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September 9, 2003

A public radio commentary

A few minutes after 4 p.m. Eastern time on August 14, 2003, the largest blackout in United States history hit the east coast. An 800 megawatt power surge roared from Ontario to New York City, shutting down power grids across the region. We called this a blackout, yet, the real reason our world came to a halt was not because of dimmed lights, but because of still motors. The motor is what made electricity a superstar among energies.

We don't often think about it, but electricity is best thought of as a way to move motion from one place to another. The immediate source of electricity is motion - the mechanical motor of a generator spins to create electricity. This motor is driven by various fuels - mostly coal, petroleum and nuclear - yet, turning these fuels into electricity is a costly conversion process. We do it, though, because of the convenience: Electricity is easily transmitted, and can run motors in our homes. Without electricity each house us would have a loud motor churning away to run everything. In fact, our houses would look much like a factory of the late 19th century. Factories of that time were powered by large steam engines. A steam engine spun a shaft the ran through the factory; machines hooked onto the rotating shaft with an elaborate system of belts. That all change in the early part of the 20th century when an electrical grid was laid across the United States, and when Nikola Tesla invented a durable electric motor - a motor that runs our homes today.

Our refrigerators have motors, as do hair dryers, VCRs, and air conditioners. And, of course, many of the things in our homes exist because of electric motors. During the blackout, dairy farms lost the ability to milk their cows mechanically, and no motors whirred in ATMs to spit out money. In Detroit the blackout caused a gas shortage when it stilled the electric motors at the pumps. And perhaps the most devastating was in Cleveland, which lost fresh water because no electric pumps could move the water from Lake Erie. Some areas ran the risk that their major reservoirs would run dry and fire departments would have no way to put out fires.

What were we left with then with no moving parts that could get us through a blackout? A technology almost exactly the age of the motor, in fact one which grew up slightly before it: The 100 year old technology of ham Radio. Run off of batteries, infrastructure. In the New York area alone about 100 ham radio operators worked with the Red Cross to coordinate the emergency response of ambulances.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises