A black box is something whose inner workings are unknown or purposefully ignored. Behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner advocated ignoring introspective evidence and treating the mind as a black box.

Black Box is a Lawrence, Pennsylvania company specializing in data communication and connectivity devices. The company was founded in April of 1976 as Expandor, Inc. In early 1977 it published a data communications specialty catalog called BLACK BOX. Because of the popularity of the catalog, the company changed its name to Black Box shortly after the initial publication. Black Box remains a successful distribution company in 2001 and employs nearly 4000 people worldwide according to their web site.

A Black box is a small device that is built into an airplane, to improve air security, by recording important data about the airplane.

Also called: Flight Recorder or CSMU (Crash-Survivable Memory Unit)

What it looks like

A black box is not black at all- it is bright neon orange, so it can be found more easily by divers and other investigators digging through the wreckage.

It is basically a square-shaped, shock resistant, Fire resistant, water proof, Pressure resistant box. It is by no means indestructible (nothing is), but putting a dent in a black box is not easy. Besides - it is placed in or near the tail of the plane (at least in commercial airliners, chances of it breaking are limited.

Why it is called a black box

The black boxes might have been black once, but the most likely reason for the box being called black is that it is usually charred after the fire that accompanies most crashes

How it is built

(from outside to inside)

  1. The black box
  2. The memory / tape banks:
    1. Shell - Titanium / Stainless steel - waterproof, shockproof, withstanding extreme heat. About 0.3 inches (0,76 cm) thick
    2. Temperature Shield - Dry-silica material. About 1.1 inch (3 cm) thick - protects the recorders from heat after the crash
    3. Aluminium housing - Another layer to make sure that the package stays water-proof.

Another part of the box is a small beacon activated if it comes in contact with water. The beacon sends out ultrasonic waves that can be traced with a sonar

What it is used for

The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and their counterparts in non-US countries use the Black Box to try to determine the reason for planes crashing. Even though each of those boxes cost between $10,000 and $20,000 each, they have led to reasons being found for many airline crashes that otherwise would have been unsolved

What it records

Most Black Boxes contain two elements: an FDR (Flight Data Recorder) and a CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder).

How it records it

Most black boxes still use magnetic tape (sorta like you find in VCRs and Music Cassettes), but more and more of them are using solid state memory (i.e Flash Memory or the like), because it is more resistent to heat, and because they have no movable parts. Another advantage of solid state memory is that it can track up to 700 different data flows, while the tape version only can hold about 150.

The black boxes aren't replaced every flight- The tape versions store about 30 minutes of audio data, and the tape goes in a loop, so the oldest data is overwritten. The same goes for the flight data, but usually, between one and four hours of data is kept. Solid-state memory versions do the same thing, but can store more information (about 2 hrs of audio and 25 hours of flight data)

The data is gathered from the sensors that are all around the airplane, plus a bunch of microphones in the cockpit

How the data is extracted

There is a port on the Black box which looks remarkably much like a parallel port. From this port, a handheld data extraction device can read the data directly from the box. If this port has been damaged (happens quite often), the whole box has to be (partially) disassembled. If all data connectors are busted, the whole box must be taken apart, and the data must be read directly from the memory.


The idea of a black box has been with us since the birth of Aviation. The Wright brothers (who were the first to fly a plane for more than a minute) used a device that recorded propeller rotations, to analyze how to improve their plane.

The use of black boxes became normal shortly after the Second World War ended.

source: L3 aviation recorders (http://www.l-3ar.com/)


Black Box were a dance music band in Europe in 1989 with the song "Ride on Time". The song - not one I like much - is a lot of big piano chords matched with big female vocals singing "Walk right in cos' you ride on time, ride on time". The vocals were mostly sampled from a disco song by diva Loleatta Holloway; the black Dutch girl who appeared to be singing in the video (whilst wearing blue lipstick) was lip-synching. Unusually, Loleatta Holloway went to the lengths of suing Black Box and won damages for the unauthorised sampling of her voice.

