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The 12 Biggest Blackouts In History

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On July 13, 1977, a power outage in New York City pushed its residents to the brink. Frustration with a failing economy, anxiety over the at-large serial killer Son of Sam, and a sweltering summer day and night resulted in mass looting across the city. It wasn't all bad news, however; legend has it that the stealing of DJ equipment from hi-fi stores propelled DJ culture and hip hop music in the city. But the city was no stranger to being forced into darkness

Fifty years ago today, The Great Northeast Blackout affected approximately 30 million people in both the U.S. and Canada, making it the single biggest power failure in U.S. history at the time. In remembrance of its 50th anniversary, here are 12 of the biggest power failures around the world.

1. NORTHEAST UNITED STATES AND NORTHERN CANADA // NOVEMBER 9, 1965

A faulty relay at Sir Adam Beck Station on the Ontario side of Niagara Falls led to what was then the biggest power failure in U.S. history. At 5:16 p.m., the tripping of a 230-kilovolt transmission line began a domino effect resulting in a surge of power that overwhelmed transmission lines and put New York City in the dark at the height of a Tuesday rush hour. 800,000 people were reported trapped in the subway.

In addition to New York, power overloads and automatic system shutdowns affected 30 million people in New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire,Vermont, Quebec, and Ontario. 10,000 National Guardsmen and 5,000 off-duty police officers were called into service to prevent looting, although it turned out to be relatively calm and peaceful. Power was restored for most people within 13 hours.

2. THAILAND NATIONWIDE BLACKOUT // MARCH 18, 1978

When generators in the South Pranakhorn Powerplant in Samut Prakan failed, a nationwide blackout spread throughout Thailand. It would be over nine hours before authorities were able to restore power. In May 2013, Thailand suffered another major power failure, sparking memories of the massive incident of '78.

3. CANADA'S GEOMAGNETIC STORM // MARCH 13, 1989

On March 13, 1989 the entire province of Quebec, Canada suffered an electrical power blackout lasting 12 hours—and it was all thanks to the sun.

Sometimes, the sun emits billion-ton clouds of ionized gas, known as a coronal mass ejection (CME). On March 10, 1989, a CME "about the size of 36 Earths" and equivalent to "the energy of thousands of nuclear bombs exploding at the same time" escaped. On the 12th, the gas cloud crashed against Earth's magnetosphere and caused the Northern Lights to be seen as far south as Texas and Cuba.

Because of this celestial event, six million Quebec residents were thrust into darkness when the province's power grid lost power. Schools and businesses were forced to close during the 12 hour blackout, as well as the Montreal Metro and Dorval Airport.

4. SOUTHERN BRAZIL // MARCH 11, 1999

In 1999, approximately 97 million of the 160 million people living in Brazil lost power in what was the biggest blackout ever at the time. A bolt of lightning struck an electricity substation, which in turn shut down Itaipu, which was the largest power plant in the world.

1,200 military police officers were placed in Rio to avoid looting, while city tunnels in São Paulo were closed to prevent assaults. 60,000 subway riders were heavily inconvenienced. To make matters more complicated, the power system of Brazil was privatized days before the event. Mines and Energy Minister Rodolpho Tourinho assured that this had nothing to do with the outage, saying, "A lightning bolt is an exceptional fact, there is no reason for doubting the reliability of the Brazilian electrical system."

5. INDIA // JANUARY 2, 2001

A 12-hour power outage caused by a failure of an Uttar Pradesh substation triggered India's northern grid to collapse. This affected about 226 million people, or roughly a quarter of the country's population. The Confederation of Indian Industry estimated that the loss to business amounted to about $107.1 million.

Despite economic expansion in India, the blackout was used by some as an excuse to push for privatization of the electrical industry to bring it up to date. Enron was reported to have been contacted to help supply electricity during the crisis but insisted on a price that was three times higher than usual.

6. NORTHEAST UNITED STATES AND CANADA // AUGUST 14-15, 2003

It took months before the real cause of the Northeast Blackout of 2003 was finally determined. Initially, Canadian Defense Minister John McCallum blamed an outage at a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, which the state's Emergency Management Agency denied. What actually happened was a high-voltage power line in Northern Ohio brushed against overgrown trees, causing it to shut down. When the alarm system that would typically alert FirstEnergy Corporation failed, the incident was ignored. In the next 90 minutes, system operators tried to figure out what happened while three other lines switched off as a consequence of the first line's failure.

