Monday, December 19, 2016

Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?

...or when the electricity went off?

What would today's society do in a non-electrified world? Oh, some would cope, but I expect most of those would be the older crowd - those who understand how to live without cell phones and internet, or instant everything. Consider just how much of our life is dependant on electricity. Fridges, stoves, cookers of several types, coffee pots, hot water, radio and TV, lights, education, workplaces ... today, nearly all of them depend on power (okay, there are some appliances that run off gas or propane but just as many homes run electric appliances).

Ditto Machine (Wikimedia)
What got me started on this track wasn't a power outage (but in 2003 we went through a 3 day total outage for most of Ontario and bordering provinces, leading right down into the US) but a photo of an old Gestetner machine on Facebook, with the question "do you know what this is".

I recognized it immediately because in our high school's office (back in the 1970s) sat the exact same model, and I used to have to "work" in our high school office on my lunch hour. In our business dept (that's where students learned stuff like typing and Short Hand and general office stuff  they had a "Ditto" machine (a little different than the Gestetner) ... I used to run that one too, and type up lessons to run off.

Overhead Projector (Wikimedia)
When the power was off, school didn't stop. There wasn't any need to. Typing could still be done; lessons and tests could still be printed; windows opened to let in fresh air; and, teachers taught. There were very few things needed beyond the text books and blackboards for a teacher to get through the lesson. Audio visual equipment consisted of an overhead projector, or film strip machine. Lessons could always be completed without electricity and with no distractions such as cell phones and tablets, there wasn't much else to do but get through the class. More often than not, whether you wanted it to or not, a lot of the information seemed to insinuate itself into your memory.

I often wonder how today's students would fare under such a system. I think some would be fine, while others would be totally lost, and fidget so much they'd distract everyone else. I think even some adults would be lost.

Cafetière à filtre Melitta 102 en faïence jaune 11
Melitta Coffee Pot (Wikimedia)
During the 3-day powerless period we managed okay, but then, we were old people and understood how to do it. I had a lot of old kitchen gadgets...I mean really old (1900-1930s) and not a single one of them had a power cord. I had everything I needed to cook with except a stove and oven, but we did have a BBQ. We could even make toast, because I had an old campfire toaster and an old Melitta Coffee pot (that only required a paper filter ... or in a pinch paper towel folded into a cone shape, coffee grounds, and boiling water ... that came from a pot on the BBQ).  We ate a lot of food that didn't require cooking - had to use that up first (things that were perishable) and then started cooking meat over the BBQ.

I had an old battery operated radio of my dad's so we at least could get
An old plastic battery-operated radio and cassette player, circa 1970s.
My dad's old battery radio.
emergency news if we needed to. We had lots of other things that would run on batteries, or that you had to wind up to use (like an alarm clock).

The biggest worry was keeping things cold - both in the freezer, and the milk. We packed the freezer and fridge with ice, but not until the second day. A closed freezer will stay pretty frozen for at least 24 hours if you don't keep opening it. After that you either need to find a way to keep it frozen, or cook the meat. Unfortunately, it was August, and hot. And, nobody was really prepared for a 3-day hiatus from ordinary life. Initially there was a run on stores for generators ... you couldn't buy a generator within 500 miles of here, and then the same happened for ice ... and then the staples. Most of the stores were closed (no backup power) and of course with all the registers being scanners and needing electricity, well, some people just had a 3-day work break.

A room full of different vintage cash registers.
Cash Registers (via
And yeah, I am old enough to have worked with cash registers that could still be run with a crank. If the power went out, you grabbed the crank (kept below the counter), and used it to open the cash drawer. No ... it didn't total sales or tax or change. We did that with a notepad and pencil - 2 copies, one for the store and one for the customer. Back then, you knew mathematics and most cashiers could add, subtract, multiply divide and even figure tax percentages in our head (but I will say I'm glad we didn't have to do it too often). Today, if your bill comes $10.90 and you give the clerk a twenty dollar bill and ninety cents in change they tell you that you've given them too much. Yes, but then you only have to give me back a $10 bill instead of $9.10.

It makes me wonder sometimes if all the progress we have happening today is really such a good thing ... I mean, I do agree that progress is necessary but not at the expense of losing our ability to survive without all the gadgets. Why can't both technologies exist together?

What would happen without cell phones? Do people still know how to communicate face-to-face, and not by tapping things on a little screen? What would happen without the internet? Would people still read printed newspapers; would they know how use the library?; would they get lost, or understand how to read a paper map?  How about looking up a word in the dictionary ... paper books won't take you directly to the word, you have to know somewhat how to spell it. (Actually, I still do all of the above ... as a reigning dinosaur, I don't rely on gadgets ... yep, they're fun, but I get my newspaper in my front door, not on my computer or phone. My main phone plugs into the wall, not into the car.)

Seems a little overboard, but it's not. I saw my own kids struggling to use a printed dictionary in school, and that was before all this modernization. They didn't know how to use a card catalogue at the library either.

What if you couldn't access your Paypal account, or your virtual banking system, or get money from the ATM anytime of night or day?

In our town, and I bet across most of the eastern provinces and some of the eastern US, that summer, during those dark, quiet 3 days, a lot of people learned to do things they never knew how to do before.

Three days was tough enough for a lot of people, but what if ... what if it was three months, or three years? Could you do it? Could your kids do it? As a society, could we do it? There's where you make it or break it ... it takes everyone working together, using their skills and their supplies and sharing just about everything to get through a serious crisis.

Something we all need to think about, because nothing is 100% for certain, except (as they say) death and taxes.

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