- “Everyone's Gone To The Moon” from nil by Jonathan King (1965)
Back in November of 1965, some techs set a circuit breaker too low at a power plant in Ontario, and a couple of days later, it blew. The breakers are designed to go off if the load gets too high for the equipment to handle. The power surge that had tripped the breaker was then directed to another part of the grid, which was already heavily loaded.
You can probably guess what happened next: the protective breakers on that segment popped, pushing even more power to the rest of the grid. Segment by segment, the entire Northeastern power grid came down (more or less). It was a classic cascade failure.
At the same time, DJ Dan Ingram was playing Jonathan King’s “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” on New York’s WABC. Power was still getting to the radio station, but the power grid was heavily overloaded. They call the machines that transduce power from one form (e.g. heat of coal burning) to another (e.g. steam spinning a turbine hooked to a generator) “prime movers” (lol). On large power grids, they use something called “droop speed control” to manage sharing load amongst prime movers. If you take a loose, unpowered generator and hook it up to a power grid, the input side will spin like a motor. A generator is an electric motor working backwards, and if the generator isn’t pushing out electrical power, it’ll soak it up and produce spinning power. On a huge power grid, the generators are set up so that they’ll spin at about 105% of the grid’s actual frequency if they are totally unloaded, and they spin slower when loaded. Generally, the system is designed so that the generators never get loaded enough to drop below the actual target speed. On the high side, none of them is big enough to make a dent in the grid’s speed, and if they drop on the low side, the grid will motor them along. Unless the grid gets super, super loaded. Then, the speed of all the generators drops.
In olden times, like 1965, they didn’t have cheapo crystal oscillators that could generate steady timing signals in circuits, so lots of devices recovered their sense of real-world time from the power grid. You build a motor that runs directly on the 60Hz oscillations of the power grid (3600 RPM), then you use a train of gears to divide down the RPM till you get to something useful for a record player, say ~78, 45, or 33 1/3 RPM.
Unfortunately, if the power grid’s AC frequency drops, the speed the record player or tape machine runs at drops too. With analog media like 78s and magnetic tapes, not only does it run slower, the pitch drops.
Streets full of people
Roads full of houses
Church full of singing
Out of tune
Everyone’s gone to the moon
On this tape of the broadcast, whenever Dan Ingram plays something prerecorded, the pitch and time are all slowed down, but he can talk normally. He can hear it, and he keeps pointing it out as the power grid melts down. Over the course of the tape, the load on the power grid grows, and the frequency drops to 56Hz, and finally to 51Hz. Shortly thereafter, it shut down completely.
One of the great things about analog technology is it fucks up correctly: its fuckups are analagous to its problem. In a children’s story, if the power grid was failing in New York City, of course the music on the radio would play slower and at lower pitch. In 1965, that’s what really happened.