Recently it seems like people all over the world are having extreme weather, often accompanied by power blackouts. Whether it's blizzards and ice-storms, record heat waves, lightning strikes, wildfires, hurricanes, cyclones or floods, generally they have one think in common — no power. (Image by eyasu-etsub on Unplash.)
We're so dependent on electricity that we take it completely for granted — until it goes.
And then, suddenly, you realize how very dependent we've become on it for all sorts of things and I don't just mean for serious things, though one friend of mine was without power in below freezing conditions, another lost several weeks worth of food that thawed and spoiled, and another was flooded and couldn't phone for help as her cordless phone battery had gone flat and there was no way to recharge it. The power failures caused really serious problems for many, many people.
But not for me. I’m luck and I haven’t been in any danger or even seriously inconvenienced. The worst I had was to be hot. Several years ago, it was our third day of 45º heat (that's 113º F) and the house, the dog and I were hot. In the city people were stuck in lifts for hours in the heat, and stuck in packed trains, unable to get the electricity operated doors open. For them it was truly dreadful.
But not for me. My only problem—and it wasn't really a problem—was that I was bored. It was too hot to do housework or anything physically active. I couldn't listen to music, work on the computer, do the washing, or do anything useful (I told myself.) So I did what comes naturally — I started reading a book.
All well and good, you say, but then the light started to go, and the print started to fade. Simple, I hear you say — light a candle. I did, but still found myself squinting at the print. Light another one, you say — yes, but it was 113ºF and I didn’t want to add to the heat if I could help it.
So I sat there, pondering my problem, doing nothing useful, and thinking how not so long ago, we lived without power. For me it's actually a living memory — though I was just a toddler. When I was born, my parents were in a "back to the land" phase, and living in an area where the electricity grid hadn't yet reached, so until I was four, we didn't have electric light.
My mother came home from a full days teaching in a hot army hut school building, teaching 40+ little kids, none of whom spoke English. At the end of the day she cooked a meal for a family of six on a wood stove, did all the washing by hand, boiling the sheets up in a big copper kettle and who knows what else? She was a true heroine, my mum.
But that was then and this is . . . more recent. So, there I was reading a good book and didn't want to put it down and the light was fading and it was, I felt, too hot to light two candles.
And thus my mind turned very naturally to the sweat shops of London, where hapless women were crammed into rooms to squint over a seam or a hem or fine, delicate embroidery, for which they were paid a pittance. The conditions were appalling and the light was worse because, of course, candles and lamp oil were expensive. The cheap candles threw, at best, a feeble light and were smelly and smoky. Fine sewing for long hours in poor light ruined the seamstresses' eyesight.
As I considered my problem, I remembered that seamstresses used to put a candle behind a glass globe filled with water, which acted as a lens. Would this work for me? I wondered. So I experimented.
I lit a candle and took a photo of a book. No flash of course. Then without moving the candle or the book, I put a bowl of water in front of the flame and took another photo from the same position. Thirdly I tried using a large plastic bottle of water to see if that could be a lens, too. It could. It made an appreciable difference, as you can see below.
It was a bit tricky for reading; you had to move the page around a bit to get the best light, but it was clearly a workable alternative. Just.
Then the power came back on, so I experimented no further.
When it came time to write this blog, I did a search for some good historical images of hapless seamstresses. There is a distinct shortage — mostly there are paintings of a nice middle-class woman sewing by the window of a large, well lit room, or sitting outside in some idyllic setting, in the grass or on a rock. (You can tell the artists never had to get grass stains out of white cotton!) I could find no images of women in a sweatshop bending over a sputtering tallow candle, catching its light through a bowl of water. But I did like the B&W image above where she's sewing and reading. Not that she's in a sweatshop.
"In the evenings eighteen girls worked by one tallow candle, value one penny; the 'candle-stool' stood about as high as an ordinary table with four legs. In the middle of this was what was known as a 'pole-board' with 6 holes in the circle and one in the centre. In the centre was a long stick with a socket for the candle at one end, and peg holes through the sides, so that it could be raised and lowered at will. In the other six holes were placed pieces of wood hollowed out like a cup and into each of these was placed a bottle made of very thin glass and filled with water. These bottles acted as strong condensers or lenses, and the eighteen girls sat round the table, three to each bottle, their stools being upon different levels, the highest near the bottle, which threw the light down on the work like a burning glass."
[Quoted in Findings By Mary Carolyn Beaudry. p157 Published by Yale University Press, 2006]
Anyway, I finished my book in bright electric light, basking in a cool air conditioned breeze and feeling very grateful that I wasn't born a seamstress in a sweatshop in the early 19th century. These days, of course, reading without electricity wouldn’t be a problem — my e-reader and laptop would keep me going for hours. But keeping food fresh, and having plenty of clean water, and staying warm, which are much more serious issues in extreme weather are not so easily solved.
(And if you're thinking this blog rings a bell, yes, it's an old one I wrote in 2009. I hurt my back last night and wasn't feeling up to writing a fresh blog. Sorry.)
What about you? Have you had any extreme weather or power blackouts recently? What problems did it cause? Tell us about it.