Everyone should take a computer science class at some point in their lifetime. Ugh. Really? I can hear you saying, “I just clicked into this entry to find out about the “black box” not get some soapbox rant on the value of computer science. Please bear with me, we’ll get to the “black box” in a millisecond shortly.

Source: © Michel Royon / Wikimedia Commons

I think everyone, at some level, has a curiosity about how things work. Knowing this statement will date me, one of my early childhood memories was riding with my dad, taking a paper sack full of television tubes down to the local Walgreens for testing on a self-service tube testing machine. Finding the bad tube and fixing the tv gave me a peek at what made a television work, a pretty magical device to a 7-year-old.

As my own kids grew and their interest in the world grew with them, one of the most fascinating books I shared with each of them was a book called “The Way Things Work” by David Macaulay. The book gives a remarkable overview and cross-section of the devices and innovations that impact our daily lives. From how toilets flush to how a submarine works, the book gives easy to understand explanations and revealing drawings.

So…why does everyone need to take a Computer Science class at some point? The number of devices in our daily lives driven by software and firmware (what’s the difference) is expanding exponentially over time. Cars, refrigerators, washing machines, and other commonly used appliances all run the software. Factor in the number of mobile apps and it seems like software is eating the world. So learning about coding is just a good idea. The more you know, the less mystical (and more predictable) software driven devices become. Opportunities abound; kids can attend coding summer camps, high schools are offering coding and robotics classes, and many universities are opening up their Computer Science curriculum to non-majors. Computer programming “boot camps” are available for adults. These opportunities are today’s equivalent of testing television tubes at the Walgreens, a chance to peek behind the curtain and understand how things work. So get out there and write your first “Hello World” program!

Now about the “black box”…

Source: Dennis R. Grossi, NTSB, Wikimedia Commons

The paint job explanation is easy; the boxes are painted a heat-resistant, garish orange so that investigators can find them easily at a crash scene.

The etymology of the phrase “black box” and its application to flight data recorders is somewhat murky. The definition I like best is “a device whose internal workings are unclear but which is known by its inputs and outputs.”  You don’t really know how the flight information is recorded but you know what information is going in and coming out.

Most simply, the flight data recorder is a virtually indestructible machine for recording information. It records sounds and conversation in the cockpit and a multitude of flight data such as the altitude, aircraft location, airspeed, temperature of the engines, and flight path. The black box internals are similar to how a small computing device functions with its hard drive or memory card to record data. So knowing a thing or two about coding takes the mystery out of all those “black box” devices that we are not sure how they work but we know what goes in and comes out. Now that’s science, computer science.

Additional Information: David Macaulay has updated his original offering since it was published in 1988. “The New Way Things Work” (1998) and “The Way Things Work Now” (Due out in October 2016) are available via your favorite bookseller.

Further reading:  How does a black box work? at dw.com.