The black box flight recorder was invented in Australia – and championed into production and use – by chemist and aeronautical expert Dr David Warren, who was born in 1925 and died this week. He was curious and clever (qualities needed to be an inventor) – and persistent (the extra quality needed to be a successful innovator).
Tragedy struck David’s family when he was nine years old. His father died in an aircraft crash, when a De Havilland plane travelling from Launceston to Melbourne was lost over Bass Strait. There were no survivors and no clues as to why the plane went down, leaving just an oil slick and unidentifiable pieces of wreckage floating briefly on the water’s surface.
The last gift from his father was a crystal set, a basic type of radio receiver. One from our collection is pictured below.
This gift led to David’s lifelong interest in electronics. He studied chemistry to PhD level and in 1949 went to England for training in rocket science. While he was there, he saw the world’s first jet airliner (the first jets having been made for military use), the De Havilland Comet, at Farnborough air show. The Comet promised faster travel and a shrinking of Australian’s sense of isolation from the rest of the world; David must have been impressed.
In 1953, he was working at the Australian Government’s Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne when the first Comet set off for Australia. The plane crashed on take-off from Karachi airport en route. Other Comet crashes followed. David, now an expert on aviation fuel, was involved in the search for reasons for these disasters.
His deep interest in electronics came into play at this point. He had recently seen a neat device: the world’s first portable sound recorder, which used steel wire as the recording medium. He imagined such devices being installed in plane cockpits, recording the words spoken by the crew, giving investigators vital clues for crash analysis.
David later worked out how to record instrument data, converted to dots and dashes like Morse code, as well as voices. However, his brilliant ideas and the research he did to back them up were not applauded by local aviation officials; they thought that all they would hear was pilots swearing. This is where that third quality, persistence, came into play – along with interest from English officialdom. The road to regulatory approval and successful manufacture was tortuous, but by 1963 one English company was ready to go into production: S. Davall and Sons.
Visitors to our Success and Innovation exhibition can see a black box flight recorder that was made by Davall in the 1960s. It is the ‘red egg’ in the photo above: red so it’s easy to find after a crash, and rounded to give it some chance of rolling away from burning wreckage. Despite its colour and shape, the name ‘black box’ has stuck.
‘Black box’ is a metaphor for a device whose workings we don’t understand or need to understand, but whose output is interesting. We are thankful to David Warren, who did work hard to understand difficult concepts and create a clever new device. His bright idea did not make him wealthy or bring him much fame, but it has contributed immensely to the safety of flight by helping investigators to understand crashes, regulators to introduce new standards, and manufacturers to improve their planes.
Thanks also to Janice Peterson Witham, whose book ‘Black box: David Warren and the creation of the cockpit voice recorder’ tells his story so well. I am indebted to her for much of the information in this blog.