Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The 12 Biggest Blackouts In History

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination—even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing, who was born on this day in 1912.

1. HE’S THE FATHER OF MODERN COMPUTER SCIENCE.

Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.

2. HE PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN WINNING WORLD WAR II.

Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.

3. HE BROKE THE RULES TO WRITE TO CHURCHILL.

Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”

4. HE HAD SOME ODD HABITS.

Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.

5. HE RODE HIS BIKE 60 MILES TO GET TO THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.

6. HE TRIED OUT FOR THE OLYMPICS.

Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."

7. HE WAS PROSECUTED FOR BEING GAY.

In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.

8. THE GOVERNMENT ONLY RECENTLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS CONVICTION …

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.

9. … AND NAMED A LAW AFTER HIM.

Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.

10. HE POISONED HIMSELF … MAYBE.

There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.

11. HIS FULL GENIUS WASN’T KNOWN IN HIS LIFETIME.

Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.

12. THE TURING TEST IS STILL USED TO MEASURE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE …

Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.

13. … BUT SOME CONSIDER IT TO BE AN OUTDATED IDEA.

As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.

14. HE CREATED THE FIRST COMPUTER CHESS PROGRAM.

Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.

15. THERE IS ALAN TURING MONOPOLY.

In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

nextArticle.image_alt|e
E. A. Tilly, Library of Congress // Public Domain
The 19th Century Poet Who Predicted a 1970s Utopia
An electric airship departing Paris in 1883.
An electric airship departing Paris in 1883.
E. A. Tilly, Library of Congress // Public Domain

In 1870, John Collins dreamed of a future without cigarettes, crime, or currency inflation. The Quaker poet, teacher, and lithographer authored "1970: A Vision for the Coming Age," a 28-page-long poem that imagines what the world would be like a century later—or, as Collins poetically puts it, in "nineteen hundred and threescore and ten.”

The poem, recently spotlighted by The Public Domain Review, is a fanciful epic that follows a narrator as he travels in an airship from Collins’s native New Jersey to Europe, witnessing the wonders of a futuristic society.

In Collins’s imagination, the world of the future seamlessly adheres to his own Quaker leanings. He writes: “Suffice it to say, every thing that I saw / Was strictly conformed to one excellent law / That forbade all mankind to make or to use / Any goods that a Christian would ever refuse.” For him, that means no booze or bars, no advertising, no “vile trashy novels,” not even “ribbons hung flying around.” Needless to say, he wouldn’t have been prepared for Woodstock. In his version of 1970, everyone holds themselves to a high moral standard, no rules required. Children happily greet strangers on their way to school (“twas the custom of all, not enforced by a rule”) before hurrying on to ensure that they don’t waste any of their “precious, short study hours.”

It’s a society whose members are never sick or in pain, where doors don’t need locks and prisons don’t exist, where no one feels tempted to cheat, lie, or steal, and no one goes bankrupt. There is no homelessness. The only money is in the form of gold and silver, and inflation isn't an issue. Storms, fires, and floods are no longer, and air pollution has been eradicated.

While Collins’s sunny outlook might have been a little off-base, he did hint at some innovations that we’d recognize today. He describes international shipping, and comes decently close to predicting drone delivery—in his imagination, a woman in Boston asks a Cuban friend to send her some fruit that “in half an hour came, propelled through the air.” He kind of predicts CouchSurfing (or an extremely altruistic version of Airbnb), imagining that in the future, hotels wouldn't exist and kind strangers would just put you up in their homes for free. He dreams up undersea cables that could broadcast a kind of live video feed of musicians from around the world, playing in their homes, to a New York audience—basically a YouTube concert. He describes electric submarines (“iron vessels with fins—a submarine line, / propels by galvanic action alone / and made to explore ocean’s chambers unknown") and trains that run silently. He even describes climate change, albeit a much more appealing view of it than we’re experiencing now. In his world, “one perpetual spring had encircled the earth.”

Collins might be a little disappointed if he could have actually witnessed the world of 1970, which was far from the Christian utopia he hoped for. But he would have at least, presumably, really enjoyed plane rides.

You can read the whole thing here.

[h/t The Public Domain Review]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios