Northeast blackout of 1965

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A map of the states and provinces affected; not all areas within the political boundaries were blacked out.

The Northeast blackout of 1965 was a significant disruption in the supply of electricity on Tuesday, November 9, 1965, affecting parts of Ontario in Canada and Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, New York, and New Jersey in the United States. Over 30 million people and 80,000 square miles (207,000 km2) were left without electricity for up to 13 hours.


The cause of the failure was human error that happened days before the blackout. Maintenance personnel incorrectly set a protective relay on one of the transmission lines between the Niagara generating station Sir Adam Beck Station No. 2 in Queenston, Ontario. The safety relay, which was to trip if the current exceeded the capacity of the transmission line, was set too low.

As was common on a cold November evening, power for heating, lighting and cooking was pushing the electrical system to near its peak capacity. Transmission lines heading into Southern Ontario were heavily loaded. At 5:16 p.m. Eastern Time a small surge of power coming from the Robert Moses generating plant in Lewiston, New York caused the improperly set relay to trip at far below the line's rated capacity, disabling a main power line heading into Southern Ontario. Instantly, the power that was flowing on the tripped line transferred to the other lines, causing them to become overloaded. Their protective relays, which are designed to protect the line from overload, tripped, isolating Beck Station from all of Southern Ontario.

With no place else to go, the excess power from Beck Station then switched direction and headed east over the interconnected lines into New York State, overloading them as well and isolating the power generated in the Niagara region from the rest of the interconnected grid. The Beck generators, with no outlet for their power, were automatically shut down to prevent damage. The Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant continued to generate power, which supplied Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation customers in the metropolitan areas of Buffalo and Niagara Falls, NY. These areas ended up being isolated from the rest of the Northeast power grid and remained powered up. The Niagara Mohawk Western NY Huntley (Buffalo) and Dunkirk steam plants were knocked offline.[1] Within five minutes, the power distribution system in the Northeast was in chaos as the effects of overloads and loss of generating capacity cascaded through the network, breaking it up into "islands." Station after station experienced load imbalances and automatically shut down. The affected power areas were the Ontario Hydro System, St Lawrence-Oswego, Upstate New York, and New England. With only limited electrical connection southwards, power to the Southern States was not affected. The only part of the Ontario Hydro System not affected was the Fort Erie area next to Buffalo which was still powered by older 25 Hz generators. Residents in Fort Erie were able to pick up a TV broadcast from New York where a local backup generator was being used for transmission purposes.


SoX-generated spectrogram of the low end (0-100Hz) of a Dan Ingram aircheck made as Nov.1965 blackout started.

An aircheck[2] of New York City radio station WABC from November 9, 1965 reveals Dan Ingram doing a segment of his afternoon drive time show, during which he notes that a record he's playing (Jonathan King's "Everyone's Gone to the Moon") sounds slow, as do the subsequent jingles played during a commercial break. The station's music playback equipment used motors that got their speed timing from the frequency of the powerline, normally 60Hz. Comparisons of segments of the hit songs played at the time of the broadcast, minutes before the blackout happened, in this aircheck, as compared to the same song recordings played at normal speed reveal that approximately six minutes before blackout the line frequency was 56 Hz, and just two minutes before the blackout that frequency dropped to 51 Hz.[citation needed] As Si Zentner's recording of "(Up a) Lazy River" plays in the background – again at a slower-than-normal tempo – Ingram mentions that the lights in the studio are dimming, then suggests that the electricity itself is slowing down, adding, "I didn't know that could happen." When the station's Action Central News report comes on at 5:25 pm (ET), the staff remains oblivious to the impending blackout. The lead story is still Roger Allen LaPorte's self-immolation at United Nations Headquarters earlier that day to protest American military involvement in the Vietnam War. The newscast gradually fizzles out as power is lost by the time the newsman starts delivering the second story.

Unaffected areas[edit]

Some areas within the affected region were not blacked out. Municipal utilities in Holyoke, Massachusetts, Hartford, Connecticut, Braintree, Massachusetts and Taunton, Massachusetts, Fairport, New York and Walden, New York had their own power plants, which operators disconnected from the grid and which were able to sustain local loads.[3]

Effect and aftermath[edit]

New York City was dark by 5:27 p.m. The blackout was not universal in the city. Some neighborhoods, including the Midwood section of Brooklyn, New York, never lost power. Also, some areas in New York City suburban area Bergen County, New Jersey, served by PSE&G, did not lose power. Most of the television stations in the New York metro area were forced off the air, as well as about half the FM stations, as their common transmitter tower atop the Empire State Building lost power.

