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No. 94:
The Black Box

Today, we ask what's inside a black box. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The word "black box" hasn't been in our vocabulary very long. It first meant a closed array of electronic gear. But it's come to mean any function that's hidden from sight. In fact, it's practically turned into a metaphor for a retreat from understanding how things function. When we call the flight recorder of an airliner a "black box," we acknowledge that it's to be opened only under the most dire circumstances.

When I was a kid, we stocked radio tubes on the shelf like light bulbs. When one burned out, we replaced it. Today's radios have transistors in them. If one fails, we replace the radio itself. Radios are black boxes -- I have almost no idea what's in mine. Our calculators, car transmissions, and clocks have all become black boxes. Even their labels tell us they can be opened only by factory representatives!

How well do you do with questions like, "How often does a spark plug fire as an automobile engine turns over?"; "What's a universal joint?"; or "What does a carburetor do?" You aren't likely to know these things today, because cars themselves have become black boxes. Once upon a time a car owner could look right into the transmission of his Model-T Ford. More than that, he had to know how to fix it if he wanted it to keep running.

The automobile used to be a marvelous teacher of applied mechanics. The radio taught a whole generation about electronic circuitry. I got my grounding in internal combustion, aerodynamics, and electric circuitry by building model airplanes. That was a real ground-up activity in 1943.

Of course, young people today know all sorts of things their parents didn't know at the same age. But there's a price. We handle very sophisticated systems; but we're not trained to look inside the black boxes that surround us. The price is that our knowledge itself becomes black-boxed. A person who knows about computers may not understand anything about cars. John Donne's poetry might remain a black box for a student of 19th-century Russian literature.

Educating strong and capable engineers means teaching students that the black boxes around them aren't Pandora's boxes. They can be opened. We want them to know that what one fool can do, another fool can also do -- that they're smart enough to open anyone else's black box. That invention means working inside black boxes.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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This episode has been substantially reworked as Episode 1482.