Life Without Electricity

Tornado over Oklahoma TownSunday morning the electricity went out in our house. It seems to happen more and more frequently. The lines in our subdivision are underground, so usually the lights just flicker, or we get our power back after a minute or two.

But Sunday morning it was out for over an hour, from about 7:30am until about 9:00am. I’d already had my breakfast and read the newspaper, but I was just starting the crossword puzzle. The sun was up, but the skies so dark under the storm clouds that the house was dark, except just next to our windows. And even there, I couldn’t see the small font or squares of the puzzle.

What could I do without power?

I found a large flashlight, and took a shower by its light. The master bathroom in our house has no windows. Neither do two other bathrooms in the house.

Home design has changed since electricity became the norm. Houses did not have windowless rooms before the convenience of light at the flick of a switch. We turn on lights as we move from place to place, each new transmission of electricity seems free in terms of time and cost.

We do not have to take time to fill our lamps with fuel, nor strike a flint to light them. We do not have to dip candles made from the tallow of animals we raised and slaughtered. Our only exposure to the cost of light is the utility bill we pay once a month, so we have no concept of the resources and labor required to create the power we use.

After my shower, I pulled up all the blinds in the den, sat in a comfy chair, and in the dim grey light I wrote in my journal. I had to move from one chair to another, needing the window behind my left shoulder to illuminate the page. When the window was behind my right shoulder, my right hand cast a shadow on my journal, and I couldn’t see to write.

Our ancestors would have known where to sit for maximum light unconsciously. They would have learned the lesson in childhood. I had to learn again this cloudy morning, no diffusion available from my many lamps and overhead fluorescent bulbs to block the shadows.

As I watched the minutes pass on my battery-powered clocks, I worried about cooking without power, about the food that would spoil in the refrigerator and freezer if the electricity did not return soon, and about laundry without the convenience of washer and dryer.

Although many of us find it fun to spend a few days in the wilderness camping without electricity, we say we are “roughing it.” We think we are living like our ancestors, but we do not consider how our Goretex boots and nylon tent were fashioned. In fact, even our backwoods adventures are beholden to our high-tech society. They are not what our ancestors experienced.

The electricity returned.

I then typed this post about my hour without power. On a laptop that could have survived only a few hours without its cord. To post through my network router that did not connect at all without electricity.

The Stonehenge in UKAnd I was grateful when the sun reappeared from behind the clouds. The storm had passed. I had both natural and artificial lighting. Which did I appreciate the most? Hard to tell.

What lessons have you learned about life in the past from failures of our modern technology?

Posted in History, Philosophy, Technology, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , .


  1. Our power was out from about 10 a.m. to about midnight yesterday. Apparently a tree branch in a neighbor’s yard fell – after the storm had passed, actually – on a utility pole which split in half. Must have been a very old rotten utility pole! Power outages occur frequently enough in this ancient neighborhood with lots of trees and overhead lines that we know right where the flashlights etc. are. The new tankless water heater is a problem, though – no electricity = cold shower.

    Power outages always make me think of a Rod Serling “Twilight Zone” episode of decades ago, about a man who loved to read but never had time to do so. War or something occurs, he’s the lone survivor, and midst the destruction he finds himself in a library with some books still on the shelves. He is joyous – finally, time to read! – until his glasses fall off his face and he steps on them. No optometrists to sell him some new ones….

    I also think about the people making things work again. A whole bunch of guys worked more than an 8-hour shirt on Labor Day weekend and well into the night getting our neighborhood’s power restored. My heroes for the week!

    • Linda, then you had it much worse than we did.
      Maybe I should be glad I was talked out of a tankless hot water heater this summer.
      And you’re right — the guys who get the electricity back are heroes.
      P.S. When my glasses aren’t on, I still read. I simply hold the book six inches from my nose. Reading is too important to give up, just because you can’t see.

  2. I learned that when our power would go out like that, it was in our yard where the power failures were initiated and being the one to report the outage helped them find the source. 🙂

  3. I got a real feel for how easy electricity has made our modern life while exercising on an exercise bike I made out of an electric generator and an old bicycle. I generate 120 watts for 15 minutes and get just as winded as in a two mile jog. I imagined having to do a two mile jog every time I ran a 120 watt appliance for 15 min or a 60 watt appliance for 30 minutes. That is how easy electricity has made our lives. The energy comes from oil, coal, gas, or nuclear sources but electricity lets us use that energy in so many ways.

      • I did a little more arithmetic after looking at my monthly electric bill (325 kW-hr average) and figured out that it would take 21,000 miles of jogging to generate the same amount of energy that I consume in a month. That’s almost one lap around the earth at the equator (24,900 miles).

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