When the Lights Go Out

Electric tales by Bill Bryson, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Mahler and more...
5 stories

The worst of Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast Monday night, leaving millions without power up and down the seaboard. In New York City, much of Manhattan was darkened, save for the eerily bright upper stories of the Empire State.

"We forget just how painfully dim the world was before electricity." Bill Bryson reflected in this book excerpt, published in the Guardian in 2012. "A candle—a good candle—provides barely a hundredth of the illumination of a single 100w light bulb. Open your refrigerator door and you summon forth more light than the total amount enjoyed by most households in the 18th century. The world at night for much of history was a very dark place indeed."

In this September's London Review of Books James Meek explained the difficulty of generating and storing sufficient power. "Electricity isn’t a commodity like copper or coffee or water. It’s the only commodity that is both essential to modern life and impossible to store," he wrote. "An electricity system must be able to manufacture and transport as much power as the society it serves demands at every given moment, and not one watt less."

The loss of power—especially in New York City—can be devastating. Jonathan Mahler vividly recalled the 1977 blackout in a 2003 New York Times Magazine essay. "Orange flames pierced the darkness; Bushwick was burning. At one point, two solid blocks of Broadway were in flames. As fire trucks sped along the avenue, looters pelted them from the el tracks above with rocks, bottles, bags of Goya beans. Cops tried to disperse the crowds at the various fire sites and to protect the firemen so they could do their job," he wrote. "The sun finally rose, revealing endless piles of broken glass. Disembodied mannequins littered the streets like battlefield debris."

From the Web

The Darkest Night

Recalling the New York City blackout of 1977.

From the Web

The Story of the Electric Light

For centuries, we hunched over candles after dark. Then gas and electricity arrived, and the world lit up. In the latest extract from his new book, the acclaimed writer reveals the bizarre story of how artificial light came to transform our lives.
May 2010
From the Web

How We Happened to Sell off Our Electricity

A public utility goes private.

From the Web

A Temporary Matter

What happens when the lights go out.

Apr 1998

The Power Broker: Funding an Energy Revolution

Arun Majumdar has to decide which researchers will get millions of dollars, and he has to do it fast. He must spark an energy revolution within 20 years, or it’s lights out for us all.

Feb 2011