When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America (MIT Press)
David E. Nye
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Where were you when the lights went out? At home during a thunderstorm? During the Great Northeastern Blackout of 1965? In California when rolling blackouts hit in 2000? In 2003, when a cascading power failure left fifty million people without electricity? We often remember vividly our time in the dark. In When the Lights Went Out, David Nye views power outages in America from 1935 to the present not simply as technical failures but variously as military tactic, social disruption, crisis in the networked city, outcome of political and economic decisions, sudden encounter with sublimity, and memories enshrined in photographs. Our electrically lit-up life is so natural to us that when the lights go off, the darkness seems abnormal.
Nye looks at America's development of its electrical grid, which made large-scale power failures possible and a series of blackouts from military blackouts to the "greenout" (exemplified by the new tradition of "Earth Hour"), a voluntary reduction organized by environmental organizations.
Blackouts, writes Nye, are breaks in the flow of social time that reveal much about the trajectory of American history. Each time one occurs, Americans confront their essential condition -- not as isolated individuals, but as a community that increasingly binds itself together with electrical wires and signals.
or a hurricane was comprehensively destructive, with the potential to rip down every overhead transmission wire; by comparison, the effects of bombing were small-scale and random. Underground cables proved quite durable even when bombs fell near them. Surprisingly, overhead lines weren’t much more susceptible to damage.36 When generating stations themselves were directly hit, often they were not “put out of action completely or permanently as a result of enemy bombing.”37 In part, this was
out in New York Harbor the Statue 58 Chapter 2 of Liberty, for the ﬁrst time since early 1942, threw the light of its blazing torch into the bay.” In fact, the 20,000-watt lamp was twice as bright as the one used before the war. In Manhattan, an enormous crowd blocked Broadway, staring up at the advertising signs, and reveling in the city’s return to normality. One man put it this way: “Boy, New York looks like home again.”70 Wartime blackouts completed the normalization of the electric
that remained. Almost exactly an hour after the ﬁrst lightning strike, the entire city plunged into darkness. “The situation,” an analyst concluded in Science, “could still have been saved by alert, well-trained operating personnel. They could, for example, have shed some load or increased generation to restore equilibrium. But Con Ed’s control room succumbed Crisis 119 to confusion and panic.”37 The room itself was antiquated. The modern control center for the New York power pool, in Albany,
States, and that Texas is a separate unit. Courtesy of North American Electric Reliability Council. connections. (See ﬁgure 5.2.) Dialing and switching technologies made it easy for millions of telephone customers to tap directly into the national system. Electricity consumers were in a far different situation. They had no direct access to different utilities, and there was no comparable national grid. Anyone, using any phone, can dial a call to Kennebunkport, Houston, or Sacramento. But no
drill” that tested their readiness for an actual attack. Police and ﬁre departments went on high alert, and institutions found out whether their emergency generators or battery systems really worked. The results were mixed. The police turned out immediately, for example, but cell phones did not function, which upset almost everyone amid the general paralysis. Most people are content to be alone when the power is on but immediately seek others when it fails. They ask for information and