The Blackout was an artificially-caused apocalyptic event occurring in September 2012. The event disabled all forms of electricity.
The night of the Blackout was originally a combat test on a Taliban-controlled compound in Pakistan, but a malfunction in the command execution of the Nanites caused an unprecedented worldwide loss of power.
At some point 15 years after the incident occurred, power was briefly restored through the efforts of Rachel Matheson and Aaron Pittman. Unfortunately, the command would be reversed by Aaron as he and Rachel unsuccessfully tried to stop the ICBM’s that Randall Flynn had launched towards Atlanta and Philadelphia.
In 2009, Ben Matheson and his pregnant wife Rachel Matheson operated a start-up company trying to find a way to design a clean low-cost energy generator of electricity. They failed miserably, but the result was "interesting". When activated, their Device would "inhibit" electricity. Ben, with the assistance of Grace Beaumont and Bradley Jaffe gave a demonstration for Assistant Secretary Flynn from the Dept of Defense. Flynn was very impressed and wanted to know if it could be replicated on a larger scale. Ben assured him that it could be. ("The Children's Crusade")
Despite the unintended effect of the device the Mathesons and their colleagues created, Randall was optimistic about its implications on the battlefield. At some point, they were hired by the United States Department of Defense with the goal of possibly weaponizing their invention. Fueled by the loss of his son, Randall moved forward in activating The Tower on the night of the eventual worldwide blackout. ("Ghosts")
The Blackout occurred on the night of September 17, 2012. The first sign of the Blackout was telephones and computers beginning to fizzle and die across the world. Soon thereafter, power went out in houses and vehicles across the planet. Aircraft were soon seen falling from the sky. Then, transformers exploded and power to entire cities was lost.
Power is seen to have been lost first in New England, then spread westward across North America before affecting all of South America and Europe, Africa, and Asia as well. ("Pilot")
Ben clearly knew about the Blackout at least a few hours before it happened, because he went to buy non-perishable food right before and even attempted to warn his brother Miles in advance.
The Blackout crippled the entire world that was entirely dependent on electricity. Governments fell and people were forced to fend for themselves. Survivors of the Blackout tended to avoid large cities, settling in small villages in the rural areas of the country. In America, any form of government became nonexistent, only to be replaced by the Monroe Republic in the Chicago area.
At some point 15 years after the Blackout, General Monroe through the pendants, regained the use of electricity for his conquest of the continent. Monroe planned to use his newly acquired power to build nuclear weapons, directed towards his enemies. After realizing the full extent of Monroe's intentions, Rachel was left with no choice and acquiesced to turning the power on. Rachel, accompanied by Aaron traveled to the Tower to shut down the Nanites. The duo traversed what remains of the Midwestern United States and, after grueling challenges that almost resulted in the death of the two, arrived at a military installation in Colorado.
Upon arriving, they were immediately met with resistance by the caretakers of the Tower, with Grace Beaumont believing that shutting down the Nanites would result in the burning of the planet. Adamant about her goal, Rachel proceeded to turn the power on against their wishes and incapacitated Grace while killing most of the armed defenders with the help of Nora. Aaron and Rachel successfully enforced the shutdown of the Nanites, thereby restoring power all over the world.
Unbeknownst to the group, Randall had locked himself in one of the rooms to which he was able to launch nuclear missiles toward Atlanta and Philadelphia. Randall cryptically justified his actions in restoring unity in the country, calling himself a Patriot. Despite Rachel's plea not to go through his plan, Randall shot himself just minutes before the missiles decimated the two cities, despite the action of Aaron re-initiating the Nanites. The group's actions resulted in a brief power surge in which electricity was restored for a fleeting four minutes.
Years after the Blackout, most people believed that the Blackout was caused by natural causes, and that they simply could no longer turn the lights back on.
However, Rachel explained to Aaron in the episode The Song Remains the Same that a “couple of hundred quadrillion” Nanites about the size of a virus were everywhere, programmed to absorb electricity and replicate, thereby disabling all man-made forms of electricity.
- The estimate of ~200 quadrillion virus-size machines seems too low as that would result in a cumulative mass of only a few to several kilograms at most, and with global electrical consumption at the time of the Blackout being on the order of several terawatts, the Nanites would require an effective energy storage density equaling if not surpassing that of antimatter. This would in effect be like expecting a single or a few car battery-sized devices to absorb all of the electrical power in the world in a matter of seconds. A possible explanation is that Rachel was referring to the remaining quantity of nano machines and that at the time of the Blackout; 15 years earlier the number was far greater, with the remaining number since reduced to the minimum necessary for the absorption of any latent electrical generation.
- The ACOG scopes on M4 carbines still worked because, contrary to popular belief, most models use tritium isotopes and fiber optics for illumination rather than batteries.
- Although the Blackout disabled all electrical aspects of modern civilization, any non-electrical technology still functions. For example, the use of Civil War-era smoothbore or rifled muskets by the Monroe Militia may reflect either a limited mid-19th century type industrial capability or the systematic looting of museums. Given the widespread use of such weapons by the Militia, the former is more likely. The limiting factor on polities such as the Monroe Republic developing such industry is almost certainly a lack of both unskilled and skilled labor due to the catastrophic die-off in the immediate aftermath of the Blackout.
- The overall concept is similar to the Emberverse Series by S.M. Stirling, although the 'Change' in Stirling's novels also affects all aspects of modern technology, including gunpowder and steam engines.
- Before the Blackout, Ben and Rachel found out that their unborn kid (most likely Danny) had a defective artery, and the Department of Defense contacted Rachel, saying they could cure him. It is unclear whether this had a role to play in the Blackout, but it may help explain at least parts of it.