This started a domino effect, and by 4:05 p.m. Southeast Canada and eight Northeastern U.S. states were without power. 50 million people were inconvenienced for up to two days in what turned out to be the biggest blackout in North American history. 11 people died and there was a reported $6 billion in damages. The incident prompted the creation of a joint task force between the U.S. and Canada to minimize future blackouts.

7. ITALY // SEPTEMBER 28, 2003

Italy's 2003 blackout affected almost all of the country's 57 million people. Usually a middle-of-the-night power outage means that few people will notice it. However, this event occurred during the early morning hours after Rome's Nuit Blanche, an all-night arts festival. Because of this, trains were still running at 3:01 a.m. when a fault on the Swiss power system caused the overloading of two internal lines near to the Italian border. About 110 trains carrying more than 30,000 passengers were stranded as a result.

8. JAVA AND BALI, INDONESIA // AUGUST 18, 2005

At 10:23 a.m. on a Thursday morning, a failure in a 500 kilovolt transmission line between Cilegon and Saguling in West Java cut electricity supplies, leading to a massive 5,000 megawatt shutdown. Jakarta, the capital of the fourth most populated country in the world, lost power, and half of the Indonesian population — 100 million people — were without electricity for almost 11 hours.

The event didn't come completely without warning. The state power company had been struggling to fulfill electricity demand following the 1997 monetary crisis and, one year earlier, the government held a special energy summit to plan for increasing the country's electrical capacity.

9. GERMANY, FRANCE, ITALY, AND SPAIN // NOVEMBER 4, 2006

When German power company switched off a high-voltage line across the River Ems in order to let a cruise ship pass, 10-15 million Europeans lost power. The company said that the problems began in northwestern Germany when its network became overloaded, possibly due to that manual switch off (although transmission lines had been shut down in the past without incident). The blackouts stopped trains in Germany and trapped dozens of people in elevators in France and Italy. Austria, Belgium, and Spain were also affected by the outage.

10. CHENZHOU, CHINA // JANUARY 24 - FEBRUARY 2008

Winter storms resulted in a nearly two-week blackout for 4.6 million people around the central Chinese city of Chenzhou. Frustratingly, many citizens were without power during Chinese New Year celebrations. Some residents told reporters that they had to walk one kilometer to a well and back in freezing temperatures just to procure water. The official Xinhua News Agency said 11 electricians died while working to restore power, and the storm's death toll exceeded 60.

11. BRAZIL AND PARAGUAY // NOVEMBER 10-11, 2009

When the Itapiu hydroelectric dam on the Paraguay-Brazil border suddenly stopped producing 17,000 megawatts of power, outages quickly spread through both countries. Suspiciously, the blackouts came two days after 60 Minutes reported that previous Brazilian power outages were caused by hackers. The CBS news magazine would later report that the 2009 incident was also the work of hackers, but a Wikileaks document would eventually refute that claim.

To prevent hacking, a voice command was now necessary to disrupt the power system, and access was only given to a small group of authorized operators. Any sabotage from internal employees would be deadly to the saboteur, and investigators would have found "physical evidence, including the body of the perpetrator," had the 2009 incident been the work of foul play.

12. INDIA // JULY 30-31, 2012

In the largest electrical outage in history (so far), the July 31st blackout of India affected an area encompassing about 670 million people, which is around 9% of the world’s population. On the 31st, three of the country’s interconnected northern power grids collapsed for several hours, affecting 22 states from the country's Eastern border with Myanmar to its western border with Pakistan.

Citizens of Delhi dealt with 89% humidity and, in West Bengal, hundreds of miners were trapped underground for hours after their lifts broke down. In the most disturbing and vivid detail, The Guardian reported that electric crematoriums stopped operating, some with bodies left half burnt before wood was brought in to stoke the furnaces. Overloading and human error were eventually blamed for the troubles.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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Food
The Gooey History of the Fluffernutter Sandwich

Open any pantry in New England and chances are you’ll find at least one jar of Marshmallow Fluff. Not just any old marshmallow crème, but Fluff; the one manufactured by Durkee-Mower of Lynn, Massachusetts since 1920, and the preferred brand of the northeast. With its familiar red lid and classic blue label, it's long been a favorite guilty pleasure and a kitchen staple beloved throughout the region.

This gooey, spreadable, marshmallow-infused confection is used in countless recipes and found in a variety of baked goods—from whoopie pies and Rice Krispies Treats to chocolate fudge and beyond. And in the beyond lies perhaps the most treasured concoction of all: the Fluffernutter sandwich—a classic New England treat made with white bread, peanut butter, and, you guessed it, Fluff. No jelly required. Or wanted.

