At 5:16 pm on Tuesday, the 9th of November, the lights went out in large parts of the north-eastern United States, and in the Canadian province of Ontario. A protective relay in the system that covered those areas was set too low, and when there was a surge in current demand, that relay tripped and cut off the electricity to much of that whole area. The megalopolises of New York, Boston, and Toronto were plunged into darkness by 5:30 pm as the power went out. Only some hospitals and other institutions that had their own power generators were spared the blackout. Affected areas stayed dark and without electricity until 7:00 am the next day, November 10th.
Not only did this affect rush hour in all those places, it cut off the power to a number of entertainment options that people normally enjoyed. Televisions went dark, movie theater screens were eclipsed, and only transistor radios stayed alive. What were people to do? Well, the story, as most of you have probably heard, is that, nine months later (almost to the day) the birth rate spiked. So, apparently, when people looked at their TV and the blackout meant that there was nothing on, they turned to their significant other and said, “let’s get it on.”
I hope I don’t have to explain the biomechanics of what allegedly happened that night any further, but nine months later, more babies were born in greater numbers than would have normally been the case, so the story goes. These “blackout babies” (as a story) have been with us ever since. In fact, the story is so commonly known that almost every time there’s a power outage, jokes fly around to the effect, “well, the birth rate will go up in nine months.”
But, as you might guess, it’s a myth. All you Buzzkillers can be forgiven for believing this story, however, because three reports in the New York Times in early August 1966 said that this happened. The Times had interviewed several maternity doctors from Manhattan hospitals, and they said that they had noticed an increase in births nine months after the blackout.
As statisticians and demographers tell us, the problem is that the birth rate always fluctuates somewhat day to day, week to week, month to month, and year to year. These fluctuations are normal and not dramatic and, statistically speaking, not significant. If the blackout babies story were true, the spike in August 1966 would have been greater than a normal fluctuation. It wasn’t.
The late Richard Udry, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, examined this story carefully and in detail. In an article in the August 1970 issue of the scholarly journal Demography, he proved comprehensively that the blackout baby spike didn’t happen. In fact, the increase in births in August 1966 was nothing more than a tiny baby bump on the statistical trend that year. Other statisticians and demographers have shown that the stories of “baby booms” nine months after crises that keep people indoors without “normal” entertainment diversions are also unfounded.
Why do people continue to believe this story? Well, Professors Udry had a pretty good explanation. “It is evidently pleasing to many people,” he wrote, “to fantasize that when people are trapped by some immobilizing event which deprives them of their usual activities, most will turn to copulation.”
The blackout baby boom story is not true, but I don’t want to squash your fantasies, Buzzkillers, with the scholarly language of statisticians and demographers. My advice is that, if the lights go out in your town, love the one you’re with.
- Richard Urdry (oo-dree), “The Effect of the Great Blackout of 1965 on Births in New York City,” Demography