|MadSci Network: Engineering|
Ah, the mysterious Professor Black. I have also heard the story that your father told you, but all evidence points to it being a joke that is rapidly on its way to becoming an urban legend, albeit only in the rarefied circles of engineering and operations research students.
The Oxford English Dictionary 2nd ed. (most schools now have access to the OED online, and it should also be in your school's library) traces "black box" back to the midforties and the Royal Air Force. In 1945, the Partridge Dictionary of R.A.F. Slang says, "Black box..., instrument that enables bomb-aimer to see through clouds or in the dark. By 1947, the phrase "These British night fighters were crammed with 'black boxes' all of which has to be operated by the pilot or his navigator" appears.
Finally in 1956, W.R. Ashby wrote in An Introduction to Cybernetics, "Black Box theory is...even wider in application than these professional studies" and "In our daily lives we are confronted at every turn with systems whose interval mechanisms are not fully open to inspection, and which must be treated by the methods appropriate to the Black Box.."
So the evolution of this term from flight instruments to modern engineering usage took only about ten years. While I couldn't find a copy of Ashby's book in local libraries, it is being auctioned off at Amazon (www.amazon.com) should you wish to learn more about the origins of Black box theory.
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