Suddenly, over 30 million people were plunged into darkness. It COULDN'T HAPPEN, said the experts. But it did! There is something terribly FRAGILE about our technological society — and something very UNTRUSTWORTHY. Where is YOUR security?
A LITTLE BOY picked up a stick, swung at a light pole — and was utterly astonished to see the lights go out all over his part of town. He ran home crying — telling his mother he didn't mean it. At 5:28 p.m., November 9th, the lights winked out over nine states and three Canadian provinces, plunging over 30 million startled people into helpless immobility and darkness. It couldn't happen, claimed the experts. But it did. And, say the experts, it can HAPPEN AGAIN. If you were not one who was suddenly plunged into the dark, left without communications or transportation, or found yourself suddenly and hopelessly stranded miles from your home — perhaps the big blackout doesn't seem to be truly important to you. But to those 30 million who will be asking each other, "Where were YOU when the lights went out?" the big blackout truly was a shaking experience — and an experience which has brought new dimensions in thinking to millions of those same people.
Our Technological World
In a recent series of programs on The WORLD TOMORROW, I was describing the complex maze of jumbled wires, pipes, lines, conduits, roadways, gas lines, sewage lines, drainage ditches, switches and plugs that our modern Mecca's of steel and concrete have become. I cited the growing concern of sociologists for the conditions resulting from our terribly overcrowded cities, the complexities of city life, the frustrations and tensions of modern city living. I laid special emphasis on how much so many of us take for granted the many services in our modern electronic world — how utterly dependent we are upon the modern inventions of man, and how little prepared we are for a sudden interruption in those services. Almost on the heels of some of those messages came the big blackout! As if to underline our utter dependence upon machines — those machines suddenly stopped. Subway trains stopped, elevators went dead in their shafts, their lights turning yellow, and slowly winking out. Dentists' drills stopped in the middle of molars, iron lungs ceased to force air into patients, while street lights, office lights, mix-masters, toasters, radios, electric clocks, television sets, electric typewriters, stoves, refrigerators, deep freezers, and traffic control lights stopped functioning. An excited reporter rushed through the milling crowds to his darkened office to knock out his story — only to suddenly recall that his typewriter was electric. Had he been using a manual typewriter, his story could not have been published that day, anyhow, since the mammoth presses of the big newspapers had ceased to run. Everywhere from Secretary General of the United Nations, U. Thant, marooned in his darkened office high in the U.N. building, to a housewife in the most meager surroundings in the Bronx, people found themselves suddenly isolated. And what a shock it was. From the usual din of a busy weekday rush hour in the noisiest and perhaps most confusing of our modern cities came sudden death-like silence and blackness — as the unthinkable happened.
Just What DID Happen?
Everyone knew what was happening — and yet, they didn't know. In our complex world of instant communications, we run to our radios, or warm up our TV sets, or read our newspapers to find out what is happening. But TV stations were blacked out. Radio stations quit broadcasting momentarily, only to begin functioning again as emergency power generators supplied them with the power they needed. Trouble was, only those with transistor sets would be able to hear. Newspapers were helpless. In the candle-lit newsroom of the New York Times someone thought, "This story is ours if we can just get it out on the streets; nobody knows it yet, they are in it but they don't know it." Some thought it meant imminent Russian attack. Some thought the attack had already begun. Top priority calls ricocheted back and forth from governors, mayors, senators, military personnel; and even the President called the Mayor of New York. The Pentagon went instantly on the alert; the defense warning systems were checked to see if they were still functioning properly. Some cried out in terror, thinking the "world has come to an end." While others calmly surveyed their surroundings, and then acted in thoughtful and orderly fashion. What had actually caused such a mammoth "fuse" to blow out? No one knew. Actually, it was days and even weeks later before the trouble was said to have been accurately traced. Communist saboteurs were no doubt pleased, whatever their part may have been. Whatever the cause, millions were gripped by a deep and nameless fear. A power failure on such a mammoth scale had NEVER occurred before; not in all history. Further it just COULDN'T happen, in the minds of most — even including the engineers who had designed the modern new power grid serving the sprawling area from New York to Ottawa; from Detroit to Boston. And a sudden breakdown in the fabric of the complex, electronically oriented lives of so many millions was SHOCKING! Suddenly, millions found they were living in a society which controlled them, more than one which they controlled. They found that machines, so long taken for granted as their servants, had suddenly betrayed them. Few citizens, scrambling from offices and into elevators, or into taxis, buses and trains for the homeward dash, gave a moment's thought to the huge power "grid" serving nine states and three Canadian provinces. Walking beneath the blazing lights of Times Square, or down the brilliantly lit 5th avenue, no one thought for a moment about where all that power was originating. Millions were unaware there was any such thing as a power grid, allowing various utilities companies to borrow power from each other during peak hours. But that evening, the huge Consolidated Edison, with a normal generating capacity of 7.6 million kilowatts, was borrowing 350,000 kilowatts from upstate, in addition to the 4.5 million it was producing. This was normal — the same procedures that had been used week after week, month after month. Nothing had ever gone wrong before. Other components of the massive grid were doing the same. Borrowed electricity from hydroelectric sources upstate was cheaper than the power generated by giant diesel and gasoline engines — and so The Orange and Rockland Power Company and others were doing the same thing — receiving power from upstate while their own generating plants remained idle. Built into the massive power grid were elaborate safety devices. Should any one component begin a sudden and excessive drain of power, other