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Q: Origin of the term "black-box" ( Answered 4 out of 5 stars,   0 Comments )
Subject: Origin of the term "black-box"
Category: Miscellaneous
Asked by: wonderer-ga
List Price: $24.00
Posted: 25 Nov 2002 23:39 PST
Expires: 25 Dec 2002 23:39 PST
Question ID: 114741
The term "black-box" is usually used to describe a "mysterious" device
that we do not know (or perhaps do not care) about its inner workings
but only have access to its input/output behavior.

My Question: I would like to know what is the origin of this term and
this concept. That is, when was the term "black-box" first used? Was
there an earlier term to describe the concept of a "black-box"
device (perhaps in the context of philosophy)?
When was this term first used in the context of engineering?

I am also interested (although this is a lower priority) to know why
is this term used to describe the recorder on an airplane (which is
usually painted bright orange).

As described below my own search came up with some conjectures to this
term's origin but I would like a definitive answer.

The concept of a "black box" seems so natural that I wonder if it was
not used even before the 20th century, perhaps by philosophers.
Perhaps it was also used by early mathematicians, when trying to
describe what is an algorithm?

Summary of my findings:

I tried searching in google ("black-box term origin" "black box"
"black-box history" "black-box mathematics" and "black box
philosophy") and onelook and followed some links, and here are the
main results:

I hit a lot of links on a book called "Darwin's Black-Box" which seem
to my question.

Wikipedia has the most detailed explanation for "black-box" I found: but still no definitive answer
on the origin of this term.

Wikipedia and some other references suggested that this term appeared
in electronics as chips were (and still are) painted black
for reasons of heating. However, I have not found evidence that this
was the first use of the term.

I found a description of the history of black-box on airplanes on

There is some discussion of the term in rec.aviation.piloting but
isn't much there (below I copied an interesting message i found there
I have no idea if it's true).

This page claims the term originated in psychology:

Results from google groups search:
<BEGIN - Copy of message from newsgroup:>

 Subject: Re: black box

 View this article only Newsgroups: rec.aviation.piloting
 Date: 2000/02/06

 Extracted from the mind of <NAME REMOVED>;

 >Marc & Sandra wrote:
 >> Hi!
 >> Can anyone tell me why tell call the black box the black box ?
 >> Thanks!
 >A black box is engineer talk (geek-speak) for any box with unknown
 >or mysterious contents. In the case of aviation, it has the
 >of why the plane crashed.

 The term /black box/ goes back to the RAF during or before WWII.
 Someone tried
 ro explain radio to a new Flight Leftenant who concluded that radios
 ran on
 black magic contained in a box. Thus black boxes.

 for assistance dial MYCROFTXXX
<END - copy of message from newsgroup>

Request for Question Clarification by theta-ga on 26 Nov 2002 12:09 PST
Hi wonderer-ga,
   After a pretty exhaustive search for the origin of the phrase, I
have found no one person that phrase is attributed to. It seems to
have evolved over time, basically stemming from engineering systems.
   The term was used in the fields of Psychology and Biology long
after its prevalence in Engineering. As for the origin of the concept,
I was not able to discover any other claims than the one you have
   I could provide you with the various USENET posting and articles I
have found detailing the origin and spread of this term(Also answering
your low priority question). Provided that no other researcher is able
to provide you with a more complete answer, would this suffice as one?
Subject: Re: Origin of the term "black-box"
Answered By: justaskscott-ga on 26 Nov 2002 22:02 PST
Rated:4 out of 5 stars
Hi wonderer-ga,

It appears that the post in rec.aviation.piloting is close to the
truth -- you would only need to substitute "radar" for "radio".

I do not have access to the online subscription version of the Oxford
English Dictionary, but two people who appear to have access explain
that "black box" was 1940s Royal Air Force slang for an "instrument
that enables bomb-aimer to see through clouds or in the dark", i.e., a
type of radar.  Shortly after the war, the term took on a wider
meaning covering other electronic equipment, and by 1956 one author
was referring to a general "black box theory".

"Worspy on 'black box'", post by Steve Dyson
MINT*/TIM Past E-Mail Transmissions, Volume 8 / Number 52 (September
24, 2001)
Management of Innovation and New Technology (MINT) Research Centre
[Michael G. DeGroote School of Business, McMaster University]

"re: Black boxes", post by Zardoz (16/09/2001 11:04:18)
Dr Karl's Self Service Science
The Lab [Australian Broadcasting Corporation]

A page on RAF slang confirms that "black box" meant "instrument that
enables bomb aimer to see through clouds or in the dark".

"Code Names & RAF vocabulary" (Editor: Frank Haslam) (last updated: 17
Apr 2002)
207 Squadron Royal Air Force Association

For more on this origin, see the following page (which has the heading
"blackbox", perhaps lowering its reliability):

"Etymologies & Word Origins: Letter B: Blackbox"
Wilton's Word & Phrase Origins

One RAF fighter pilot is quoted as saying that the radar instruments
seemed like "black magic".  Moreover, early radar technology was
transported across the Atlantic in a black box.  Whether these
anecdotes have anything to do with the term is uncertain, although one
may speculate.

