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n his classic popular science series, "Connections," James Burke looked at how events and people were linked together in unexpected ways. Generally, these events were spread out over centuries and continents (such as how the discovery of a certain kind of slate in Middle Eastern rivers led to the atomic bomb), but in one instance, Burke focused on an event that happened in a matter of minutes.
It happened on a November evening just as people were filing out of their offices in cities along the East Coast. As millions started for home, something that seemed very tiny happened inside a small metal box 400 miles from New York City. Inside that box, two small pieces of metal came into contact. Within twelve minutes, 80,000 square miles of the most densely populated areas of the US and Canada were without power. Thirty million people were affected.
What happened was the closure of a single single back up relay, at a single power station, on the Canadian side of Niagara falls. It wasn't really a "failure," just a miscalibration. The relay tripped because power demand had momentarily spiked on a line leading into Toronto, and when it tripped power was pushed onto another line, causing that line to overload, which pushed still more power down the next line, and so on, creating a cascade that left some people in the dark for more than 13 hours. People hundreds of miles away died because someone at that power plant hadn't properly calibrated that breaker to handle rising demand on the system.
That was in 1965. In some ways the system today is better. In some ways it's much, much worse.
What happened that evening illustrates how systems that are enormously costly and massive, can still be incredibly fragile and subject to the failure of a single part. There's a famous antecedent that John Glenn, moments before he was about to become the first American in orbit, realized that he was sitting on a billion dollars worth of low bids. It's good for a smile, until you realize that what was true for Glenn then is even more true for all of us today.