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August 13th, 2004, 07:23 AM
August 13, 2004


New York Unplugged, 1889


Last year's blackout - when we were rudely reminded that electricity is the lifeblood of our civilization - still holds the dubious honor as America's biggest blackout. The nation's first struck Manhattan on Oct. 14, 1889, when New Yorkers stepped out into a bleak, rainy dusk to find what was called "A Night of Darkness - More than One Thousand Electric Lights Extinguished."

These days we take electricity completely for granted as a commonplace necessity. But 115 years ago, electricity was very much an exotic, glamorous neophyte technology battling to replace the ubiquitous gas lighting. Throughout the 1880's, Gotham had been gradually electrifying, and the citizenry proudly gloried in the dazzling blaze of the electric arc lights in stores, theaters, and high above the main streets and avenues on tall street poles.

On that wet October eve in 1889, the city had been suddenly reduced to "endless tunnels of gloom." The Brush and United States Lighting companies had gone dark - not, however, from a power failure, but under orders from an outraged mayor.

Then, as now, the crux of the electrical problem was transmission. In Gilded Age Gotham, the vast spider webs of electrical wires above the city streets were transmitting not just electricity, but sudden, terrifying death. Major streets and avenues and many stores were illuminated by arc lights - a crude but powerful form of electric lighting using blazing carbon rods - powered by high-voltage alternating current transmitted on poorly maintained wires.

The result was a series of high-profile electrocutions of citizens and electrical workers. Three days before the blackout, a Western Union lineman was electrocuted as he worked high above huge lunchtime crowds near the Tweed Courthouse. Suspended like a poor fly in the tangled electrical wires, "the man appeared to be all on fire. Blue flames issued from his mouth and nostrils and sparks flew about his feet,'' The New York Times reported. "There was no movement to the body as it hung in the fatal burning embrace of the wires." Mayor Hugh Grant angrily ordered all high-voltage alternating current electric arc lights shut off. The electric companies were told to remove, repair and upgrade the jungle of overhead wires, a deadly mélange of telegraph, telephone, burglar alarm and electric light wires.

Thomas Edison, the nation's great electrical wizard, saw the city's (and the nation's) first major blackout as yet another opportunity to further attack his hated rivals in the electricity business. Edison's seven-year-old Pearl Street Station transmitted safe low-voltage direct current for indoor incandescent lighting. But it had a huge drawback. Direct current could not deliver electricity more than a half-mile away. Only high-voltage alternating current could transmit electricity any distance, making it a far more flexible and superior technology.

As the nascent industry struggled with transmission and safety, Edison bitterly denounced alternating current as the "executioner's current,'' good only for a new and modern form of capital punishment - the electric chair.

In those pioneer days of electricity, before our sprawling and ultracomplex grids, the debate over transmission was a matter of life and death not just for electrical workers, but for electric companies themselves.

Edison, creator of the first electric grid, had been happily and profitably building a worldwide empire of little direct-current generating stations when the Pittsburgh industrialist George Westinghouse entered the electrical fray in 1886. Armed with the alternating-current patents of the brilliant and eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla, Westinghouse outflanked the Edison companies from Boston to New Orleans to Portland, Ore., and in between. This corporate feud, called the War of the Electric Currents, was so vicious that Edison pushed for an electric chair operated with Westinghouse alternating current generators, a lethal demise his delighted executives dubbed "being Westinghoused."

Such morbid tactics aside, the basic question for the electrical industry, then as now, was transmission. Who could send this invisible and powerful energy most safely, reliably and economically? In the late 19th century, the challenge was getting completely new kinds of grids up and working; today it is expanding, upgrading and managing the existing technology. Both demand foresight and planning, qualities often as scarce now as then.

When it came to assigning blame for the first blackout in 1889, it was easy. All of New York City's electrical wires were supposed to be buried safely under the streets. But the three Tammany appointees to the city's four-year-old Board of Electrical Control had been greedily awarding lucrative contracts to friends and relations who failed to actually do the work of burying the wires. The arc-lighting companies begged to be allowed to do the job, but as one Times headline explained, the dilatory board was "Not on the Public's Side.'' The imbroglio quickly landed in the courts. (Some things never change.)

Faced with "darkness and gloom everywhere," 19th-century New Yorkers also prided themselves on taking calamity in stride, responding with pluck and resilience. "Everyone accepted the situation with commendable good nature," reported The Times, even as it lamented how "decidedly provincial" normally cosmopolitan Manhattan looked without its "many glittering electric lights."

Then, as they did last August, the Police Department beefed up patrols in the suddenly darkened streets to deter thugs and thieves. Those forward-looking businesses that had opted for the "modern convenience" of arc lights (as opposed to old-fashioned gaslight) unhappily coped as best they could. A theater rigged up a calcium reflector out front. A big department store strikingly arrayed its windows with oil lamps in lovely Japanese lanterns. But on those bleak and rainy fall days, the big dry goods houses found it hard to properly display and sell their cloth and wares without the blaze of lights.

Eventually, the arc lights were turned back on. But Thomas Edison lost the War of the Electric Currents as George Westinghouse triumphantly used his nascent alternating-current system first to electrify the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, the luminous and chimerical White City, and then to create the first hydroelectric plant, at Niagara Falls. There in 1896, electricity was transmitted an amazing 26 miles to Buffalo. The need to send electricity long distances enshrined alternating current as the basis of our own vast electrical grid. Last August's startling images of hordes of New Yorkers coursing homeward through a city stopped dead as stranded visitors slept on sidewalks in the torpid heat were striking reminders of the civilizing necessity of electricity. And of the fragility of the miracle of moving electrons.

Jill Jonnes is the author of "Empires of Lights: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World.''

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company