Like many accidents in complex systems, North America’s largest electrical system shut down - the black out - was caused by a series of small events that by themselves would not shut down the entire north east and part of Canada. A branch fell on some lines, a switch got flipped that should not have, and a cascade of events shut down the power at 4 PM on a sweltering hot day. It took up to two days to turn back on the lights. You can read a more detailed account of how it happened here. Here is a New York Times collection of articles recapping event, here is an Associate Press report that focuses on the midwest, and here is one centered in Toronto.
I was in New York City that day with a 3 month old baby, having moved into a new apartment just a couple weeks earlier. My mother, who has lung disease, was visiting. Like many people, I met my neighbors for the first time. We ate everything in the freezer, shared a battery-operated radio and TV with neighbors. Except for being a little scary at first, it was almost fun. We heard crickets instead of the squeal of the subway.
But I will admit that I would be happy to make that a once in a lifetime experience. I have interviewed many engineers and policy-makers who have something to do with preventing another power failure like that one. ScienCentral worked with The IEEE to report on The Smart Grid back in 2009 (video above). We also interviewed inventors who developed technologies that are becoming critical components of the Smart Grid.
Satellite images above are from NOAA. Left shows before the blackout, the right was taken during the black out.