Life Magazine, Vol. 59 No. 2 (19 November 1965).


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Shortly before 5:15 in the evening, somewhere along the great triple-, conductor line that runs from Niagara Falls to New York City in three wrist- thick strands of iron-core aluminum, a surge of electrical energy went berserk.

Whether a switching device had failed to operate, whether somewhere in the vast Northeast power grid a giant generator had suddenly gone out of phase, whether a computer experienced a nervous breakdownno one would be able to determine exactly for some time afterward. But at that moment the electric pulse all up and down the great 345-kilovolt line surged, wobbled and flickered; and, like a pinched aorta, it caused an entire civilization to flicker with it.

The line, 400 miles long, is a masterpiece of engineering. It can carry, from the bus bar at Niagara Falls, a pressure of 345,000 volts of electricity and fork it, on instant call, to interconnecting wires that reach as far east as Maine, as far west as the Rockies. To engineers, the completion of this long 345-KV line in 1963 was the climax of a development that had left the 115- and 230-KVs of a decade earlier far behind. To them it was a forerunner of even larger, heavier lines, carrying a pressure of 750 KV, that could bring power from Labrador to New York. The technical problems posed by widespread use of these even larger high-tension lines have not yet been completely solved; but, until last week, the engineers were sure they had mastered all the complexities of using the 345-KV. Controlled by computers, safeguarded by a thousand automatic devices and cutoffs, it was a supreme achievement of American engineering. Almost overnight it became the main reserve feed of a score or more power companies, available to communities from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic.

The largest consumer of its energy was Consolidated Edison, the giant utility that serves New York City and suburban Westchester County. On autumn afternoons, beginning about 5 o'clock, Consolidated Edison must give New York City a peak of some 4.5 to 4.7 million kilowatts of electricity. The company has, of course, vast generating power of its own- some 7.6 million kilowattsbut this is power that comes from coal and oil and, especially from older plants, is expensive power. It is cheaper for Con Ed to buy power from the grid, out of the northern 345-KV. Thus, on Tuesday evening, Nov. 9, Consolidated Edison was running at about 4.5 million kilowatts and drawing 300,000 of these off the grid.

At the Energy Control Center at 65th and West End Avenue, a modernistic cube of brick and stainless steel, the feed from the grid, like so many modern miracles, had long since been taken for granted. On the third floor, from behind a glass wall, one can look directly into this nerve Center--a huge, green, soundproofed room, brilliantly lit by overhead panels, with a twilight-zone array of dials and winking lights on both sides and at its far end.

Con Ed is proud of the Energy Control Center-showplace for visitors from around the globe. Seven men run this center, which controls 12 automated generating plantseach with a three-man .phpf. In all, it requires less than 50 men to control the surge and direction of energy for the greatest metropolitan area on earth.

The heart of this control center is a beige-colored control desk with scores of lights and switches. To the right of this panel, instantaneously buying current from the grid for the city's need, sits the systems operator, the boss in emergency. The systems operator has many panels to watch and supervise; but one of the most important is a polygraph scroll that unwinds behind a green-framed televisionlike glass upon which an automatic marker traces a graph of the frequency pulse. Normally the pulse flickers constantly from its standard 60 cycles a second, the line on the paper scroll wavering gently as the power system of New York faintly reflects the meshed and balanced inputs and outputs everywhere along the giant grid. But the systems operator must be ready instantly to detect an oscillation that is more than normal-when something is wrong.

What precisely happened at the control in the 10 minutes between 5:15 and 5:25 p.m. on Nov. 9 has not been made at all clear. At some point the marker on the polygraph chart,

BIRTH IN DARKNESS. Brenda Delora Smith, seven pounds five ounces, was one of five babies who came into the world by candlelight in St. Francis Hospital.



LIFE, Vol. 59 No. 2 (November 19, 1965)
Copyright 1965 Time, Inc.
Photo: Mario Irizarry for El Diario
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jts{27 June 2000}