Paperback | $15.95 Trade | £10.95 | ISBN: 9780262525077 | 304 pp. | 5.375 x 8 in | 26 b&w illus.| September 2013
When the Lights Went Out
Where were you when the lights went out? At home during a thunderstorm? Preparing for an air attack during World War II? During the Great Northeastern Blackout of 1965? In New York City during a similar but more frightening blackout in 1977? In California when rolling blackouts hit in 2000? In 2003, when a cascading power failure left fifty million people without electricity? We often remember vividly our time in the dark. In When the Lights Went Out, David Nye views power outages in America from 1935 to the present not simply as technical failures but variously as military tactic, social disruption, crisis in the networked city, outcome of political and economic decisions, sudden encounter with sublimity, and memories enshrined in photographs. Our electrically lit-up life is so natural to us that when the lights go off, the darkness seems abnormal.
Nye looks at America's development of its electrical grid, which made large-scale power failures possible; military blackouts before and during World War II ("The silence was the big surprise of the blackout, the darkness discounted," wrote Harold Ross in The New Yorker in 1942); New York City's contrasting 1965 and 1977 blackout experiences (the first characterized by cooperation, the second by looting and disorder); the growth in consumer demand that led to rolling blackouts made worse by energy traders' market manipulations; blackouts caused by terrorist attacks and sabotage; and, finally, the "greenout" (exemplified by the new tradition of "Earth Hour"), a voluntary reduction organized by environmental organizations.
Blackouts, writes Nye, are breaks in the flow of social time that reveal much about the trajectory of American history. Each time one occurs, Americans confront their essential condition—not as isolated individuals, but as a community that increasingly binds itself together with electrical wires and signals.
About the Author
David E. Nye is Professor of American History at the University of Southern Denmark. The winner of the 2005 Leonardo da Vinci Medal of the Society for the History of Technology, he is the author of Image Worlds: Corporate Identities at General Electric, 1890-1930 (1985), Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940 (1990), American Technological Sublime (1994), Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies (1997), America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings (2003), and Technology Matters: Questions to Live With (2006), all published by the MIT Press.
"David Nye's history of blackouts in America is much more than a history of these events. What he has given us is an insightful and often surprising social and cultural history of our relationship to, and increasing dependence on, electricity and its unseen grid."
Paul Israel, Director and General Editor, Thomas A. Edison Papers Project, Rutgers University
"Meticulously researched and engagingly written, When the Lights Went Out is part history and part cautionary tale. David Nye illumines his subject with such insight and skill that a reader won't ever be able to flip on an electrical switch without thinking of this book and its consequential message."
Robert Schmuhl, Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Chair in American Studies and Journalism, University of Notre Dame
"Fifteen years ago, David Nye's groundbreaking Electrifying America showed us how the social, cultural, and political terrain shifted when the lights went on. Now he shows us what happened When the Lights Went Outa must-read for anyone who lived through or just heard about the big-city blackouts of 1965 onward and wonders what they meant."
Arthur P. Molella, Director, Smithsonian Lemelson Center