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Contributed by: Joseph Cunningham
Contributed on: September 13, 2006

Which blackout(s) did you experience?

In your own words, tell the story of your experience in the blackout(s). Try to recall specific events and the people, places, and things involved; also include more general reactions, images adn last impressions?
In 1965, I was an 8th grader living at school - we had just gone to the dining room when the incandescent bulbs in the chandelier type fixtures began dimming and the fluorescent lights in the hall began to flicker. We finished dinner by candles and car headlights aimed through the windows. We stacked up the dishes and carried them to the scullery and some of the guys helped wash them before the hot water ran out since the dishwashers were out. We then went to our dorms to hit the showers before the hot water ran out. Only then when we turned on the transistor radios did we know that it waas regional - we thought it was a local Long Island Lighting Company failure since we had experienced one about a month previous.

Around that time my mom called to say she had been in B. Altman's Dept. Store across from the Empire State Building when the lights failed and they had to walk down the dead escalators. There was some light as Altman's had an isolated private plant so some light remained. (The plant was still in service in 2003 - the building is now used in part by the Science, Industry and Business branch of the New York Public Library and the staff stayed there in the blackout of that year.)She was calling from a booth in a luncheonette in the lobby of the Empire State Building where the owner was giving away free meals to prevent spoilage. In the spirit of camaraderie everyone insisted on paying for their food! She then waited until dawn to take a bus to our home on 94th Street and Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side. Time to feed the cat and get ready for another business day. At school we went to bed and woke up to a normal day.

In 1977, I was on my way back to my home in Jackson Heights, Queens on the IRT Flushing line (#7) and we had expereinced some lurching and near stalling of the train. It was caused by the dropping out temporarily of the potential relays that protect against damage from excessive current draw should the voltage go below about 450 volts. Then we continued without problems for about 5 minutes until the train was midway between the 40th/Lowey and 46th/Bliss stations. At that point I heard the motorman's radio receive a notice from the Transit Authority command center that they were experiencing a system wide power failure and to stop at the nearest station. Just then I saw all of Queens go out and we drifted into 46th Street and stopped with the doors open. I chatted with the motorman who had spent the night in a tunnel during the 1965 failure. I saw the signals light and then go out at various times as localized sources of power were used to move stalled trains into stations. From the train crew's radio chatter it was obvious that there would be no major return soon, so I left and walked reaching home about 20 minutes later. I immediately sat down with the refrigerator contents spread out and cooked all the frozen food - we had a midnight feast and took food down to the doorman and anyone else who hadn't eaten!

Why did the blackouts happen, in your opinion?
The 1965 blackout occurred as a result of an unanticipated condition (s)about which transmission engineers were still learning. Although High Voltage transmission was introduced in 1896, power system designers were still learning about the behavior of large synchronous AC systems. When a line at Lake Erie was energized two years previously, unexpected loop flows and parallel path flows were experienced. It was simply put- part of the learning curve but one we will never forget and helped promote development of coordinating agencies like the New York Power Pool.

The 1977 failure was a confluence of events - multiple lightening strikes on transmission lines, relays that were unable to reclose due to operating constraints, a trans-Hudson tie line that was out of service for repairs.

What is your opinion regarding the general causes of power failures (blackouts)?
It depends on the cause. Most large scale failures are due to a technical issue that is often hidden until the event occurs. I do have concern about the barriers to information sharing between companies that have come about due to the deregulation of the industry.

Did either blackout seem significant or shocking at the time?
Both were significant

Why did you consider the blackout(s) to be significant or insignificant?
1965 was significant as it awakened the industry to potential problems and encouraged examination and study of concepts and procedures.

1977 was significant in that it demonstarted the success of plans put in place as a result of the 1965 event. While the New York Power Pool could not prevent it, the agency did confine it to the Edison system and prevented failures of adjacent systems.

How did the blackout(s) affect you?
The 1965 failure did not have a major impact although I enjoyed the book "The Night the Lights Went" put together by the staff of the New York Times which I received for Christmas that year. I was already a technical fan having grown up in a family of electrical and railway people in the middle of the "Space Age" but the book gave a perspective on past local events of which I had expereinced only two - a neighborhood failure in August,1959 and a midtown failure that stopped radio and TV broadcasting in June of 1961.

The 1977 failure cost me substantial over time pay that week!

What happened to your perception of the blackout(s) when you heard the news about the full scope of the event(s)?
In 1965 we were astonished.
In 1977, we were disgusted with the social malaise- the looting and arson.

How would you compare the blackout(s) to "normal" power failures you have experienced at other times?
They are usuallt much longer.

What affect, if any, did the blackout(s) have on your opinion of Consolidated Edison Company?
In 1965, we considered it to be a regional failure - Con Ed was just one of a number that failed.

In 1977, I was quite vitriolic at the time due to my lost wages and overtime. On reading the reports I came to see that it was a confluence of events and became annoyed with the vituperative attacks of the media and politicians on a company which has the best reliability rate of the industry.
I often find myself defending Con Ed when I give a talk on electric power or in any of my classes on railway electrification.

If you experienced both the 1965 and 1977 blackouts, please compare them (describe the ways in which they were similar/different):
My age has a major factor- in 1965 I was 13 with no responsibilities- in 1977 I had to make money!

Therefore, 1965 was more of a gee-whiz lark,and adults banned together for a common sense of cameraderie; whereas 1977 was a serious event made more so by the civil disorder.

Did the blackout(s) have any larger meaning in your mind?

Did the blackout(s) cause any profound crisis?

How did the blackout(s) affect your daily reliance on electricity?
No effect / same reliance

This is how the story goes: In November of 1965 the lights went out in New York and crime rates temporarily dropped; there were widespread reports of extraordinary cooperation and trust between strangers caught together in the power failure. In July of 1977, little more than a decade later, the lights went out again in New York. This time, a devastating wave of looting and arson broke out. Does this story ring true to you? Explain why or why not:
That is defintely true - it reflects the social situation in the city and the prevailing attitudes.

Cite as: Joseph Cunningham, Story #658, The Blackout History Project, 13 September 2006, <http://blackout.gmu.edu/details/658/>.
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