Black Out (as in unconscious)
Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 30, 2011
When people talk about black outs, they can mean one of three things: to cut or turn out the lights or electric power; to prevent or silence information or communication; or to become unconscious.
With regards to falling unconscious, this meaning originated with pilots who sometimes fainted briefly when pulling out of a power dive. It soon was transferred to other losses of consciousness or memory in the 1940s.
An unfortunate story was published in the May 28, 1979 edition of the Milwaukee Sentinel in a news article entitled, “Boy Dies Making Self Black Out.” The article included this in the story:
After class was dismissed Wednesday afternoon, Paul and several companions went out on the playground, and he gave them a demonstration. Use two fingers, he pressed on the front of his neck to stop the air flow and blacked out.
Back on September 14, 1962 the Victoria Advocate published a story on then-31-year-old San Francisco Giants star outfielder, Willie Mays. He had been free of injuries and ailments in previous eight seasons with the Giants which is why a black-out spell was of concern to management at the time. The story was entitled, “Mays Due Hospital Tests After Black-Out Spell.” The first paragraph read:
Officials of the San Francisco Giants ordered a thorough physical examination Friday for star outfielder Willie Mays, who blacked out Wednesday night. Mays will stay in Cincinnati’s Christ Hospital over night and have the tests Friday morning, according to Manager Alvin Dark.
The December 22, 1944 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune published a story entitled, “Anti-Black-Out Suit” and reported:
Berger G-suits, designed to keep fliers from “blacking out” in steep dives and other maneuvers, are the latest togs for army and navy fighter pilots. The army’s ” G-suit “– the “G” is for gravity — is a pair of high waisted pneumatic pants with built-in suspenders and girdle, and air bladders over the abdomen and legs.
For pilots, greying out or blacking out was a serious problem when it happened. A black out was a complete loss of vision due to no blood getting to the eye even though the pilot was still conscious at the time. The loss of memory that was part of blacking out and falling unconscious was particularly disconcerting to pilot trainers, air force personnel, researchers and, of course, pilots. It was observed that black outs left pilot completely unaware that they have been unconscious and provided them with a false perception of how well they were coping with “positive G” or “eyeballs down G.”
In the mid-1920s, Royal Air Force pilots who were training for the Schneider Trophy became adept at knowing the point at which they would move from a black out to completely losing consciousness.
As an interesting side note, the first manned flight — which was 12-seconds long — was on December 17, 1903 and the first 5-minute manned flight was on November 9, 1904. The American government bought its first airplane in 1909 and the first airplane armed with a machine gun was flown in 1912. On July 18, 1914 an Aviation Section of the Signal Corps was established. In other words, blacking out became a new expression in the 20th century thanks in part to Orville and Wilbur Wright.