New York City's First Blackout

Roundup: Talking About History

Jill Jonnes, in the NYT (Aug. 13, 2004):

[Jill Jonnes is the author of "Empires of Lights: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World.'']

Last year's blackout - when we were rudely reminded that electricity is the lifeblood of our civilization - still holds the dubious honor as America's biggest blackout. The nation's first struck Manhattan on Oct. 14, 1889, when New Yorkers stepped out into a bleak, rainy dusk to find what was called "A Night of Darkness - More than One Thousand Electric Lights Extinguished."

These days we take electricity completely for granted as a commonplace necessity. But 115 years ago, electricity was very much an exotic, glamorous neophyte technology battling to replace the ubiquitous gas lighting. Throughout the 1880's, Gotham had been gradually electrifying, and the citizenry proudly gloried in the dazzling blaze of the electric arc lights in stores, theaters, and high above the main streets and avenues on tall street poles.

On that wet October eve in 1889, the city had been suddenly reduced to "endless tunnels of gloom." The Brush and United States Lighting companies had gone dark - not, however, from a power failure, but under orders from an outraged mayor.

Then, as now, the crux of the electrical problem was transmission. In Gilded Age Gotham, the vast spider webs of electrical wires above the city streets were transmitting not just electricity, but sudden, terrifying death. Major streets and avenues and many stores were illuminated by arc lights - a crude but powerful form of electric lighting using blazing carbon rods - powered by high-voltage alternating current transmitted on poorly maintained wires.

The result was a series of high-profile electrocutions of citizens and electrical workers. Three days before the blackout, a Western Union lineman was electrocuted as he worked high above huge lunchtime crowds near the Tweed Courthouse. Suspended like a poor fly in the tangled electrical wires, "the man appeared to be all on fire. Blue flames issued from his mouth and nostrils and sparks flew about his feet,'' The New York Times reported. "There was no movement to the body as it hung in the fatal burning embrace of the wires." Mayor Hugh Grant angrily ordered all high-voltage alternating current electric arc lights shut off. The electric companies were told to remove, repair and upgrade the jungle of overhead wires, a deadly mélange of telegraph, telephone, burglar alarm and electric light wires.....

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