Black Box released a few other songs, including "I Don't Want Anybody Else", which, to my ears anyway, sounds a bit less dated now than "Ride on Time", and an album called "Dreamland". However, none of these achieved similar chart success. Although the term wasn't used at the time, Black Box have since been described as leading exponents of a genre called "Disco House".

A "Black Box" was also a device intended to prevent the (then monopolistic) phone company from assessing charges to those calling you long distance.

It functioned by putting an appropriate amount of resistance in-line with your phone's wiring, and thereby preventing the voltage shift from 36 volts to 10 volts that normally occurred when you picked up the phone. The phone company relied on this voltage shift to signal that a call had been completed.

The Black Box had the distinction of being the cheapest of the phreaker-age "boxes", requiring only a switch, an LED, and a resistor.

(Use of a Black Box or Blue Box is also a good way to get arrested, as this writer discovered in 1985.)
Taking off from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on a late afternoon juant heading to Seattle, Washington, with a short stop scheduled in San Francisco, California. Approximately one hour and 45 minutes into the flight, a problem was reported with Alaska Airlines Flight 261's stabilizer trim.
    4:09:55 Thompson: Center, Alaska two-sixty-one. We are, uh, in a dive here, and I've lost control, vertical pitch.
    4:10:33 Thompson: Yea, we got it back under control here.
    4:11:43 Tansky: Whatever we did is no good. Don't do that again...
    4:11:44 Thompson: Yea, no, it went down. It went full nose down.
    4:11:48 Tansky: Uh, it's a lot worse than it was?
    4:11:50 Thompson: Yea. Yea. We're in much worse shape now.
    4:14:12 Public address: Folks, we have had a flight-control problem up front here, we're working on it.
    4:15:19 Flight 261 to LAX-CTR: L.A., Alaska two-sixty-one. We're with you, we're at twenty-two-five 22,500 feet. We have a jammed stabilizer and we're maintaining altitude with difficulty...
    4:15:36 LAX-CTR: Alaska two-sixty-one, L.A center. Roger, um, you're cleared to Los Angeles Airport via present position...
    4:17:09 Flight attendant: Okay, we had like a big bang back there.
    4:17:15 Thompson: I think the stabilizer trim is broke.
    4:19:36 Extremely loud noise
    4:19:43 Tansky: Mayday
    4:19:54 Thompson: Okay, we are inverted, and now we gotta get it.
    4:20:04 Thompson: Push, push, push...push the blue side up. Push...
    4:20:14 Tansky: I'm pushing.
    4:20:16 Thompson: Okay, now let's kick rudder. Left rudder, left rudder.
    4:20:18 Tansky: I can't reach it.
    4:20:20 Thompson: Okay. Right rudder, right rudder.
    4:20:25 Thompson: Are we flying? We're flying, we're flying. Tell 'em what we're doing.
    4:20:33 Tansky: Oh, yeah. Let me get...
    4:20:38 Thompson: Gotta get it over again. At least upside down we're flying.
    4:20:54 Thompson: Speedbrakes.
    4:20:55 Tansky: Got it.
    4:20:56 Thompson: Ah, here we go.
    4:20:57 End of recording
After a 10-minute battle to keep the plane airborne, it plunged into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California claiming the lives of both pilots, three cabin crewmembers, and eighty three passengers onboard. Unquestionably gripping are the absolute last moments of any aircraft disaster and the "black box" frequently offers the only account of a crash. Many times it provides the inescapably heart-breaking, second-by-second account of deep fear coupled with heroic professionalism. Few have ever been revealed in their entirety and each is absolutely riveting. This passage is part of the conversation between Captain Ted Thompson and First Officer William Tansky and the Los Angeles Route Traffic Control Center (LAX-CTR). Taken from the official National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) transcript of Flight 261, which crashed on January 31, 2000.

