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In early November of 1965, at the height of the cold war, 30 million people living in the most densely populated region of the United States experienced a cascading power failure which blacked out almost the entire Northeast in less than fifteen minutes. Rising to the occasion, New Yorkers assisted each other in a spirit of cooperation and community uncharacteristic of ordinary city life. Twelve years later, in the summer of 1977, the New York metropolitan region experienced another massive power outage, but this time the popular response was quite different. Devastating riots and looting engulfed the poorer sections of the city, inflicting enormous economic damage at a time when New York City was already on its knees.

The Blackout History Project seeks to reconstruct these two dramatic social responses to large-scale technological failure by using the World Wide Web as a research platform and historical forum. What did the blackouts mean to the people who lived through them? What challenges did they pose to the electric utility employees who had to find ways to prevent their recurrence? What did the blackouts reveal about the social dependence on, cultural construction of, and engineering practices behind a mature technological system? What role does failure play in the evolution of technologies and the cultures that foster them? These are the questions that guide the Blackout History Project as an experiment in public memory, historical research and scholarly presentation.


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jts{27 June 2000}