"[1.0] The Invention Of Radar" (01 jun 00) [see section 1.5. and 1.6]
Greg Goebel / In The Public Domain

I will mention another theory for the origin of "black box" which
comes from a good source, but for which I have not found support. 
According to the theory, a WWII-era predecessor to the "black box" --
the air position indicator -- was considered "as valuable as 'black

"Black Box Science", by Amanda Onion (Nov. 14, 2001)

Another view, written in connection with "Darwin's Black Box", is that
the term grew out of the efforts of scientists to expose medical
hoaxes.  A quack doctor might offer to cure whatever ails you by
hooking you up to a mysterious black machine with all sorts of dials
and switches on the cover, but nothing inside."  Likewise, I have not
found support for this view, but I offer it for what it might be

"Intelligent Design", by Phillip E. Johnson (Chapter 5 of "Defeating
Darwinism by Opening Minds", Johnson, PE. 1997, InterVarsity Press,
Downers Grove, Illinois) [see under heading "Opening the Black Boxes
of Biology"]
The Neo-Noetics Page

As for your lower priority question, I have found an answer in Popular

"When plans for the first cockpit voice recorder were unveiled in
1954, all aircraft electronics were housed in black rectangular boxes
of standard size and shape.  The recorders were simply installed in
tougher versions of those boxes.  In 1957, the U.S. Civil Aeronautics
Administration, which later became the FAA, mandated that all planes
heavier than 20,000 pounds carry these protected flight recorders. 
Eight years later, the agency decided it would be useful to paint the
'black boxes' bright red or orange so they would be more easily
spotted in wreckage.  In 1965, almost every airline in the world
switched to orange recorder boxes, but by then the term 'black box'
had taken hold."

"Why are flight data recorders referred to as 'black boxes,' even
though the boxes are not actually black?", by Bob Sillery (Editor);
Research by Brad Dunn, Gunjan Sinha, and Dawn Stover
Popular Science,12543,202170,00.html

I hope that this information is helpful.

- justaskscott-ga

Search terms used on Google (and often Google Groups as well), in
various combinations:

"black box"
"term black box"
"oxford english"
"royal air force"

(I tried several other terms as well, but these seemed most

Request for Answer Clarification by wonderer-ga on 27 Nov 2002 08:05 PST
Thanks JustAskScott!

This looks like a pretty thorough research - it will probably take me
a day or two to follow the links and rate the answer.


p.s. I would still be happy to hear if you or anyone less know of a similar
term used before the 20th century.

Clarification of Answer by justaskscott-ga on 27 Nov 2002 08:23 PST
Well, I could try one more time to see if there is any support for the
claim that "black boxes" were first used to describe medical hoaxes. 
I am about to go away for Thanksgiving for a few days, so I might not
get to this until the weekend.

Clarification of Answer by justaskscott-ga on 01 Dec 2002 20:20 PST
Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary confirms that the term "black
box" entered the language circa 1945.

Merriam-Webster [search in "Collegiate Dictionary" for "black box"
without quotation marks]

So I think that it is safe to say that "black box", as a concept with
applicability beyond a specific physical object, does indeed have the
World War II origin indicated in my answer.

However, that does not mean that your instinct that the term has a
longer history is incorrect.  My sense is that many people would have
associated black boxes with mystery since around the turn of the 20th
century, even if they did not generalize the words "black box" to
apply to other mysterious objects or concepts.

Some inventors of radio and other technology placed their mysterious
inventions in black boxes.

"Toynbee Hall Demonstration"

"The Real Father of Radio", by Lorenzo Milam from material in article
by Thos. Hoffer in The Journal of Broadcasting, Summer 1971.
WFMU-FM 91.1

"Tesla's "Black Box'", from the book, Secrets of Cold War Technology
by Gerry Vassilatos, pages 86-93

Moreover, there was indeed a popular fraudulent medical device known
as the "black box".  One article relating to this device notes that
"The end of World War II saw an upsurge of device quackery.  Radar and
television excited public interest.  Onto the market poured a vast
quantity of surplus electrical equipment, easy to get and cheap for
fashioning into awesome contrivances."  So the medical "black box"
might possibly have contributed to the development of this term after
World War II.

"The Medical Messiahs: A Social History of Health Quackery  in
Twentieth-Century America - Chapter 11: The Gadget Boom", by James
Harvey Young, PhD

"Radionics, Good for Everything", by Harry Edwards
Australian Skeptics

It is perhaps surprising that "black box" did not become a term
earlier, especially in light of a 1915 serial called "The Black Box". 
To promote this science fiction serial, which involved "thought
transference" and a "television", the distributor gave away "several
million, inch-square black cubes" to theatre patrons.

"Classic Horror Movies BL"
The Missing Link

So, in short, while the term "black box" appears to have arisen during
or after World War II, there were earlier black boxes associated with
wonderer-ga rated this answer:4 out of 5 stars
A thorough research on what seems to be an elusive question. 
However, I am still not sure I have the definitive answer.

There are no comments at this time.

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