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Each week in the
UK RADIO TIMES magazine, there is a ‘dictionary corner’ feature in which a Lexicographer responds to queries from readers in which they ask
for explanations of the origins of words/phrases.
The entry for the
magazine issue for April 26th prompted me to write what follows:-
I read the DICTIONARY CORNER (Radio Times, April 26) about the
origins of the term ‘black box’, with growing disbelief that someone could
write so much twaddle about a topic of which they are so completely
ignorant. There was just one actual fact
– the flight data recorder is orange and not black – so why ‘black box’?
I first encountered the term when I began my training as a
radar specialist in the Royal Navy during World War 2. I am now well over 88.
This was a time of major advances in electronic technology –
radar was in its infancy – and much was going on in the research field. This was also long before transistors and
miniaturisation, and involved thermionic valves, large resistors and capacitors
and transformers, all of which had to be assembled gradually into working
Each element of a circuit was developed individually on a
30cm square board – known as a ‘breadboard’ – because it resembled a domestic
breadboard. As the circuits were
refined, breadboards were joined together until a full working unit was
complete. Everything was then put
together on a metal base or chassis for further refinement.
Eventually, the unit on its chassis had all of the bugs
removed and then the chassis was given its ultimate container, or box. The box had a stove enamelled front with all
of the controls and indicators. The
stove enamelling was always of one colour… like Henry Ford’s original cars –
you can have any colour as long as it is….
YES, DEAR CHILDREN, WE HAVE NOW ARRIVED AT THE ORIGINAL BLACK
The complete radar equipment, gunnery control or what have
you was then assembled for the presentation to the Top Brass of the Services,
Ministers of State, and procurement officials for their approval and ultimate
funding and manufacture.
The Boffins who had designed and made the gear were also
assembled, and the Chief Boffin –
knowing that the assembled onlookers wouldn’t have a clue about the electronic content
of the units spread out before them – would begin with the immortal phrase –
NOW GENTLEMEN, WILL YOU PLEASE JUST CONSIDER THESE AS A SERIES OF BLACK BOXES - - -!!!
YES, THE ‘BLACK BOX’ EXPLANATION HAD JUST BEGUN – EVERY INNOVATIVE ELECTRONIC DEVICE WAS A
‘BLACK BOX’ WHEN IT CAME TO TRYING TO EXPLAIN ITS FUNCTION TO THE LAITY.
AND SO IT WAS WHEN THE TACHOGRAPH WAS FITTED TO LORRIES AND
BUSES, AND SO IT WAS WHEN AIRCRAFT BEGAN TO USE FLIGHT DATA RECORDERS.
BUT TO CONTINUE TO CALL A THING A BLACK BOX WHEN YOU KNOW
THAT IT IS A FLIGHT DATA RECORDER OR TACHOGRAPH, IS JUST THE SAME AS SAYING ‘GEE
GEE’ WHEN YOU KNOW THAT IT IS A HORSE !
One unfortunate consequence of an association with the
OED is that readers might assume that the Lexicographer's ‘analysis’ carries the OED imprimatur
– and actually believe it. (OED = OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY)