Not City, Not Sticks

I happen to be under the spell of Charles Dickens for the moment because I am trying to understand exactly how people survived roughly 150 years ago in London. Nobody would have thought to suggest that London of the 1860s was uncivilized. In fact, I’m sure most folks given the choice of being in London in 1865 as contrasted to somewhere like Virginia in the middle of our Civil War, would have picked London for their time machine. And yet did London have radio? Flush toilets? 40 hour work weeks?  Well, here’s the news of 1848.

INSTEAD of there being the slightest chance that wonders will ever cease, we have strong reasons for thinking that wonders have only just begun. The last new marvel is a Company for lighting our streets, our shops, our houses, and even our bed-candlesticks with electric fluid, so that we may sit, and read or write by flashes of lightning, and go to sleep with a column of electric fluid doing duty for a rushlight in our room. The new lights that have sprung up within the last few years have been extinguishing and snuffing each other out in rapid succession. The first breath of science blew out the dips, which fell prostrate und the wan of discovery, and then came the metallic wicks, offering “metal more attractive” than the cotton, of whose existence ingenuity has at last cut the thread. Chemistry then took the candles in hand and superseded with the composite fashion the once popular “mould of form,” until the public, having noted the presence of arsenic, stopped its nostrils and its patronage. The electric light now threatens to supersede all, and considering the universal use now made of electricity, we should not be surprised at the formation of a Company to fix a lightning conductor instead of the ordinary conductor to every omnibus.

Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1848


Brand new for the wealthiest are electric lights in the nicer part of town. But surely the middle class was tolerable. Particularly, I’m interested to know how well a middle class American might be the proper Connecticut Yankee in Victorian London. What would we know that might advance our station? That is one of the questions we ask here at the Downside. 

I don’t believe that, as the conventional wisdom holds, that American cities would immediately become unlivable if the electricity went out. I think we would have a whole lot less nightlife and we would make our days more productive. Furthermore, I am fairly certain that no doomstead could hold off an intelligent siege. In other words, the power of numbers will still be the superior force no matter how much barbed wire and bullets you might possess in your hidey hole. 

There is some combination that would make a new city lifestyle work. And that’s one of the things to investigate.


4 thoughts on “Not City, Not Sticks

  1. Eric Blair

    Of course a modern American city would become unlivable with no electricity. You haven’t even begun to think this through. Victorian London was built with no electricity in mind. That means fireplaces in most rooms. Kitchens run by fire–stoves or ovens heated by wood or coal. A cuisine that can be cooked given those constraints. It is, as the book title goes “A world lit only by fire”. This isn’t making your website backward compatible to IE6. Most houses built after the turn of the 20th century, and any house built after WWII are just unliveable without electricity. Period. Water pressure goes away. Nobody has wells anymore. Boom. Headshot. You gonna dig a privy in your back yard? You got a back yard? All those high rises? Don’t make me laugh. Walk those stairs to the 30th floor? C’mon.

    1. mdcbowen Post author

      You may not know it but here in Los Angeles, we have no need for heating in the winter, and most of the houses in the central city do indeed have fireplaces and backyards. I’ve also travelled to a lot of other cities in the US and a good number of them fit the same description. Minneapolis not so much. Same, obviously for Brooklyn. Brooklyn without electricity would go bonkers in a matter of days.

      In LA it’s not bloody likely that you’ll be able to dig for water though, and we’d be out of firewood in short order. But what we haven’t really established here are any reasonable scenarios that are known.

      What I mean to suggest, and this is as good a place as any, is that there are stages – or as somebody in a movie put it, there are levels of survival we are willing to face. So a good resource would be a review of civil defense matters as must certainly be open source in National Guard literature.

      In all cases, however, considering what the Downside is about, I am suggesting that Americans will tend to remember that this is America, and even in the worst case where we might expect electricity to be down for a year, there will be a redistribution of civil and military authorities into the general population and after martial law is removed, order will resume. That’s the far downside, and that’s what I’m considering in the ‘London’ scenario. Again, within two months of a national disaster, that’s where we’d be.

  2. Nakajima Kikka

    I don’t think we’d be looking at electricity down for a year, outside of the most extreme scenario (nuclear war, Arctic methane firestorm). To me, a malfunctioning grid leading to frequent brownouts and periodic blackouts is far more likely. Not serious enough to make people in Brooklyn abandon the city in panic, or turn on each other, but enough to keep everyone somewhat jittery and on edge all the time, and many looking to leave at the first real opportunity.

  3. GeoffB

    I’ve been thinking about this lately. My first thought was that we’ll still have lots of engineers. My second thought was that I don’t know if their intellectual framework is set up for this. But if you go to (now, not after the lights go out!) you can download a five volume correspondence course for mechanical engineers from 1905 that includes information on steam engines, dynamos and all sort of other things as they were approached in the “modern” fashion in those days. Download, print out, study and if the lights go out you’ll at least be able to do pre-information-age high tech. Warning: You’ll need to do the math by hand.

    Volume one is at


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