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When the Lights Went Out

When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America

David E. Nye
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    When the Lights Went Out
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-28085-3
    Subjects: Technology, Physics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Where were you when the lights went out? People ask this question because electrical blackouts are carved out of the normal flow of time. Anyone with electrical service has experienced at least one blackout, and major disruptions are etched in memory. But most people’s memories of lesser blackouts fade as soon as the lights come back on. Power failures tend to be relegated to technical analysis, and seldom have been studied as social or cultural history.

    I remember precisely where I was sitting in the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College when the Great Northeastern Blackout of 1965 began. I...

  5. 1 Grid
    (pp. 9-36)

    Few people in the United States or in Europe remember life before electric light and power, unless they are over 80 years old or grew up in a remote area. Most know only an artificial darkness that is fogged with electric light. Even in the late nineteenth century, people living away from the more polluted cities, such as London or Pittsburgh, had a good view of the night sky. Particularly on moonless nights, they knew profound darkness, and they could see thousands of stars. For several generations, however, the heavens seen from American and European cities and suburbs have been...

  6. 2 War
    (pp. 37-66)

    TheNew Yorkercover reproduced here as figure 2.1 suggests how thoroughly electricity had been woven into the city’s self-perception by the autumn of 1930. It depicts Manhattan at night seen from an airplane, revealed as a vivid grid of lighted streets and skyscrapers. The biplane’s black double wing on the left side establishes a pilot’s point of view. Famous skyscrapers rise out of the electrical grid. Lights provide an illuminated map and a scintillating frame for the city’s landmarks. Anyone familiar with New York can immediately locate the Brooklyn Bridge, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the slicing diagonal of...

  7. 3 Accident
    (pp. 67-104)

    By 1950, ubiquitous power and light were thought of as “natural” and yet “civilized.” Darkness was increasingly the realm of the unfamiliar, the strange, or the primitive. The naturalization of the electrified world led Americans to entertain further expectations. Once electricity was ubiquitous, instantaneous communication seemed a logical, perhaps even inevitable development in a line that ran from the telegraph and telephone through radio, television, the computer, and the comic-strip character Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio to the mobile telephone. It also became “normal” for objects to interact across enormous ranges of space, linked into a system that monitored movements,...

  8. 4 Crisis
    (pp. 105-136)

    In July 1977, not quite 12 years after the 1965 blackout, New York City again had a power failure, but the public response was far different. The earlier blackout had occurred on a mild November night, and it had been pleasant to be out in the streets. But during the 1977 blackout the temperature rose into the nineties, and parts of the city erupted in arson, looting, and riots. The sense of community had broken down, and the blackout hardly induced a liminal moment of unity. It revealed a fractured society. Not only had the national prosperity of 1965 evaporated,...

  9. 5 Rolling Blackouts
    (pp. 137-172)

    During the late 1980s, the public discovered that blackouts, which once seemed merely temporary inconveniences that would be eliminated once local grids were fully integrated, were an inescapable feature of having an electrical system. Because the public resisted building new transmission lines and power plants, it became harder for utilities to meet demand. In the Northeast, generating capacity grew only one-third as quickly as consumption. In May 1989, theNew York Timesreported that “the East Coast from Maryland to Maine” faced “an unusually high chance of brownouts and blackouts on hot days … because peak electric demand is rising...

  10. 6 Terror
    (pp. 173-204)

    In 1996 a terrorist cell prepared to attack the electrical system of London and southeast Britain.¹ The six men between the ages of 33 and 44 were hardly novices. Among them were several senior commanders of the Irish Republican Army. They had diagrams of six power substations in a ring around London. They had detonators and fuses, and by mid July they had constructed, but not armed, 37 bombs. They planned to attack during that summer, presumably on a hot day when the system was straining to meet high demand. They would destroy transformers and other equipment, setting off a...

  11. 7 Greenout?
    (pp. 205-232)

    Thomas Edison died in 1931, 52 years after he first displayed his incandescent electric lighting system. As a tribute, President Herbert Hoover suggested that across the United States the lights be turned out for a short time at 7 p.m. Hoover at first asked utility companies simply to impose a brief blackout, but they immediately warned against interrupting the flow of millions of kilowatts of electricity. Generating systems, then as now, could only gradually be brought on or off line, as demand rose or fell. The system had not been built to permit a sudden cancellation and an equally sudden...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 233-268)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 269-284)
  14. Index
    (pp. 285-292)