components would be drained of power. These would, in turn, call for more power from the first component, beginning an eerie electrical chain reaction, or "cascade effect," which would cause automatic shutdown of components all over the grid. Each night, according to normal procedures, the big electrical companies begin preparing for the massive step-up in electrical demand. All over the sprawling area, millions of lights would glare; millions of TV tubes would be turned on; millions of thermostats would click millions of heating plants into action. Millions of housewives were warming up electrical stoves, turning on lights; and the big transit companies began running their usual extra number of trains during the height of the rush hour. But somehow, somewhere in the Niagara frontier of the grid, a large chunk of the power input system was somehow cut off. The mechanical "brains" operating the complex system rebelled instantly. Computers clicked and whirred safety cut-off switches flopped obediently open — and in millions of offices, in elevators, in subways, in homes, in hospitals and at airports, what had moments before been a jeweled, crystalline kaleidoscope of blazing light became death-like in darkness. An airline's pilot with 80 passengers aboard banked for his final approach to New York's John F. Kennedy airport. He glanced momentarily down at his instrument panel, looked up again. The airport had disappeared. So had the entire city of New York. Aghast, he pulled up, began a long climb-out. Airlines officials were startled there were no spectacular mid-air collisions, or aircraft plunging into tall buildings during the first moments of the blackout. Later, some said the crystal-clear weather prevented awesome disasters; and that, had the weather been cloudy or foggy, the outcome would have been far different. To write the stories of the millions of people who lived and experienced the Big Blackout would be impossible. To tell about those sleeping in Macy's, or in the waiting rooms of Grand Central, or about the fellows who had a joke-telling contest sitting on the floor of an elevator, hanging suspended more than 30 stories up; or about the actors, businessmen or teenagers who helped unsnarl the hopeless traffic jams — would be impossible. Or to tell about those who paid $30.00 for a ride from Manhattan to Brooklyn, or the monstrous prices paid for flashlights, lanterns, or candles; or about the myriad times a New Yorker turned, spoke to his neighbor, and asked some simple help — this would be impossible too.
When New Yorkers Became Just People
But the Big Blackout had an unusual effect. Instead of the wholesale looting (even though there were several reported cases) the New York City Police Department reported less than 100 arrests — low for any normally brightly-lit night. While the massive power failure lasted only a few hours at most in nearly all the huge Northeastern Power Grid, New York City was like a stricken monster. Somehow, the giant city remained hopelessly devoid of power, like a blackened, ghost-like hulk, for the entire night. And deep within the blackened canyons startled thousands looked up to see stars shining — for many' the first time they had ever been seen from a downtown New York City street. And for the first time, hundreds of thousands joined hands to help. Or they asked directions — or volunteered information they had just heard over their transistors. Suddenly reduced to two feet and their own personal ingenuity, many a New Yorker became a human being concerned for others again. Not all, mind you. Cabbies found time to pack their vehicles and charge each passenger double. Pickpockets must have had a delirious time among the 800,000 people stalled deep inside the blackened tubes. But out of it all came one poignant fact. Man lives in a society he does not understand — and is helpless to control. And out of the sudden blackness came another simple fact. Take away from man his machines — and he must depend on his fellow man. When modern man, with his neuroses, psychoses, night-sweats and worries; his headaches, smoker's throat, and martini eyes; with his carefree dependence on the maze of complexity of the modern city, is suddenly unplugged — he discovers that he is an individual human being — not just another zombie-like figure in the midst of a bizarre puppet show on a stage of millions. If the Big Blackout had any good effects, it was to make millions ponder — to impress upon them the utter fragility, the complete vulnerability of our modern society. What is there about darkness that frightens us all? Perhaps, deep down, we know.
Big Blackout of the Future
In London, England, during the terrible "black smog" of some years ago, citizens dropped to their knees in public streets, and prayed. In New York, during the Big Blackout, some thought it was an attack from outer space. Some thought Russia had dropped a hydrogen bomb somewhere. Many became hysterical. Inmates of the maximum security prison in Walpole, Massachusetts, began rioting insanely. Many died of heart attacks. Others stumbled blindly about in the dark, fell from high places, and died. What is it, this nameless fear of stillness, of darkness? Is it only then that each person will truly face, for a moment, the things hidden deep within him? Is it only then that many carefully subdued fears, and many hidden fears come tumbling to the surface to chill, to frighten, to shock and dismay? Our society has become our god. We trust in it. It is our idol, our standard of conduct, and our constant companion. It is our warmly-lit friend, our brightly blazing shield, and our dazzling neon and fluorescent champion. But kill it suddenly — take it away from us instantly, and we feel betrayed, somehow. Nothing works. Is the Big Blackout only a mild WARNING about what the great God in Heaven will soon DO to our peoples because of our personal and national sins? According to His prophecies, it is! God says, "... we wait for light, but behold obscurity; for brightness, but we walk in darkness. We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes..." (Isa. 59:9-10). And He promises, "... let all the inhabitants of the land tremble: for the DAY OF THE LORD comes, for it is nigh at hand. A day of DARKNESS and of GLOOMINESS, a day of clouds and of THICK DARKNESS, as the morning spread upon the mountains... the heavens shall tremble: the sun and the moon shall, be dark, and the stars shall withdraw their shining... for the Day of the Lord is great and very terrible, and WHO CAN STAND IT?" (Joel 2:1-11) If millions felt helpless when modern switches flipped off, how will the populations of this earth feel when God turns off the sun and the moon? Think about it. The really BIG blackout is much nearer than you think.