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events / 1965
(Great Northeast Blackout)

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By 1965, electricity was an everyday part of American life. Post-World War II prosperity remade the American home into a palace of electric consumption. Electrical appliances had become commonplace, purchased partly in response to widespread promotional efforts by manufacturers and utilities, such as General Electric, whose "Live Better Electrically" campaign encouraged consumers to adopt a fully electrified existence. Household products like washers and dryers, televisions, coffee makers, dishwashers, and air conditioners established a new standard of living unparalleled in American history. Despite persisting inequalities in the distribution of the new postwar affluence, per capita consumption of electricity roughly doubled in each of the three decades following World War II.

American offices and factories had also been transformed by electricity. Elevators, lights, air conditioners, typewriters, adding machines, and even the budding computer industry all demanded electricity. Manufacturing facilities relied more and more on electricity to increase production. And by the 1960s, engineers and architects began sealing off building from the outdoors, constructing mechanical environments solely controlled by electric power. So it was that by the mid-1960s, the astonishing growth and plummeting price of electricity had reshaped the world in which millions of Americans lived, worked, and increasingly played.

As early as the 1950s, the effects of increased home, office and factory power usage compelled the power industry to develop strategies to meet the growing demand. In the Northeast, the power industry established a network or power "grid" to better control the distribution of electricity. Power stations in one utility's service area were interconnected by high-voltage transmission lines with other utilities' power stations generating electricity hundreds or even thousands of miles away. The idea behind this elaborate system was to enable power suppliers to balance generation and consumption of electricity across a wide geographic region, thereby improving service to consumers. The grid allowed utilities to efficiently provide enough electricity to during periods of maximum demand ("peak load") without wasting large amounts of reserve generating capacity simply to meet this peak for a few hours each day. Two major power grids-the Ontario-New York-New England pool (formally known as the Canada-United States Eastern Interconnection, or CANUSE area) and the Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Maryland pool (the PJM interconnection)-together made up the northeast power grid, which provided a flexible network of power suppliers that could quickly meet fluctuating demands within the many parts of North America's most densely populated region. While the grid, which remains intact today, has proven to be highly effective, the night of November 9, 1965 serves as a reminder of how thoroughly our electricity-dependent lifestyles are tightly interwoven with the complex workings of a massive but often overlooked technological system.

At 5:27 p.m., November 9, 1965, the entire Northeast area of the United States and large parts of Canada went dark. From Buffalo to the eastern border of New Hampshire and from New York City to Ontario, a massive power outage struck without warning. Trains were stuck between subway stops. People were trapped in elevators. Failed traffic signals stopped traffic dead. And, at the height of the Cold War, many thought Armageddon had arrived. One pilot flying over a darkened New York City stated, "I thought, 'another Pearl Harbor!'" By 5:40 p.m. that evening, 80,000 square miles of the Northeast United States and Ontario, Canada, were without power, leaving 30 million people in the dark.

New York City was particularly hit by this blackout, due to its reliance on electricity for nearly all aspects of city life. Office workers, ready for an evening at home with their families in the suburbs, were forced to find alternative lodging, some seeking shelter in their offices or on benches in Grand Central Station. Theaters closed for the night. The "Great White Way," Times Square, usually a glimmering crossroads of light, was covered in darkness. Thousands of travelers stranded in New York were forced to sleep in hotel lobbies, leading the Times to report that the "city's hotels looked like biovac areas." Approximately ten thousand commuters were stuck on subway cars, unable to escape the darkened tunnels. By midnight, the Transit Authority began sending food and coffee to those trapped underground.

Despite the confusion and disarray, New Yorkers spent the night in peace. There were no riots or widespread looting. Instead, New Yorkers helped each other. Some directed traffic. Others assisted the New York fire department as they rescued stranded subway passengers. In many cases, New Yorkers just shared extra candles and flashlights with neighbors, reveling in the opportunity to get to know the people who lived across the hall.

By 11 o'clock, the power was restored in 75 percent of Brooklyn, and by 2 a.m., the borough was fully equipped with electric power. By midnight, much if the Bronx and Queens were lit. And, at 6:58 a.m., almost fourteen hours after the massive blackout struck New York, power was restored citywide.

It took six days to locate the cause. Federal Power Commission investigators found a single faulty relay at the Sir Adam Beck Station no. 2 in Ontario, Canada, which caused a key transmission line to disconnect ("open"). This small failure triggered a sequence of escalating line overloads that quickly raced down the main trunk lines of the grid, separating major generation sources from load centers and weakening the entire system with each subsequent separation. As town after town went dark throughout the northeast, power plants in the New York City area automatically shut themselves off to prevent the surging grid from overloading their turbines. Within a quarter of an hour the entire CANUSE area was down. Investigators referred to the 1965 blackout as a "cascade effect"-much like a row of dominoes falling one after another.

The massive blackout of 1965 had many ramifications. It forced Americans to reconsider their dependence on electricity, and propelled electrical engineers to reexamine the power grid system. New Yorkers learned to keep caches of candles, batteries, flashlights and transistor radios close at hand. The electric utility industry also learned to plan for the unexpected. Regional coordinating councils such as the Northeast Reliability Council (NERC) and power pools such as the New York Power Pool (NYPP) were formed to develop industry standards for equipment testing and reserve generation capacity, as well as preventative measures governing interconnection and reliability, so that a similar failure would not happen again. For the first time, both producers and consumers of electricity felt vulnerable. They could no longer rely on electrical power without thinking about the night of November 9, 1965. Thus, the blackout holds a particular resonance for people who lived through the "The Night the Lights Went Out." One woman who spent her evening in a Lexington Avenue luncheonette said, "This is the type of day were you remember everything…everything you did, everything you ate. I'll remember it all."

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jts{27 June 2000}