“Don’t know what you got till it’s gone” (Cinderella, 1988) is the axiom David E. Nye employs in When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America. By tracking the frequency and changing nature of “blackouts”—even the term, he shows, evolved, replacing less dramatic descriptions like “outage” as the implications of electrical shut-downs grew more serious—Nye shows how dependent Americans became on plentiful, cheap, and reliable electricity.
In his latest book, Nye takes a fresh view of what he first covered in his important history, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880–1940 (1990), expanding the vision to take in energy issues of the twenty-first century. “Each blackout,” he postulates, “provides a snapshot of the electrical system and of social relationships” (p. 3).
Nye’s first snapshot is not of the routine, small-scale outages common to electrical production in the early years (and still with us now); it is of the planned blackouts western governments experimented with in the run-up to and then applied during World War II. These exercises turned out to be relatively sloppy, perhaps unnecessary, and not that effective, especially when combatants eventually turned to indiscriminate carpet bombing. In recounting the wartime history of electrification, Nye dwells on its growing symbolic and cultural meaning: turning the lights back on represented a return to peace and normal life.
The post-war boom vastly expanded the number of people who used electricity and the number of ways they used it. Between 1940 and 2001, average household consumption of electricity increased 13-fold (p. 144). Americans learned how dependent they had become most starkly when, during afternoon rush hour of November 9, 1965, the grid went down across much of northeast America, parts of Canada, and, importantly, New York City. The blackout lasted many hours, into the next morning in some areas. It exposed what the engineers suspected but the public seemed blissfully ignorant of: Not only did so much of American life—even a half-century ago—presume ready electricity, the system that provided that electricity was dangerously fragile.
Nye covers in detail two more major blackouts that included New York City, those of July, 1977 and August, 2003. Dependence on the grid just kept growing over the years. Air conditioning, for example, became commonplace in homes and offices. And, so of course, did computing. Today’s economy runs on the internet and the internet runs on electricity. Accelerating demand overtook efforts to expand electrical resources and to make their use more efficient. Starting in the 1980s, Americans suffered through more and more “rolling [End Page 308] blackouts,” as power companies juggled customers to avoid system overloads. Here, Nye also reviews the ways deregulation, disinvestment, and deterioration have made providing electricity efficiently more difficult.
Nye brings his history into the present century by addressing the threat of terrorism. He concludes that terrorists would not be much interested and probably not very successful in attacking the grid. But an attack using some sort of “electromagnetic pulse” weapon would fry much of America’s wiring; that’s the real military danger.
As blackouts have become more problematic and more costly, we must, Nye argues, reverse the historical trend toward integrating the power systems. Decentralizing energy sources would limit the cascades of outages that brought on the great post-war blackouts. That policy would converge with another that Nye promotes: “greenouts.” By this term he means, of course, replacing much of the current power sources with “greener” energy sources and simply using less power—not only to save us from blackouts but also to save the planet.
When the Lights Went Out provides a great example of how new technologies begin as extras or luxuries—lighting for a boardwalk, for one reading lamp at home—but then become so integrated into how we live as to become vital necessities. We learn that lesson again whenever the lights—and the computers, traffic signals, televisions, ATM machines, elevators, artificial lungs, refrigerators, alarms...