When people talk about black outs, they can mean one of three things: to cut or turn out the lights or electric power; to prevent or silence information or communication; or to become unconscious.
With regards to cutting or turning out the lights or electric power. In the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, this expression most often referred to the stage and theatre lights in a theater. However, at the start of World War II, it also came to mean darkening an entire city to hide it from enemy bombers.
Pope John Paul’s visit to Lima, Peru was reported on in the February 5, 1985 edition of the New Straits Times in Peninsular Malaysia. The news story entitled, “Rebels Black Out Pope’s Lima Tour” described the uproar associated with Pope John Paul’s visit.
Peruvian guerillas, defying 15,000 men and Pope John Paul’s call for peace, last night blew up power pylons and blacked out Lima as the Pope rode through the city, police said.
Back on June 14, 1955 the Youngstown Vindicator published a story about the flash floods unleashed by torrential desert cloud bursts. The news article, entitled, “Floods Black Out Las Vegas; Trains Stalled” reported that the flash floods had blacked out the city. The damage costs were expected to run at least $100,000 and quite possibly as much as $500,000. Power was quickly restored in most sections of Las Vegas however 80 percent of all telephones were still out of order the following day.
On January 9, 1940 the Miami News reported on a train accident near Ware, Hertfordshire in England. The story was entitled, “Two Trains Crash; Score Injured In Black-Out.” The Miami News reported:
Two London-Northeastern railway passenger trains collided in the black-out last night, trapping scores of women and children in wrecked coaches. Although several coaches were telescoped and both engines were overturned, no one was killed and only 25 were injured.
Just 2 years earlier, on May 31, 1938 the New York Times published an article entitled, “New Raid on Japan Forces Black Out Over A Wide Region.” It stated in part:
Japan had a raid scare when two mysterious planes, supposed to be Chinese, flew along the whole western side of Kyushu island last night and early today. All the region was “blacked out” for three hours.
As a side note here, Japan’s electricity system was started in 1883 when the Tokyo Electric Light Company — now known as Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) — was founded. Demand grew for electricity and in 1895, the company purchased equipment from AEG while its competitor, Osaka Electric Lamp purchased equipment from General Electric. Since the founding of electric companies in Japan in the 1880s and 1890s, there have been reports of black outs.
In theatre circles, a black out means to extinguish all of the stage lights at once, leaving the stage in complete darkness. While it is a term oftentimes associated with a performance, it has also been used to mean a performance is not to take place on that day.
The Baltimore Sun ran a news story on September 18, 1901 that spoke of Baltimoreans of all classes uniting to pay tribute to deceased President McKinley. The article stated that the bells of nearly all the Catholic and Episcopal churches would be tolled from 2 to 8 o’clock in the afternoon and that theatres would be “draped in somber black out of respect to the dead President.” In other words, there would be no performances in the theatres on that day.