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The Magic Smoke in Electronics

Category: Social effects
Tags: electronics, hardware, magic, social effects, user experience

Technorati tags: electronics, hardware, magic, social effects, user experience

While writing the last entry, I remembered a tongue-in-cheek myth from electrical engineering, documented in Wikipedia, which says that

there is a little bit of magic blue smoke in every integrated circuit, resistor, transistor, and all other electronic components and it is this smoke which makes the device work. The magic smoke is put in at the factory when the device is manufactured. High voltages or excessive current supposedly releases the smoke. [...] once the magic smoke has been released, the chip is lacking a key component and no longer works.

Without claiming that electrical engineers take this myth literally, it's a reminder of how easy it is to attribute magical properties to technology when there's no obvious mechanical functionality. Not even engineers can see moving electrons, and (I suspect) this "naive" gut-level explanation easily emerges, and regularly reappears. The joke pokes fun at how people who don't understand electronics think of how electronics works. It's funny, and it perpetuates, because it identifies an immediate reaction that everyone who has fried a component has probably had. The blue smoke is so startling, so physical (as opposed to electronic) and such a distinct marker that something is wrong that it's hard to not attribute some significance to it. If it's not magical, it sure feels that way, at least for a second.