There are a lot of historical anniversaries for today, November 9, which is one of the most momentous days in history–the Bolshevik Revolution, Krystallnacht (beginning of the Holocaust), the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II during the First World War, and the 1799 coup that brought Napoleon Bonaparte to power all happened on November 9. But for tonight’s blog I chose to do this event: the great power blackout that affected New York City and much of the Northeast, which happened 48 years ago tonight, on November 9, 1965.
Major power blackouts are not created equal. The one that affected New York on August 14, 2003 was relatively sedate–there was very little civil unrest and things went about as smoothly as you could expect from a power outage in the most densely-populated part of the United States and Canada. That’s in marked contrast to the blackout of July 1977, which saw widespread looting and anarchy. The dark night of 1965, though, was extremely peaceful. In fact, even after the lights went out, New York saw the lowest reported crime rate since records first started being kept.
The blackout of 1965 was caused by a very simple mistake. A protective relay switch at the Sir Adam Beck Power Station II, located in Queenston, Ontario, Canada, was set to trip at a much lower level than it should have. Power grids are all about distributing the volume of electricity, or “load,” and there are numerous safety switches built into the system designed to shut down power lines before they become overloaded. This particular switch was set too low. It was cold on November 9, 1965, and when it got dark and people turned on lights and heaters, the load on the system increased. This particular switch tripped, thus diverting its load to other lines that weren’t built for it. A cascading failure occurred throughout the lines in Ontario, New England and New York State. At 5:27 PM, New York City went dark. In total over 30 million people were without power.
This is the Sir Adam Beck Power Station II in Ontario, where a faulty switch set several days before the event ultimately caused the blackout on November 9, 1965.
The good thing was that there was a full moon on the night of November 9, and the weather across the region was clear. This probably contributed to the marked lack of chaos or anarchy. Blackouts that happen in summer are usually far more destructive than those that happen in colder temperatures. In 1965 most people just wanted to stay indoors and keep warm. There were no casualties reported.
The Great Northeast Power Blackout of 1965 did create one of the most well-known urban legends, however: the notion that births in New York City spiked exactly nine months after the blackout, suggesting that a lot of people took the opportunity to get busy. It’s a great story, but unfortunately quite false. A University of North Carolina demographics expert debunked this myth in 1970. There was no mysterious “baby boom” in New York or anywhere else in August 1966.