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
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
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
"[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
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
I hope that this information is helpful.
Search terms used on Google (and often Google Groups as well), in
"term black box"
"royal air force"
(I tried several other terms as well, but these seemed most
Clarification of Answer by
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.
"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
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