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Another Perspective



GRAVITY'S DRAIN BOWL

"Niagara Falls . . . slowly I turned . . . step by step. . . ." The speaker is a homicidal maniac, about to grab Lou Costello and wring his neck. The setting is a jailhouse.  How the lunatic, Costello, and Abbott got there is irrelevant.  But every time Costello says "Niagara Falls," he sets off the madman, who relives the crime of passion he once committed there.  A similar scene involving power transmission apparatus occurred on August 14, and 50 million people had their electricity choked off.

Something that had gone wrong in Ohio, as investigations indicate, became a problem elsewhere on the power grid.  One elsewhere followed another, until the final dynamo dominos fell — at Niagara Falls.

Once power from Niagara was taken out of the grid, it was all over.  As much as a quarter of the electricity used by the state of New York comes from Niagara's complex of hydroelectric plants, and so does a similar or possibly larger portion of the wattage used in Ontario, Canada.

The toll was impressive.  Not only did 50 million people get their juice squeezed, but so did tens of thousands of businesses and institutions.  Even the major airports, designed to be resilient, particularly since the Sept.  11 attacks, were clobbered.  The discombobulation of the airports was, however, not the most surprising aspect of the Big Blackout (or, if our luck does not hold, the First Big Blackout) of 2003.  The most dramatic surprise was the way that computing and communications systems were affected.

Abbott and Costello
Abbott and Costello
Third base on stage but first
in the hearts of their fans

People didn't have electricity, but they did have a dial tone.  Just about anyone with a laptop or a generator was able to get on the Internet.  ISPs, for the most part, have backup batteries and generators, or are physically located far from their users, which, in this case, meant outside the blackout area.

Web surfers spoiled by broadband were, for the most part, forced to go back to dial-up speeds.  Even if their computers were lit up, even if their routers and modems had backup power, some big pieces of the communications backbone serving the Northeast went down.  Verizon, for instance, the biggest phone company and DSL provider hit by the blackout, often was able to provide service at the outside edge of its system, but still lost network connectivity for its DSL customers in the New York area and elsewhere and wasn't able to restore service for some time after electric power came back on.

Companies that have unplugged their servers in favor of offerings from remote services companies were able to keep running wherever they had ordinary or backup power for their workstations and communications apparatus.  Companies that farm out some vital computing, such as payroll, while performing other jobs in-house were able to ride out the storm only if their remote-access equipment was independent of the grid.

Once power was restored, which, in my neck of the woods, was about 12 hours after the blackout began, computing and communications got back to normal with surprising speed.  The same could not be said of other activities that depend on the power grid's continuity.

The New York subways would have had all the power they needed to move trains through the blackout, because the system's tracks have their own generating facilities.  But the New York City Transit Authority had hawked its signaling equipment as part of a deal that also disconnected the power for the signals from the power for the tracks.  This bit of trickery is reminiscent of the time Los Angeles sold off its extensive light rail system to General Motors, after which GM wound it down and then sold citizens buses and cars.

The mix of misfortune, ineptitude, and perhaps corruption, left New York without its subways for three days, trapping many people, particularly the poor.  In the aftermath of the blackout, the city's billionaire mayor moved on to other things, and his political adversaries neglected to question this caper, presumably because anything dumb or dirty was strictly non-partisan, leaving no stone-throwers on the sidelines.

Yet the annoyance of the blackout was not confined to the poor.  In fact, some of the people who suffered the most were the very rich who live in urban high rises.  They lost their elevators, their pumped water, and the use of their many-powered possessions.  If their mental medications required electricity to function, there might have been a revolution.

For every American, including those living far from the blackout area, the incident was a world-class embarrassment.  The blackout may have lasted less than a day for most of those directly affected, but the picture of America with a sixth of its population living in the Stone Age will not fade away soon.  And the last thing the country needs right now is another example of its vulnerability and helplessness.

The White House, usually quick to spot a photo opportunity, had its attention elsewhere.  We are certain that a photo of President Bush, sitting by candlelight at his laptop and surfing the Web to keep an eye on the fate of his citizens, would have cheered the populace and given America's foes a strong message about the determination of their adversary.

The current chapter of America's story mirrors the tragic life of the immigrant whose inventions gave the world its electric power grid in the first place, along with alternating current motors and ultra high voltage technology.

This fellow also created the first alternating current generator at Niagara Falls.  His name was Nikola Tesla.  He was born in 1856 to Serbian parents living in a little town in Croatia.  He decided not to follow his clergyman father's footsteps into the Orthodox church and ended up, after some study and travel, in New York.

Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla
Inventor of the coil that can't say no

Tesla spent some time working for Thomas Edison, but they had a fundamental disagreement: Edison believed in direct current, Tesla in alternating current.  In the view of some historians, the world turned away from Edison's ideas and toward Tesla's when, in 1883, Tesla's ideas and George Westinghouse's money produced a lighting system in Niagara Falls, based on alternating current and powered by water-driven turbines.

The advantage of alternating current was that it could be transformed to high voltage and then more efficiently carried for long distances.  Direct current systems carrying meaningful amounts of power were limited to distances of a few miles, after which they used more energy warming wires than delivering power to customers.  With Tesla's inventions, the area around Niagara Falls became a center of industry, and as the power grid evolved, the hydroelectric energy provided by the Niagara River ultimately was able to light up the signs on Broadway.

Direct current system in the area tried to sell electricity as an alternative to the first generation of big turbines at the falls, turbines whose power was transmitted to nearby factories by huge arrays of belts and pulleys.  DC could try to compete with purely mechanical power transmissions systems, but not with AC delivered over long distances.

Computer users have another thing to thank Tesla for: their power supplies.  The compact and efficient switching power supplies inside PCs and servers (and other kinds of equipment) are based on a principle Tesla used in his ultra high voltage generators, called Tesla coils.

Despite his immense contributions to the advancement of technology, Tesla died broke in Manhattan, a lonely figure living in the Hotel New Yorker.  He lasted until 1943, long enough to see the whole world adopt his inventions, but not long enough to find a way to personally reap the fruits of his genius.  Tesla had many gifts, but business acumen was not among them.

If you try to puzzle out just how Tesla's work could be exploited so effectively while leaving the inventor pretty much out in the cold, you will never come up with a satisfactory explanation.  You would ultimately become as perplexed as the newspaper reporters who have tried to explain to a curious public just why the entire northeastern United States had all its ergs in one basket, or as baffled as Lou Costello became when he tried to find out about the baseball team Bud Abbott was managing.

Abbott:  Who's on first?

Costello:  I don't know.

Abbott and Costello:  Third base!

— Hesh Wiener September 2003


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