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The 12 Biggest Blackouts In History

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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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Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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