Cockpit Voice Recorder recordings contain vital clues to the cause of an accident. In the case of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, the conversations between the captain and his first officer pointed NTSB investigators to the plane's stabilizer. The Executive Summary from the NTSB concluded that “the probable cause of this accident was a loss of airplane pitch control resulting from the in-flight failure of the horizontal stabilizer trim system jackscrew assembly’s acme nut threads. The thread failure was caused by excessive wear resulting from Alaska Airlines’ insufficient lubrication of the jackscrew assembly.” Along with the failure to overhaul and oil this assembly the Board also noted another contributor to the accident was “the absence on the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 of a fail-safe mechanism to prevent the catastrophic effects of total acme nut thread loss.”

Black as a term describing a sense of malignant dark purposes emerged around 1583. One author from The Word of the Day discusses a quote from the 17th Century by R. Godfrey, "She had been in the black Box e're now." An indication that if some rescue had not taken place, "she" would have been dead by now, or in the "black Box," a coffin. In all likelihood the quote is referring to the inky blackness within the coffin since the outer parts of coffins of the era would have been the color of wood.

According documentations by L-3 Communications the Wright Brothers established the use of an instrument that recorded the rotations of propellers. The term itself originated with the British Royal Air Force and by the end of World War II the term black box as an aviation term emerged. Its first publication date is noted as 1945. Black box in the Royal Air Force started is a generic term for a piece of electronic equipment on an aircraft. The first ones were radar bomb "sights." Originally black boxes constructed during the Second World War were literally black boxes with the term applied to all of them regardless of the color. One pilot related that they can’t open them for repairs and sometimes black boxes break down leaving them unable to access vital fight data. This is important while they were air born and frequently they give them a good whack to get them going again. Then report the problem to maintenance when they landed and a new box is put in its place. Today many pieces of avionics equipment still come in black housings, but the term is equally applied to all of them regardless of color. Soon after, the name stretched out to indicate an assortment of electronic navigational devices and when civilian aircraft started using the flight recorders in 1958, the name stuck with the devices. Another kind of black box that also arose from the vernacular shortly after World War II was a black box that even though its purpose was understood the inner mechanisms weren’t. One expert gives the following example: “If an engineer knows that the device will give output Y if he inputs X but doesn't understand why, then that is a black box.” Dating from around 1953 this description arose from aircrews were able to use the black boxes with proficiency, but didn’t really understand how because the components and processes were closely guarded military secrets.

Today the MerriamWebster Dictionay defines the phrase as:

  1. : a usually complicated electronic device that functions and is packaged as a unit and whose internal mechanism is usually hidden from or mysterious to the user; broadly : anything that has mysterious or unknown internal functions or mechanisms
  2. : a crashworthy device in aircraft for recording cockpit conversations and flight data
What began as jargon has become that indicated navigational instruments which records information regarding the flight of an airplane is the standard use to mean a flight recorder. Most of the black boxes in use today are actually orange on the outside to make them highly visible. On the inside, which is dark with potentially unsettling and sometimes impenetrable information, are composed of magnetic tape, which was originally manufactured during 1960s. It works just like a tape recorder. An electromagnetic head collects the data on a piece of Mylar tape. In the 1990’s they introduced solid-state memory board s and airlines have begun to switch to the newer solid-state technology.

For the smoothest ride on an aircraft sit near the wings for the safest ride in the tail section. That’s where the black boxes are usually located because that’s the part that usually survives impact the best. Or more accurately the two black boxes. When an airplane crashes, the search begins for both the cockpit voice and flight data recorders.

