January 29, 2010
Where were you when the lights went out? At home during a thunderstorm, preparing for an air attack during World War II? In the northeastern US during the great blackout of 1965? In New York City during a similar but more frightening blackout in 1977? In California when rolling blackouts hit in 2000? In Canada or the northeastern US in 2003, when a cascading power failure left 50 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 network city, outcome of political and economic decisions, sudden encounters with sublimity, and memories enshrined in photographs. Our electricity 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; military blackouts before and during World War II (“The silence was the big surprise of the blackout, the darkness discounted,” wrote Harold Ross in The New Yorker in 1942); New York City’s contrasting 1965 and 1977 blackout experiences (the first characterized by cooperation, the second by looting and disorder); the growth in consumer demand that the two rolling blackouts made worse by energy traders’ market manipulations; blackouts caused by terrorist attacks and sabotage; and, finally, the “greenout” (exemplified by the new tradition of “Earth Hour”), a voluntary reduction organized by environmental organizations.
Blackouts, writes Nye, our breaks in the flow of social time to 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 the electrical wires and signals.
David E. Nye is Professor of American History at the University of Southern Denmark. The winner of the 2005 Leonardo da Vinci Medal of the Society for the History of Technology, is the author of Image Worlds: Corporate Identities at General Electric, 1890-1930 (1985), Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940 (1990), American Technological Sublime (1994), Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energy (1997), America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings (2003), and Technology Matters: Questions to Live With (2006), all published by the MIT Press.