Black-outs, brown-outs and other disruptions of energy are today often associated with poor and developing countries, or as exceptional moments such as the Oil Crises of the 1970s. But energy shortages were a frequent feature also in advanced industrial societies and across the twentieth century. In this theme we are especially interested in the social, cultural and political histories of such disruptions and what they can tell us about a society’s attitudes to energy, ideas of ‘normality’ and fairness. Shortages tested a society’s ability to make do with less, and revealed norms and assumptions about fair shares and appropriate usage. In the case of electric networks, peak demand at particular times of day created a particular pressure. With selective case studies from Japan, Britain, and West and East Germany we examine the politics of disruption, paying particular attention to questions of distribution between different groups of consumers (from households to heavy industrial users) and to the politics of time. Disruptions reveal otherwise hidden dynamics and unspoken assumptions. They reveal people’s potential for flexibility and resilience at a time of stress. Such knowledge is vital to help us think about how we might deal with similar situations in the future.