Ever since the middle of the twentieth century, the recording medium of black boxes has made technological advances with the purpose of recording much more information about an aircraft's operation. Lately several US car manufacturers have installed their own version of "black box" technology. A lot like the flight recorder, the gadget tracks and records an automobile's journey. Manufactures say they can use them for finding wayward drivers while insurance companies suggest they be used for establishing what areas are driven through and the types of trips taken, so as to adjust their rates. More importantly is the follow up on car accidents in determining what happened. The black box has become a compelling image in today's society enlarging upon the metaphor of some 'mysterious and dark interior'. Psychiatrists are said to find the human brain to be a "black box." In researching for contemporary uses of the term, one expert discovered the term used for:

  1. “A reference in a business report to "black box accounting," which brings to mind hidden numbers;
  2. A reference in a Florida newspaper saying that "customers are buying a black box when they purchase a new battery" (they cannot, by looking at its exterior, know whether its interior will work); and,
  3. In a Boston newspaper, the question, "Why should Microsoft open the black box of Windows 2000 and let rivals peer inside?"
A black box indeed. Billions of lines of code it’s shameful the number of bugs that are allowed to be sold. Over 40 % of the software on aircraft today are fail safe systems and the danger is so great that the NASA space shuttles don’t use fly-by-wire technology, they stick to hardware.



Etymology Online:

Godwin, Ira S Lt Col (ret) USAF pilot

How Black Boxes Work:

Aircraft Accident Report
Loss of Control and Impact with Pacific Ocean Alaska Airlines Flight 261
McDonnell Douglas MD-83, N963AS:

Word of the Day:

A Black Box is a theoretical object that can only be examined indirectly. Black Box, however, is an excellent 2-player logic game invented by Eric Solomon in 1976

The 'Black Box' in this case is a molecule, represented as an 8x8 grid. Somewhere inside the molecule is a number of atoms - up to five. Each atom takes up one square in the grid.

The first player marks the positions of the atoms on a small grid that only she can see. The second player is the experimenter. It's his job to determine the positions of the atoms.

The experimenter can only examine the molecule by firing rays at it. These can be fired from any point on the outside of the grid - 32 places in all. The rays interact with the atoms in the molecule according to simple rules:

  1. If a ray hits an atom, it is absorbed
  2. If a ray enters a space diagonal to an atom, it is deflected through 90 degrees
  3. If a ray enters a space diagonal to 2 different atoms, it is reflected 180 degrees

Now, all the experimenter does is call an entry point for his ray. The other player follows through all the moves of the ray, and calls , 'absorbed' if the ray is absorbed at some point on its journey, 'reflected' if it emerges from the grid at the point it entered, or, if it exists the grid elsewhere, the exit point. Some examples of a ray entering at 'd':

 _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
|_|_|_|_|-|-|-|-|d  <-
 _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
|_|_|_|_|-|-|-|-|d  <-
 _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
|_|_|_|_|-|-|-|-|d  <-
|_|_|_|_|-|-|-|-|g  ->

The experimenter has an empty grid with five marbles that he can place to indicate where he thinks the atoms are. He also has coloured pegs which represent rays. When a ray is absorbed, he puts a black peg on the entry point (like 'd', above). When it is reflected, he uses a white peg. For deflections, pairs of coloured pegs are used to indicate the exit and entry points of the ray.

At a certain point, the experimenter will think he has enough data to infer where all the atoms must be to give the results he's obtained. He'll put the marbles where he thinks the atoms are, and will ask if he has it right. The other player checks, and if the setup is right, he wins. If not, he loses. The object is to win in as few moves as possible - kind of like Mastermind. The players then swap over.

The main problem with this game is that there are certain arrangements of atoms where the result is ambiguous, and no possible experiment can give 100% certainty of the right answer. The game's creator thinks that deliberately setting up a grid like this is cheating. Those of us in the know realise that this state corresponds to a superposition of all possible states.

Black Box variants are available online, where the computer can set up the game and will never 'cheat'. The board game itself is still available from Franjos in Germany. This game kept me amused for hours as a kid - I'd recommend it as a good tool for teaching inferences.

http://www.ericsolomon.co.uk/ The creator's website
http://www.franjos.de/spiele/bbe.htm Order the game

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.