also changed medical liability lawsuits when Cutter was found guilty and liable without fault during the trial. Despite the tragic Cutter incident, Salk’s vaccine was successful in the fight against polio. However, the Salk vaccine was replaced in the 1960s when Albert Sabin introduced an oral polio vaccine (OPV) that relied on a weakened poliovirus and proved highly effective.

Do you have family members that suffered from polio? Learn more about polio and the development of a polio vaccine on Newspapers.com.

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The Great Solar Storm of 1859

On September 2, 1859, a massive solar storm composed of subatomic charged particles slammed into the earth’s protective magnetosphere. It ignited countless fires and caused sparks to spew from telegraph machines, shocking their operators. It also created a dramatic show of aurora borealis, or northern lights, as far south as the Caribbean. Solar storms occur when enormous bubbles of superheated plasma are periodically ejected from the sun. Scientists believe that if a similar solar storm were to happen today, it would cause catastrophic damage by crippling power grids, satellites, GPS, and communications systems. Such an event could leave North American without power for months or years and could carry an economic impact as high as $2 trillion.

While conducting observations from his private observatory outside of London on the morning of September 1, 1859, British amateur astronomer Richard Carrington noticed patches of intense white light erupt from the sun. The eruptions lasted about five minutes before dissipating. Little did Carrington know the flare he observed sent solar wind shock waves carrying supercharged plasma racing towards the earth. Hours later, those particles slammed into the earth’s magnetic shield, creating auroral flashes and clouds in vivid colors of red, violet, pink, and green. This single solar storm carried the energy equivalent of 10 billion atomic bombs and is known as the Carrington Event.

The Cahaba Gazette, Alabama: Sept. 9, 1859

The colorful auroras of the Carrington Event were so bright that even in the middle of the night, birds began to chirp and California Gold Rush miners woke up to prepare breakfast. People in Missouri could read without any light source after midnight, and some assumed a great fire was burning on the horizon. Telegraph lines across the country experienced “one of the most startling as well as singular electrical phenomena,” when “a superabundance of electricity in the air” allowed telegraph machines to work without the aid of batteries. The Washington Star reported, “A series of currents of electricity, entirely independent of batteries, seem to have taken possession of the wires, and to such an extent that the National Telegraph was actually enabled to send messages from New York to Pittsburg, (Penn.) correctly.”

Our sun operates on solar cycles that last an average of 11 years. The Carrington Event occurred during Solar Cycle 10, which lasted from December 1855 until March 1867. Solar Cycle 24 began in December 2008 and is just wrapping up. The current forecast predicts Solar Cycle 25 will be relatively weak.

Will a future solar cycle bring a repeat of the Carrington Event? Scientists say it’s not only possible but inevitable. According to a 2008 report from the National Academy of Sciences, a similar-sized solar storm would include, “disruption of the transportation, communication, banking and finance systems, and government services; the breakdown of distribution of potable water owing to pump failure, and the loss of perishable foods and medications because of the lack of refrigeration.” Researchers studying evidence of historic solar storms say a large solar storm “would be a threat to modern society.”

To read more personal accounts of the Carrington Event in 1859, and to learn more about solar storms, search Newspapers.com today.

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