A back-of-the-envelope calculation is a rough calculation, typically jotted down on any available scrap of paper such as an envelope. It is more than a guess but less than an accurate calculation or mathematical proof. The defining characteristic of back-of-the-envelope calculations is the use of simplified assumptions.
A similar phrase in the U.S. is "back of a napkin", also used in the business world to describe sketching out a quick, rough idea of a business or product. In British English, a similar idiom is "back of a fag packet".
In the natural sciences, back-of-the-envelope calculation is often associated with physicist Enrico Fermi, who was well known for emphasizing ways that complex scientific equations could be approximated within an order of magnitude using simple calculations. He went on to develop a series of sample calculations, which are called "Fermi Questions" or "Back-of-the-Envelope Calculations" and used to solve Fermi problems.
Fermi was known for getting quick and accurate answers to problems that would stump other people. The most famous instance came during the first atomic bomb test in New Mexico on 16 July 1945. As the blast wave reached him, Fermi dropped bits of paper. By measuring the distance they were blown, he could compare to a previously computed table and thus estimate the bomb energy yield. He estimated 10 kilotons of TNT; the measured result was 18.6.
Perhaps the most influential example of such a calculation was carried out over a period of a few hours by Arnold Wilkins after being asked to consider a problem by Robert Watson Watt. Watt had learned that the Germans claimed to have invented a radio-based death ray, but Wilkins' one-page calculations demonstrated that such a thing was almost certainly impossible. When Watt asked what role radio might play, Wilkins replied that it might be useful for detection at long range, a suggestion that led to the rapid development of radar and the Chain Home system.
Another example is Victor Weisskopf's pamphlet Modern Physics from an Elementary Point of View. In these notes Weisskopf used back-of-the-envelope calculations to calculate the size of a hydrogen atom, a star, and a mountain, all using elementary physics.
Nobel laureate Charles Townes describes in a video interview for the University of California, Berkeley on the 50th anniversary of the laser, how he pulled an envelope from his pocket while sitting in a park and wrote down calculations during his initial insight into lasers.
The Bailey bridge is a type of portable, pre-fabricated, truss bridge and was extensively used by British, Canadian and US military engineering units. Donald Bailey drew the original design for the bridge on the back of an envelope.
The Laffer Curve, which claims to show the relationship between tax cuts and government income, was drawn by Arthur Laffer in 1974 on a bar napkin to show an aide to President Gerald R. Ford why the federal government should cut taxes.
Upon hearing that the S-IV 2nd Stage of the Saturn I would need transport from California to Florida for launch as part of the Apollo program, Jack Conroy sketched the cavernous cargo airplane, the Pregnant Guppy.
Robert Metcalfe's early Ethernet diagrams from his days at Xerox PARC back in the early 1970s might be the most famous napkin sketches in the technology industry.
As the prospect of system meltdown loomed, the men began scribbling ideas for a solution onto the back of a ketchup-stained napkin. Then a second. Then a third. The “three-napkins protocol,” as its inventors jokingly dubbed it, would soon revolutionize the Internet. And though there were lingering issues, the engineers saw their creation as a “hack” or “kludge,” slang for a short-term fix to be replaced as soon as a better alternative arrived.
He sketched the original design for the Bailey Bridge on the back of an envelope as he was being driven to a meeting of Royal Engineers to debate the failure of existing portable bridges
[Conroy] listened to the conversations around him, then picked up a cocktail napkin and a ballpoint pen. And with the precision he’d learned during the brief months he’d attended engineering school many years before, he drew an airplane that had never been built, to carry a rocket that had never been launched, to take man to a place nobody had ever been before. Jack Conroy had just sketched the airplane that would become the Pregnant Guppy.
Montgomery suggested that Jenison meet his friend Brad Carvey, who had been working on projects involving robotic vision. The three of them got together in a pizza restaurant in Topeka and started drawing block diagrams on the placemats.
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