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Original Issue

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

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."

Burk's is the kind of monster that every coach in the country will be trying to tame within a few years, for the results in the Penn boat were immediate and startling. "In practice, no matter who I put in with the wizard [that's the name the little black box goes by now, or, simply, the lights] they would leave the other boat behind," said Burk. "Once we had two boats in a race without the wizard. I signaled the cox to turn it on in one of the boats, and it was amazing—that boat just bolted out in front."

Explanations as to why the wizard works are numerous. For one thing, it tells the coach and cox immediately who is getting oomph in his strokes and who is not. Two of the most unlikely-looking oarsmen ever to row for Penn—and Penn has had some beauts—are John Henderson, a 5-foot 11-inch fellow who weighs 175 pounds, and Nick Paumgarten, who, at 6-feet-3, also weighs 175 pounds and would be the odds-on choice to get the part of Ichabod Crane in the school play. "They would never have rowed for the varsity," said Burk, "except they kept the lights winking. They were simply much stronger than they looked." The two are now No. 2 and bow in the varsity shell.

The box also tells the oarsman exactly what he is up against. Burk likens this to a weight lifter trying to get a barbell off the floor without knowing its weight. "Tell him it's 200 pounds," said Burk, "and he knows what he has to do to lift it. You can do a lot more than you think you can if you have something solid to shoot for."

Most important of all, perhaps, Burk can now get his crew to follow a precisely calculated race plan. The old Burk cry, "He'd come back to me—if I stuck to my stroke," is being heard again around the Penn dock.

Burk first unleashed the wizard last year at the IRA regatta in Syracuse. Predictably, there were immediate cries of unethical by some officials, but Burk pointed out that the wizard does not make the boat go faster. The rowers do that. All it does is tell them how. Like a stopwatch, only better. Confronted with such logic, the race committee gave the wizard its tentative blessing, and Penn went out and finished eighth in a field of 15. No bells started to peal at this result, but when you consider that Penn was picked to finish a dead last, it was something to ponder.

Most coaches were still not convinced the wizard would help during actual bloodletting. "It might be a good training device," said one, "but I doubt if it will help in a race." He was wrong. Burk sprang the wizard at Princeton in Penn's first race this spring, and his advice to the Penn crew was explicit. "We know the capability of Princeton. If you keep so many lights winking for the first quarter and so many at the second quarter, you will catch Princeton at the three-quarter mark and you will win." Sure enough, Princeton bolted off into a lead, and at exactly the three-quarter mark Penn caught them and won by three-quarters of a length. The same instructions were issued for the race against Yale, with minor variations. "I thought we'd win by two lengths at least," said Yale Coach Jim Rathschmidt. "But they caught us at the three-quarter mark and beat us by nearly a length." Naturally. That is exactly what Burk had told his crew before the race.

Harvard, of course, was a different problem. Burk knew exactly how many lights had to wink and at exactly what points in the course in order to beat the Crimson. The trouble was the Penn crew did not have the strength to match the plan. "You can tell the weight lifter that if he presses 400 pounds he'll be the champion," said Burk. "But if he can't do it, he can't."

The wizard has by no means reached full maturity. It is still a far-too-heavy 50 pounds, but General Electric Physicist John McGinn, who designed it for Burk, wanted to make sure it worked before he started any miniaturizing. Heavy or not, the Penn rowers want it aboard. "We needed the lights," said one bitterly disappointed member of the defeated Penn crew after the box was left out of the boat during the Eastern Sprints three weeks ago. "Don't worry," said Joe Burk. "You'll get them in the next race."

And so, it seems likely, will a good many other crews. If not in the next race, then very soon. For Penn's Joe Burk has moved the science of rowing a step forward, and nobody can afford to hang back.