Find of the Month

September 2021 - Test blackout

poster explaining test blackout procedures

Seattle held a test blackout night on March 7, 1941, nine months before the United States entered World War II. The test was authorized by Ordinance 76015, which made it unlawful to refuse to take part. All male Seattleites over the age of eighteen were enlisted to help enforce the blackout by reporting any violations, and about 3000 Legionnaires patrolled the streets along with the police during the event.

The test was scheduled to begin at 10:40 pm, with alerts sounding a ten-minute warning at 10:30. Seattleites were asked to turn out all external lights and ensure that no indoor lighting was visible from the outside (with a reminder not to forget about skylights.) Anyone in an automobile was to immediately pull over and turn off their lights and engine. Pedestrians were urged to be indoors by 10:30, but if "unavoidably outdoors," they were instructed not to smoke and not to cross any streets (presumably to avoid any cars driving in the dark).

Managing lights at individual homes and businesses was fairly straightforward, but the city's traffic division had to figure out how to darken all traffic signals, which were not centrally controlled. The city was divided into 25 districts with designated captains, assisted by about 300 volunteers. Armed with index cards containing information about each piece of equipment, the teams fanned out and unscrewed lights, covered units with heavy bags, and opened locked control boxes to turn off switches.  

During the blackout, dispatches went out over the radio from airplanes, hills, and tall buildings, telling the listening public what the announcers were seeing from those viewpoints. Curious citizens crowded high points to watch the city go dark.

Traffic Engineer J.W.A. Bollong later reported that the test was "almost a 99% success...The cooperation shown was marvelous as there were very few cases in which the lights remained on. This occurred at outlying gasoline stations or in hotel rooms." He added that if blackouts were a continued necessity, traffic signals should be rewired so that they could be darkened remotely rather than through the use of sacks.