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Joe Burk's blinking black box
Tom C. Brody
June 06, 1966
Lacking first-rate talent to man his oars, Pennsylvania's rowing coach has developed an electronic gadget designed to speed up his boats
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June 06, 1966

Joe Burk's Blinking Black Box

Lacking first-rate talent to man his oars, Pennsylvania's rowing coach has developed an electronic gadget designed to speed up his boats

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Until the spring of 1965, nothing more was ever asked of Boat No. 62 than that it carry Coach Joe Burk's University of Pennsylvania crew up the Schuylkill River without sinking. Then, under Joe's direction, a team of electronic experts began fiddling with old No. 62 and, when they were through, it was the end of an age in rowing: the age of innocence, perhaps. It was also a beginning. The electricians had installed a small black box in the after part of the boat that winked red and green and orange and white with every stroke and so told Burk whether his rowers were pulling their weight. The results, although less than miraculous, were encouraging. In the only race in which Penn used the device, old No. 62 moved up several boat lengths in class.

So far in the spring of 1966 this little black box with its pertly winking lights has not enabled a fair-to-middling Penn crew to catch up to, say, Harvard. But it has enabled one of the world's most tradition-bound sports to catch up to the 20th century. Like most devices that refute tradition, it has been greeted with derision by many oldtimers. "Outrageous," was the kindest thing the old guard could say when they first saw it. " Harvard has beaten Penn twice this year, and no black box is going to change that." Correct. The 1966 Penn crew is certainly no match for Harvard. Realistically, Penn is no match for anyone. Yet already this year Penn has won races from Princeton, Yale, Columbia and Cornell, and finished second to Harvard. The only time Penn has been really out of the race was at the Eastern Sprints when Burk's new gadget was not used.

New spirit? New muscles? New joy through pulling together? Not at all. "New black box," says Burk, who is himself a top-ranking member of rowing's old guard. Despite that rank, however, Burk has for years been happily ignoring any tradition of rowing that failed to make his shells go faster. At age 22, for instance, this son of a New Jersey apple farmer startled the rowing community by challenging the best single scullers in the world with a style reminiscent of an overfed teal trying to get airborne. Before that, Burk had tried sculling the long, lovely-to-look-at power strokes of his time—and got nowhere. "Form is fine," thought the young Burk, but he was also aware that you get the maximum pull from an oar when its blade is farthest from the boat, i.e., at right angles to the side. Solution (or hereby, depending on how you react to classic ways): get the blades there as often as possible, ignore the long layback and follow-through, and go, man, go.

Nor was that the end of it. Besides snapping his oars in and out of the water at a rate that approached pure frenzy, Burk also ignored the advice of experts who urged him to race the other fellow, not himself. Burk was very respectful of the old ideas, because he is that kind of person, but he simply did not believe them. So he began sculling with a cheap pocket watch stuck between his toes. "I had a definite stroke I knew would be good enough to win," was Burk's theory. "If the other fellow went off ahead of me I let him go. He'd come back to me—if I stuck to my stroke."

For four years the other fellows came back with such consistency that Burk became known variously as "the Maverick," "the Robot," "the Machine" and "that Damn Fool American." After he won their national championships in 1938, the Canadians were flabbergasted. "Why, he does everything wrong," said one beaten contender. "Not wrong," said his coach, "just different."

Sculler Burk won the world championship Diamond Sculls twice at Henley before quitting to go to sea in a PT boat during World War II. As a coach, when the war was over, he was no more orthodox than he had been as a sculler. At that time weight lifting, for instance, was not only universally scorned by athletes, it was considered somewhat unclean by oarsmen in whose view the perfect physical specimen was a 6-foot 4-inch string of spaghetti. But as Harvard Coach Harry Parker, who rowed for Burk in the Penn shell of 1957, points out: " Burk is a logical man, and if he cannot see the logic in something...." Here Parker made a gesture of a man cutting his throat. As a coach, Burk could see absolutely no logic in spaghetti-shaped oarsmen, so he soon had his rowers huffing away at the weights. Today very few oarsmen would even consider trying to keep in shape without some weight-lifting routines.

When Penn asked Burk to return to his old university as head coach, he jumped at the chance to try out other new ideas that had been fermenting in him for years. "He is so much more willing to experiment than most coaches," says Parker, "and he does it without hesitation." Not only will Burk snub an old style if he does not believe in it, he will revamp new techniques—even his own—at the very moment skeptics are becoming believers. Without hesitation, Burk had his varsity eights rowing with the same quick pace he himself used as a single sculler. Unfortunately, with few exceptions (in 1955 and 1962), the young men who showed up at the Penn boathouse each fall would have had a tough time wielding croquet mallets, let alone pulling an oar for three miles. The strange, flaying style of the Penn boats raised a few eyebrows all right, but there is something about losing a race that absolutely ruins enthusiasm for a new style. Then came Germany's Olympic champion Ratzeburg crew to the U.S. rowing in the same jerky fashion that Burk advocated. Achtung! coaches began falling off boat docks studying this "new" style.

Burk, of course, was gratified at the response to the foreigners' system, but he also noticed that the Germans did lose on occasion, and when they did, it was into a headwind. "I began to think then," said Burk, "that a pace somewhere in between the stately 29 strokes a minute and my own style of nearly 42 would be best." So now, when it is the height of elegance to flay at the water in spastic haste, Penn crews often understroke opponents. "Good grief," said one exasperated coach, "what's he up to now?" The question was answered by another rival. "That man is always a step ahead of the rest of us. If he only had some decent material he'd clobber us."

This year, for the first time ever, Penn is making it possible for Joe to get some good rowing material for the future by an active recruiting campaign. Meanwhile Joe is electrifying the material he has with his black box. What is it? Basically, an electronic device that measures the force each oarsman is applying to his blade at the peak of his stroke and relays that information to the rower and to his coxswain by means of light signals. A spring mechanism attached to each oarlock triggers at a force of 215 pounds—and gets you one light. At 240 pounds, wink goes the second light. A 265-pound thrust gets you three lights, and at 285 pounds—jack pot! All four lights are on, and son, you are definitely pulling your weight.

The initial reaction of the Penn crew to this electronic tattletale was decided uneasiness. "That blasted thing will show exactly what I cant do," said one. And even Burk had his dark thoughts. "It certainly took a lot of the guesswork out of rowing," he observed, "but if you don't have a great crew, maybe it's better not to know too much. I may have created a monster."

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