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

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Overview

Where were you when the lights went out? At home during a thunderstorm? Preparing for an air attack during World War II? During the Great Northeastern 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 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; 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 led to 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, 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Library Journal
Starred Review.

This captivating book zooms in with a telescopic intensity on America's blackouts, from the 1930s to the massive 2003 Northeast power failure that had many suspecting terrorism; anyone who reads this history will be unsurprised to find it was actually due to an over-burdened power grid. Beyond familiar individual frustrations, a blackout can cause major social and economic disturbance, signal political problems, and represent a massive failure of infrastructure; American history professor Nye contextualizes power failures in the U.S. as the result of long-term energy buildup and overuse. Nye examines how a "utopian" vision of electrical convenience at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair-television sets, movie equipment, a "clothes conditioning closet," the home computer-became law ("in building codes and in the 'war on poverty' electricity became a legal requirement akin to a natural right") and how, when that right is denied, utopia can give way to chaos. Nye captures the disastrous 1977 New York City blackout in its broad causes, effects, and implications, as well as its small, frightening details: "Guests of the Algonquin Hotel found that electronic locks had sealed their doors." Other chapters discuss rolling blackouts and activist-driven "greenouts." Fans of urban studies will find this text rich with insight and information. 26 illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262013741
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 3/31/2010
  • Pages: 292
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

David E. Nye is Professor of American Studies at the Danish Institute of Advanced
Study at the University of Southern Denmark. He is the author of Technology
Matters: Questions to Live With
and When the Lights Went Out: A
History of Blackouts in Americ
a, both published by the MIT Press, and other books.
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