Fortunately, a bright full moon lit up the cloudless sky over the entire blackout area, providing some aid for the millions who were suddenly plunged into darkness.

Power restoration was uneven. Most generators had no auxiliary power to use for startup. Parts of Brooklyn were repowered by 11:00pm, the rest of the borough by midnight. However, the entire city was not returned to normal power supply until nearly 7:00 a.m. the next day, November 10.

Power in western New York was restored in a few hours, thanks to the independent generating plant at Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York, which stayed online throughout the blackout. It provided auxiliary power to restart other generators in the area which, in turn, were used to get all generators in the blackout area going again.

The New York Times was able to produce a ten-page edition for November 10, using the printing presses of a nearby paper that was not affected, the Newark Evening News. The front page showed a photograph of the city skyline with its lights all out.

Following the blackout, measures were undertaken to try to prevent a repetition. Reliability councils were formed to establish standards, share information, and improve coordination between electricity providers. Ten councils were created covering the four networks of the North American Interconnected Systems. The Northeast Power Coordinating Council covered the area affected by the 1965 blackout.

The task force that investigated the blackout found that a lack of voltage and current monitoring was a contributing factor to the blackout, and recommended improvements. The Electric Power Research Institute helped the electric power industry develop new metering and monitoring equipment and systems, which have become the modern SCADA systems in use today.

In contrast to the wave of looting and other incidents that took place during the 1977 New York City blackout, only five reports of looting were made in New York City after the 1965 blackout. It was said to be the lowest amount of crime on any night in the city's history since records were first kept.[4]

In popular culture[edit]

The 1968 film Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, starring Doris Day and Robert Morse, took a comic view of the event. Tom Paxton wrote a song with the same title and performed it on the first episode of Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest.

The 1969 CBS Playhouse teleplay "Shadow Game" involves a group of office workers trapped in their building during the blackout.

In the Bewitched episode "The Short Happy Circuit of Aunt Clara", the blackout is caused when Aunt Clara casts a carelessly-worded spell while trying to move a piano. (The episode first aired on November 10, 1966, just over one year after the blackout.)

At the end of Green Acres episode "Double Drick", the blackout is theorized to have been caused when Mr. Douglas plugs an extension cord into the outlet at the top of a power pole which was just installed by the inept employees of the local public utility.

During the Batman episode "He Meets His Match, The Grisly Ghoul", the Joker mentions Gotham City having a power outage "just like New York".

During the Quantum Leap episode "Double Identity", the blackout is caused by a 1000W hair dryer being plugged in. Al and Ziggy suggest that these events will allow Sam to leap.

During the American Dreams episode "One in a Million", the blackout occurs just before Beth goes into labor at home.

On the TV series, Dark Skies (1996–1997) episode 15 "To Prey in Darkness", the blackout is caused by the aliens (ET's) to prevent the television broadcast of the 1947 Roswell NM incident.

A thriving urban legend arose in the wake of the Northeast Blackout of 1965, in which it is told that a peak in the birthrate of the blackout areas was observed nine months after the incident. The origin of the myth is a series of three articles published in August 1966 in the New York Times,[5] in which interviewed doctors told that they had noticed an increased number of births. The story was debunked in 1970 by J. Richard Udry, a demographer from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who did a careful statistical study that found no increase in the birthrate of the affected areas.

UFO sightings during the blackout[edit]

When no cause for the blackout was immediately apparent, several UFO writers (including John G. Fuller, in his book Incident at Exeter) postulated that the blackout was caused by UFOs. This may have been partially inspired by sightings of UFOs near Syracuse prior to the blackout.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Buffalo Evening News. November 10, 1965. 
  2. ^ MP3 of the WABC broadcast as the blackout happened. Accessed 3 December 2010.
  3. ^ Time Magazine. December 10, 1965. "Providing Blackout Lights"
  4. ^ Frum, David (2000). How We Got Here: The '70s. New York, New York: Basic Books. p. 14. ISBN 0-465-04195-7. 
  5. ^ "From Here to Maternity",
  6. ^ NICAP's report of UFO Sightings during the Nov. 9, 1965 Blackout

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]