Australia's Top 10 Inventions: The Black Box Flight Recorder

To celebrate Australia Day this week, we’re looking at some of the best inventions to ever come out of our sunburnt country. Today, we pay homage to David Warren, who completely changed aviation safety by creating the Black Box flight recorder.

After any aeroplane crash these days, there's the inevitable hunt for the Black Box flight recorder, a device that records all the in-flight conversations and flight data, so investigators can try and discover what went wrong. What's amazing is that the box itself was invented by Australian David Warren, who initially struggled to convince aviation companies in the benefits of a rugged recording device.

Born from a passion of electronics, Warren was working as a chemist in the age of commercial airliners infancy in Australia. He was assigned to be part of a thinktank to investigate why a Comet jet aircraft crashed in 1953, an event that had no witnesses and no survivors (and no black box), and therefore few clues as to the events leading up to its demise. The popular theory at the time was that the jet fuel used had a tendency to become explosive at altitude, which is why Warren was part of the investigation.

But it was his passion for gadgets rather than chemistry that saw him come up with the idea of the Black Box. Back in 2003, Dr Warren told George Negus Tonight:

I had seen at a trade fair, a gadget which fascinated me. It was the world's first miniature recorder to put in your pocket. I put the two ideas together. If a businessman had been using one of these in the plane and we could find it in the wreckage and we played it back, we'd say, "We know what caused this." It's a simple idea, then. Why not have one going in the cockpit or in the... another one, if you like, in the main body of the plane? So that any sounds that were relevant to what was going on would be recorded and you could take them from the wreckage.

He wrote a paper that was published internationally, and yet the response was less than impressive. The Department of Civil Aviation responded to his concept: "Dr Warren's instrument has little immediate direct use in civil aviation." And yet he persevered, creating a prototype which automatically switched itself on and off with the aircraft, and recorded four hours of conversation using a single steel wire as the recording medium. He also worked out how to record eight of the plane's instruments on a different channel every two seconds.

While local interest was non-existent, after a brief introduction to the Secretary of the UK Air registration board, Dr Warren's idea was seized upon in 1958. Warren was flown to the UK to present the idea, where it was well received and given the title "Black Box" by a British journalist.

Today, each Black Box is thoroughly tested to ensure it can withstand temperatures of up to 1,100 degrees, submersion in water for 30 days, pressure of 5000 pounds per square inch and a force of 3,400 times its own weight. They're not necessarily black though.

Dr. Warren never patented his idea, and has received very little financial reward for his ingenuity. He passed away in July last year, leaving behind a legacy of airline safety for the entire world.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

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