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Remembering the blackout of August 14, 2003

As I have just been reminded, today marked the 5th anniversary of the blackout that darkened much of the US north-east and Ontario. I spent that evening, August 14th, 2003, watching a movie, browsing the Internet, listening to the radio, and otherwise performing electrical tasks thanks to a lucky series of coincidences.

In the spring of 2003, I bought myself a new laptop. Having used a 486 Dtk Computer laptop since 1998 for which I had paid just $50, I felt the time had come to upgrade. Somehow, using a computer with 8MB of RAM and a 325MB hard drive dual booting DOS and a 2.0-series Linux kernel no longer seemed entirely adequate. At the time, I also purchased a GPRS data card from then still independent Fido with a true unlimited data plan, a package essentially unmatched to this day by Canada's mobile phone companies.

I bought the laptop and the data card and plan so I could get on the Internet and do work while pursuing my then-new hobby of trainspotting. It worked marvellously well. I went to my favourite location, Guelph Junction, a railway junction just outside of Campbellville that connects Guelph's city-owned Guelph Junction Railway to the Canadian Pacific mainlines running between Toronto and London, and branching off to Hamilton. There were two radio towers at Guelph Junction. One of them was the railway's own communications tower so that dispatchers could talk to train crews. The other was a Fido cell tower, which guaranteed me excellent reception for my laptop as I sat at its base. The latter was taken down shortly after Rogers purchased Fido.

But I had a problem. My laptop's battery only lasted a couple of hours. I could not spend the whole day sitting there. By August of 2003, I had decided on a solution to that, and a sort-of related problem. Trainspotting, at least if you want to take photos of the trains as I do, is essentially limited to daylight hours. I wondered if I could get around this problem by using a pair of 500W halogen work lamps pointed at the train as it passed.

So early in August, I went to Canadian Tire and got as carried away as I could. I bought a 1200W 3-socket power inverter and a pair of 500W halogen work lamps, and booked an appointment at Powerline, a high-end electronics store at the north end of Guelph, to have the inverter installed in my 1990 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser with its roughly 375,000 km. The appointment was for August 12th.

I purchased a 25-foot wind-up coil extension cable that would live with the inverter in the car, and headed off to Powerline with the car for its scheduled appointment. An hour later, I turned it on for the first time and admired the digital read-out of my car battery's voltage and the huge piece of equipment now on the floor between the driver and passenger seats. I had done it.

Two days later, I was at my desk in the afternoon when I noticed two very strange power surges in quick succession. Without really thinking about it, I started shutting down my computers as I had not seen that kind of surge before and did not know what it was. A few minutes later, all my computers were shut down and the power went out in the house on what appeared to be a perfectly clear, normal day.

I found this to be a little odd and decided to see if I could put my inverter to use. Within a few minutes, I had strung the 25-foot power cable from my inverter through my house to the kitchen, where I plugged another extension cord into it onto my back porch. I plugged my laptop in and booted it up, shortly getting on the 'net and connecting up to IRC, an internet chat protocol developed in the late 80s that I continue to use to this day (see the 'Bloggers' Chat' link on the right). Within minutes it was obvious from the others that I was talking to that the scale of this power outage was rather large, as it was making news around the world. As I recall, it was friends in Europe who told me that all my neighbours' power was out.

Figuring we were in for the long haul, I strung up some more wires from the car, and with the help of a couple of my house-mates, set up a DVD player, small television, radio, and some lights on the porch. It occured to me at that point that it would probably be more useful to plug the chest freezer into the inverter so that our food wouldn't spoil, and I refocused my efforts on trying to do that. Within a few minutes it was clear that my car's battery was not capable of providing enough power to the inverter to power the freezer and I gave up on that project, not realising until much later that my car would never be able to provide enough power to bring the 1200W inverter to its full potential. I took off with a friend to check out the various stores in the city to see if anyone still had any ice for sale to try and preserve the freezer that way. Needless to say, we missed that boat and we returned empty handed.

While I don't recall what we did for dinner, my neighbour on one side came up onto our porch and as the sun went down we put on the movie "Catch Me If You Can," with my computer merrily providing us access to the full force of the Internet through my unlimited data plan, and the radio softly keeping us up to date in the background. A compact fluorescent light efficiently illuminated the scene for us, as our neighbour on the other side started up a small fire in their yard. After the movie, we set up lights around the house that could be used off the car battery as needed for the night and went to sleep.

Epilogue

The power came back on at about 4 am and had no further issues. The car itself was retired on November 12th, 2003 with a bit over 378,000 km on it. Fido's GPRS data service became worthless (except, curiously, in Ottawa where it worked perfectly well) after Rogers took over the company and I eventually got rid of it. The halogen lights did not see photography service until the inverter was installed in my new car, a 1993 of the same model with only 147,000 km which remains in service to this day, in early 2004. On May 5th, 2004 I tried to use them to take a photo of a brand new locomotive bound for Alaska Railroad on its way through Guelph Junction. In the few seconds the lights were on for the photo, the car battery nearly died and the engine ran rough as it tried to keep up with the 1000W load. The photo didn't come out, either.

Posted at 21:47 on August 14, 2008

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