A fascinating look at the history of blackouts in America, When the Lights Went Out ($27.95, MIT Press, April 2010) explores these events in a cultural and social context. It is written by David E. Nye, professor of American history at the University of Southern Denmark, who has previously written several books on the topics of electricity, energy, and 21st century technological innovation.

Nye divides the 292-page book into seven chapters: Grid, War, Accident, Crisis, Rolling Blackouts, Terror, and Greenout. This provides a framework for examining how the development and configuration of the U.S.'s electrical grid has contributed to the major large-scale power failures that have occurred since 1935. Nye highlights specific blackouts during World War II, the Great Northeastern Blackout of 1965, the 1977 New York City blackout, the 2000 California rolling blackouts, and the 2003 blackout that affected 50 million people from the Midwest to the East Coast and parts of Canada.

Depending on the circumstances that have led to each blackout—unanticipated, voluntary, or mandated—social response has varied widely. Some blackouts, such as the 1977 one in New York, caused chaos and social disruption. The blackout in 2003, by contrast, impacted an unprecedented number of people, but brought them together and created a sense of community. But no matter the circumstance, when we find ourselves without light and power, we become acutely aware of how dependent we have become on electricity.

“Blackouts are breaks in the flow of social time that reveal much about the trajectory of American history,” Nye writes. “Each time one occurs, Americans confront their essential condition—not as isolated individuals, but as a community that increasingly binds itself together with electrical wires and signals.”