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 part of our language for long. It first meant
a closed set of electronic gear. Over time, it's
come to mean any function hidden from sight. In
fact, it's turned into a metaphor for a retreat
from understanding. When we call the flight
recorder of an airliner a "black box," we
acknowledge that it's to be opened only in the most
When I was a kid, we stocked radio tubes on the
shelf like light bulbs. When one burned out, we
replaced it. If a transistor fails in today's
radio, we replace the radio. Radios are black boxes
-- I have almost no idea what's in mine. Our
computers, car transmissions, and clocks have all
become black boxes. Even their labels tell us they
can be opened only by factory representatives!
How do you and I do with questions like,
"What's a universal joint?" or "What does a carburetor do?"
We're far less likely to know these things today
because cars themselves have become black boxes.
Car owners once looked right down into their
Model-T transmissions; and when they broke, they
had to know how to fix them.
Automobiles once taught us applied mechanics.
Radios taught a whole generation about electronic
circuitry. I got my grounding in internal
combustion, aerodynamics, and electricity by
building model airplanes. In 1943 we had to wire a
coil, condenser, and battery together just to make
the spark plug fire.
Now the personal computer is a black box. I might
nerve myself up to open mine and replace a
component. But don't even think about asking me to
explain how my Pentium chip works.
The lingering question is, "What knowledge do we need?"
Few of us have any reason for knowing the
workings of an old Ford transmission. At the same
time, I wish I knew more about the automatic
transmission in the car that takes me to work.
The people who invented my transmission were the
best of a generation that cut its teeth on Ford
planetary gears. But today's population includes
very few people who understand today's
transmissions. Automobiles in the year 2050 will
have to be built by people who don't understand the
transmissions on today's cars.
They'll be supported by knowledge contained in
computers that also lie beyond their understanding.
So we're systematically being separated from the
black boxes that serve us. As we handle
sophisticated systems without looking inside the
complexities that make them up, knowledge itself
becomes black-boxed. Someone who knows about
computers may know nothing about cars. John Donne's
poetry can remain a black box for a student of
How do we teach our students that the boxes around
them aren't Pandora's boxes -- that they can be
opened? How do we teach them that what one fool can
do, another fool can also do -- that they're smart
enough to open anyone else's black box? Students
have to know that invention inevitably means
working inside black boxes.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds