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Life Magazine, Vol. 59 No. 2 (19 November 1965).

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UNREASONING COMPUTERS DEMANDED MORE POWER

HEART OF SYSTEM. In Consolidated Edison's Energy Control Center, which regulates the flow of power, engineers cluster before transmission diagrams.

 

345 KV CONTINUED
reflecting the drain from the upstate breakdown, should have indicated a divergence from the straight line that indicates 60 cycles a second to show a fall-off to 59.8 or 59.7 or even 59.6. Whether it did so in time is unknown. What is clear elsewhere, in retrospect, is the chain effect that followed the northern breakdown, as electricity systems linked to the Northeast grid and guided by unreasoning computers began to quarrel with one another for more electricity. Toronto bad failed at 5:15; Rochester at 5:18; Boston at 5:21--each system having sought additional energy from the outside and then, finding none, cut out of the grid and tripped off its generators lest they burn out under overload.

Within minutes all the remaining communities on the grid were drawing on Con Edison in New York--and Energy Control, instead of sucking 300,000 kilowatts into the city, was pumping 300,000 kilowatts out of the city. The abrupt reversal took place just as 600 New York City subway cars were rolling with their rush hour passengers, when elevators in skyscrapers were hustling tens of thousands to the streets, when housewives were lighting up homes and preparing dinner on electric stoves and warming up TV sets for the evening news. Straining under the blind and mindless additional claim for power from a wide belt of Atlantic states, the generators in each of Con Edison's 11 operating plants might, in a few minutes, burn up. For this, the emergency automatic safety devices had been built into the system. Now, electrically alarmed, they acted in microseconds to trip their generators. With a vast and simultaneous roar, steam vented from the boilers, and as the huge white plumes shot into the air the generators spun to a halt-saved from damage that might have taken months to repair.

In some four million homes in the New York metropolitan area, the lights dimmed from white to a fading gold, surged momentarily, paled to yellow, and then were out.

At 5:28, with the sunset still fading over New Jersey, the skyscrapers rose black and gaunt, apparently as lifeless as the hulks of Angkor Wat. Later, a perfect hunter's moon--silver, full and throbbing with light--would rise to illuminate the city through the night. But it was darkest as the blackout began--as it was dark all along the East Coast, from the Charles to the Hudson, from Buffalo to Toronto.

It could have been the time of panic so long predicted. New York is a city whose morale has long been riddled and whose reputation was shredded once again during a bitter mayoral campaign which had ended exactly one week earlier. New Yorkers expect the worst of each other--as does the nation. Thus, what happened during the next 12 hours was an event of political magnitude fully as important as the implications of the technological breakdown: New Yorkers behaved superbly. Eight million people became friends, neighbors, citizens. (The police department reported only 96 arrests during the blackout, which they considered astonishingly low.)

Breakdown is precise: it can be fixed in time, eventually described in detail. Response is diffuse, a subtle interweaving of a thousand individual reactions, individually given, so that the contagion either of panic or of goodwill suddenly, mysteriously, sweeps a mass of people. New York, within hours, became a city of goodwill and good sense.

Radio, perhaps more than any other agency, spread the spirit. Within 10 minutes all major stations were on the air with continuous dialogue, soothing, calming, enjoining citizens to stay put and sit it out. Radio reporters interviewed civilians who had taken it upon themselves to stand in mid-Manhattan's streets and untangle traffic snarled by the blackout of traffic signals. Within an hour, all over the city, hundreds--young men, college boys, workingmen--were following the example. Then, again, by curious kindred response came the reports of singing in the street--on Third Avenue the sound of Christmas carols was heard.

Yet more than goodwill stiffened the response of the city; it was as if the human mechanism was accepting the challenge of the monster technological mechanism which had betrayed the city: and the human mechanism worked perfectly.

Mayor Robert F. Wagner had been reached by telephone in his limousine en route to the home of a friend. From there he directed the summoning of the city's Emergency Control Board to City Hall, directed that first full attention be paid to auxiliary power for the city's hospitals and, next, to those stranded in the subways. When Wagner arrived at City Hall the fire department had already rolled up a generator to light his office.

In the subways, between 600,000 and 800,000 people were stranded. Full police and fire mobilization closed off all subway entrances within half an hour--and then, tediously, police, transit officials and firemen led Indian files of commuters one by one out of the catwalks and emergency exits to the streets. It was an evacuation equivalent to that of 20 army divisions, but by midnight 90% had been freed. So calmly did matters go that, at one stop, a tall blond girl actually complained that they ought to return her 15 fare. For the most part the entrapped New Yorkers relaxed and enjoyed the wait. On the East Side a group began to play charades under the battery-powered emergency lights. By 10 p.m. all but one train had been cleared--about 60 persons were forced to spend the night in cars deep in a tunnel under the East River.

From the skyscrapers on the midtown West Side one could look across the Hudson River to the shores of New Jersey and see areas of power and light gleaming on the ridges and in the streets. Yet how to get down to the streets in a city so dependent on its thousands of high-speed elevators? Some made their way--illuminated by a rare flashlight or candle, or by dozens of flickering paper matches--step by step, men aiding girls as they made the descent. One office must have found a treasure trove. For, on Broadway, a side exit opened and a file of a half-dozen happy citizens emerged, carrying the stabbing red lights of railway fusees. From the great Empire State Building, tallest in the world, a prankster had begun early in the evening to fire off Roman candles, repeated again two hours later. By 10 p.m., having decided that no power would return that night, management at the building took matters into its own hands--13 elevators were stalled all the way from the 75th floor to the 34th. Six were emptied by ladders let down through trap doors. To reach the other seven. management broke down the walls and penetrated to the shaft where they guessed the elevators might be stalled. By 11:45 p.m. they had freed all their passengers.

At Brookhaven National Laboratory, some 60 miles out of New York, AEC personnel observed emergency procedures as safety devices let the iron rods sink into the nuclear lattice, effectively closing down its energy and preventing the runaway that might have radioactivated the whole area. The National Guard, mobilized by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, stood by with 200 portable gener-

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LIFE, Vol. 59 No. 2 (November 19, 1965)
Copyright 1965 Time, Inc.
Photo: Henri Dauman
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