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


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ators across the state. By 11 o'clock President Johnson had called Mayor Wagner from Texas offering all help.

In Suitland, Md., where a giant IBM 7094 computer spits out hourly weather reports by which every plane in the U.S. is guided, eight of 15 weather circuits bringing in observation data had failed. An emergency crew of 12 employes appeared almost immediately to collect weather reports by telephone from the Northeast. They hand-punched the cards to feed the computer, and the weather reports went out. Had it been raining, as it was heavily the night before, aviation disasters might have been countless; but the bright moon over the Northeast, the work of the Weather Bureau, Federal Aviation Bureau's airport personnel and the Defense Department combined to guide every plane to safe landing. (Only one major international breakdown seems to have occurred: the weather line that links Moscow and Washington with instant weather-map facsimiles transmits from an RCA station in New Jersey; when that station went off the air with power failure, Moscow for the night was cut off from American weather observations.)

In New York, citizens simply took care of each other. At Radio City Music Hall admission was made free to whatever improvised shows the .phpf could provide, and shelter was provided through the night until power was restored. At the Sheraton-Park Hotel, Mrs. Izler Solomon, wife of the conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony, was trapped in her 21st-story suite and looked longingly across a shaftway at two gentlemen enjoying a drink. One crawled out on a ]edge, the other held on to his legs and, stretching, he handed her across the shaftway a bourbon on the rocks.

By 11 in the evening New York had adjusted to the adventure. The sound of the streets was a murmur, broken with chatter and gaiety, punctuated occasionally by the grave sound of a siren or ambulance, police car or fire truck. The dead subways had squeezed up their thousands and the streets were afloat with people slowly wending their way to some sort of accommodation--on foot, by the light of the moon. They lined up outside telephone booths to call home. They stood in line behind hamburger counters or jammed into restaurants where the only light came from the gas flares cooking food, or from candles. From the towers of apartment houses, and all across Queens and Brooklyn, one could see candles flickering and guttering. By I or 2 a.m. they were out and the city was mostly dark as death while its citizens slept at home in their own beds, on hotel divans, on marble lobby floors--hoping to find out in the morning what had happened.

It was in New York that the world of modern electricity was born. At the corner of Pearl and Hudson streets still stands the power station where Thomas Alva Edison on Sept. 4, 1882 threw the first switch that lit the streets of a city with electricity. From that old station, still feeding its DC current into lower Manhattan, the wonderful promise of electricity opened out for cities of the entire world. It was to liberate homes from the fire hazard of kerosene lamps, turn the wheels on subway mass transportation permitting cities to sprawl, underlie all new industries, permit the dreams of radio and television to seize entire peoples. And in all this, for 80 years, New York's electrical system led the way.

The insatiable hunger for electricity--for power, for energy--is one of the constants of the modern world. In the U.S. demand for electricity doubles every 10 years. The skyscrapers that have risen in New York's stupendous building boom are entirely different from those that rose before World War 11. A prewar office building might require as little as 8 footcandles per square foot; a new building today asks for 50 or more footcandles for its tenants. In the '30s, contractors figured that 2% to 5% of the cost of a building lay in its electrical installation. Now, it is up to 12% or 15%-- and in New York's largest new monument, the Pan American Building, approximately 18% of the cost has come in electrical installation.

To meet this hunger for power, American engineers have performed miracles, not only of technology but of economics. In the upsweep of postwar prices, electrical energy has, almost alone, resisted inflationary increases, its cost now almost what it was 30 years ago. To achieve this economic miracle, however, the engineers have let parochial efficiency be their dominant guide. Instead of increasing their own equipment to meet all peak local needs, they have created giant interdependent pools which send low-cost power surging to areas of peak need at peak times. This singlemindedness has led on to the dream of one enormous nationwide power grid. Last week, indeed, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation was privately circulating the draft of a press release which dramatically promised, for 1966, the final tie-up of all power pools in the U.S., from the Pacific to the Atlantic, "forming the largest interconnecting power system grid the world has ever known," and assuring that "when operating as contemplated, generating plants from coast to coast will automatically respond to power-system emergencies in any part of the country, thereby improving service systems."

But now, overnight, has come the realization of vulnerability. The increasing centralization of American society has long been accepted as inevitable by its people. It required a black night to illuminate what can happen when a society becomes too centralized.

Luck, goodwill and a brilliant moon saved New York from disaster. But a thousand "ifs" pucker in retrospect--"if" it had been a stormy night, with a dozen planes seeking emergency landing; "if" the breakdown had come at a moment of civil disturbance; "if" it had come at a moment of international tension the imagination boggles at what might have been.

It is futile to flog the engineers of the Northeast grid, or its member companies. No system was more studied and then re-studied to prevent from happening just what did happen. They created a system of enormous might--but of finest delicacy. The engineers' emphasis, obviously, was faulty. They were able to design a wide-ranging system with enough feedback mechanisms to save local apparatuses and installations from burnout. But no sophisticated local strategy, apparently, was built in--no system of automatic local priorities which, above all, would protect the central core cities and public services; which would sequence shutdowns from the city's outer periphery to the heart that had to be kept beating. When the system operated, it operated brilliantly and simultaneously everywhere; but when it broke down, it broke in the same way.

War, it has been said, is too important a matter to leave only to the generals. Technology, it has now been spectacularly demonstrated, is too important to be left to engineers and businessmen. For years, the chief function of the Federal Power Commission has been to regulate the giant utilities, goading them toward lowest cost and lowest rates in order to protect the consumer. The utilities responded.

The Northeast grid was magnificently interconnected and integrated. But only machines spoke over it, one to the other. They asked each other mechanical questions and gave each other mechanical responses. No human responsibility had immediate control over this entire system. Thus, no human being can answer the still unanswered question: Why?

A meeting of machines might answer, in their language, why they blew that night. They might austerely report that the automatic mechanisms preserved the security of the machines, their own kind, and that all generators are still intact.

But this electronic thinking did not protect the people of the city.

It was required that New York come to the brink of chaos to refresh an old truth: People--men of frailty, judgment and human decision--must control machines. Not vice versa.

GRID THAT FAILED. Diagram shows the interlocking power lines that failed and left 80,000 square miles (gray area) blacked out. Some individual communities (red [larger] dots) maintained power either because they were not connected to the interlocking power grid or because they managed to cut themselves off in time.

LIFE, Vol. 59 No. 2 (November 19, 1965)
Copyright 1965 Time, Inc.
Map: Edward W. Hanke
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