There are several claims to the origin of the sandwich. The first begins with Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere—or, not Paul exactly, but his great-great-great-grandchildren Emma and Amory Curtis of Melrose, Massachusetts. Both siblings were highly intelligent and forward-thinkers, and Amory was even accepted into MIT. But when the family couldn’t afford to send him, he founded a Boston-based company in the 1890s that specialized in soda fountain equipment.

He sold the business in 1901 and used the proceeds to buy the entire east side of Crystal Street in Melrose. Soon after he built a house and, in his basement, he created a marshmallow spread known as Snowflake Marshmallow Crème (later called SMAC), which actually predated Fluff. By the early 1910s, the Curtis Marshmallow Factory was established and Snowflake became the first commercially successful shelf-stable marshmallow crème.

Although other companies were manufacturing similar products, it was Emma who set the Curtis brand apart from the rest. She had a knack for marketing and thought up many different ways to popularize their marshmallow crème, including the creation of one-of-a-kind recipes, like sandwiches that featured nuts and marshmallow crème. She shared her culinary gems in a weekly newspaper column and radio show. By 1915, Snowflake was selling nationwide.

During World War I, when Americans were urged to sacrifice meat one day a week, Emma published a recipe for a peanut butter and marshmallow crème sandwich. She named her creation the "Liberty Sandwich," as a person could still obtain his or her daily nutrients while simultaneously supporting the wartime cause. Some have pointed to Emma’s 1918 published recipe as the earliest known example of a Fluffernutter, but the earliest recipe mental_floss can find comes from three years prior. In 1915, the confectioners trade journal Candy and Ice Cream published a list of lunch offerings that candy shops could advertise beyond hot soup. One of them was the "Mallonut Sandwich," which involved peanut butter and "marshmallow whip or mallo topping," spread on lightly toasted whole wheat bread.

Another origin story comes from Somerville, Massachusetts, home to entrepreneur Archibald Query. Query began making his own version of marshmallow crème and selling it door-to-door in 1917. Due to sugar shortages during World War I, his business began to fail. Query quickly sold the rights to his recipe to candy makers H. Allen Durkee and Fred Mower in 1920. The cost? A modest $500 for what would go on to become the Marshmallow Fluff empire.

Although the business partners promoted the sandwich treat early in the company’s history, the delicious snack wasn’t officially called the Fluffernutter until the 1960s, when Durkee-Mower hired a PR firm to help them market the sandwich, which resulted in a particularly catchy jingle explaining the recipe.

So who owns the bragging rights? While some anonymous candy shop owner was likely the first to actually put the two together, Emma Curtis created the early precursors and brought the concept to a national audience, and Durkee-Mower added the now-ubiquitous crème and catchy name. And the Fluffernutter has never lost its popularity.

In 2006, the Massachusetts state legislature spent a full week deliberating over whether or not the Fluffernutter should be named the official state sandwich. On one side, some argued that marshmallow crème and peanut butter added to the epidemic of childhood obesity. The history-bound fanatics that stood against them contended that the Fluffernutter was a proud culinary legacy. One state representative even proclaimed, "I’m going to fight to the death for Fluff." True dedication, but the bill has been stalled for more than a decade despite several revivals and subsequent petitions from loyal fans.

But Fluff lovers needn’t despair. There’s a National Fluffernutter Day (October 8) for hardcore fans, and the town of Somerville, Massachusetts still celebrates its Fluff pride with an annual What the Fluff? festival.

"Everyone feels like Fluff is part of their childhood," said self-proclaimed Fluff expert and the festival's executive director, Mimi Graney, in an interview with Boston Magazine. "Whether born in the 1940s or '50s, or '60s, or later—everyone feels nostalgic for Fluff. I think New Englanders in general have a particular fondness for it."

Today, the Fluffernutter sandwich is as much of a part of New England cuisine as baked beans or blueberry pie. While some people live and die by the traditional combination, the sandwich now comes in all shapes and sizes, with the addition of salty and savory toppings as a favorite twist. Wheat bread is as popular as white, and many like to grill their sandwiches for a touch of bistro flair. But don't ask a New Englander to swap out their favorite brand of marshmallow crème. That’s just asking too Fluffing much.

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The Hospital in the Rock
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History
Budapest’s Former Top-Secret Hospital Inside a Cave
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The Hospital in the Rock

At the top of a hill in Budapest, overlooking the Danube River, sits Buda Castle, a gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site visited by thousands of tourists every year. Directly underneath the castle, however, lies a less-frequented tourist attraction: a series of ancient, naturally formed caves with a colorful and sometimes disturbing history.

The entire cave system is over six miles long, and most of that has been left unchanged since it was used as cold storage (and a rumored dungeon) in the Middle Ages. Between 1939 and 2008, however, a half-mile stretch of those caves was built up and repurposed many times over. Known as Sziklakorhaz or The Hospital in the Rock, its many uses are a testament to the area’s involvement in World War II and the Cold War.

At the start of World War II, the location served as a single-room air raid center, but operating theaters, corridors, and wards were quickly added to create a much-needed hospital. By early 1944, the hospital had officially opened inside the cave, tending to wounded Hungarian and Nazi soldiers. After less than a year of operation, the facility found itself facing its largest challenge—the Siege of Budapest, which lasted seven weeks and was eventually won by Allied forces on their way to Berlin.

As one of the few area hospitals still operational, the Hospital in the Rock was well over capacity during the siege. Originally built to treat around 70 patients, close to 700 ended up crammed into the claustrophobic caves. The wounded lay three to a bed—if they were lucky enough to get a bed at all. Unsurprisingly, heat from all those bodies raised the ambient temperature to around 95°F, and smoking cigarettes was the number one way to pass the time. Add that to the putrid mix of death, decay, and infection and you’ve got an incredibly unpleasant wartime cocktail.

A recreation inside the museum. Image credit: The Hospital in the Rock 

After the siege, the Soviets took control of the caves (and Budapest itself) and gutted the hospital of most of its supplies. Between 1945 and 1948, the hospital produced a vaccination for typhus. As the icy grasp of the Cold War began to tighten, new wards were built, new equipment was installed, and the hospital was designated top-secret by the Soviets, referred to only by its official codename LOSK 0101/1.

Eleven years after facing the horrors of the Siege of Budapest, in 1956, the hospital hosted the casualties of another battle: The Hungarian Uprising. Thousands of Hungarians revolted against the Soviet policies of the Hungarian People’s Republic in a fierce, prolonged battle. Civilians and soldiers alike lay side-by-side in wards as surgeons attempted to save them. During the uprising, seven babies were also born in the hospital.

Surgeons lived on-site and rarely surfaced from the caves. The hospital’s chief surgeon at the time, Dr. András Máthé, famously had a strict "no amputation" rule, which seemed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but in the end reportedly saved many patients' lives. (Máthé also reportedly wore a bullet that he’d removed from a patient’s head on a chain around his neck.)

The Hospital in the Rock ceased normal operations in December 1956, after the Soviets squashed the uprising, as the Soviets had new plans for the caves. With the Cold War now in full swing, the still-secret site was converted into a bunker that could serve as a hospital in case of nuclear attack. Diesel engines and an air conditioning system were added in the early '60s, so that even during a blackout, the hospital could still function for a couple of days.

The Hospital in the Rock

The official plan for the bunker was as follows: In the event of a nuclear attack, a selection of doctors and nurses would retreat to the bunker, where they would remain for 72 hours. Afterward, they were to go out and search for survivors. Special quarantined rooms, showering facilities, and even a barbershop were on site for survivors brought back to the site. (The only haircut available to them, however, was a shaved head; radioactive material is notoriously difficult to remove from hair.)

Thankfully, none of these nuclear procedures were ever put into practice. But the hospital was never formally decommissioned, and it wasn’t relieved of its top-secret status until the mid-2000s. For a while, it was still being used as a storage facility by Hungary’s Civil Defense Force. The bunker was maintained by a nearby family, who were sworn to secrecy. In 2004, it was decided that responsibility for the site fell solely on St. John’s Hospital in Budapest, who were seen as the de facto owners in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

By 2008 the bunker was renovated, refurbished, and ready to be opened to the public. Today it operates as a museum, with exhibits detailing life in the hospital from various periods of its history, as well as the history of combat medicine as a whole. The sobering hour-long walk around the hospital concludes with a cautionary gaze into the atrocities of nuclear attacks, with the final walk to the exit featuring a gallery of art created by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

Another part of the caves beneath Buda Castle. Image credit:Sahil Jatana via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The caves beneath Buda Castle have certainly had a bumpy history, and walking through them now is chilling (and not just because they keep the temperature at around 60°F). A tour through the narrow, oppressive hallways is a glimpse at our narrowly avoided nuclear future—definitely a sobering way to spend an afternoon.

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