21 July 2010

Australian Inventor of "Black Box" Dies, Aged 85

The Age newspaper reports this morning that Dr David Warren, the Australian inventor of the "black box" flight recorder, has died in a Melbourne nursing home, aged 85.

Despite featuring prominently as a "famous Australian invention" in the foyer of the IP Australia offices in Canberra, and having been made the subject of an "Australian Innovations" postage stamp (right) commemorating the centenary of the Australian Patent Office in 2004, we are not aware of Dr Warren's "black box" (which is actually bright red or orange, to make it easier to find) ever having been the subject of a patent.  The 1961 date of invention indicated on the commemorative stamp also appears inconsistent with the historical record.

According to the entry for Flight Data Recorder on Wikipedia:
The first prototype coupled FDR/CVR [Flight Data Recorder/Cockpit Voice Recorder] designed with civilian aircraft in mind, for explicit post-crash examination purposes, was produced in 1956 by Dr. David Warren of the Defence Science and Technology Organisations', Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne, Australia.  In 1953 and 1954, a series of fatal accidents involving the De Havilland DH106 Comet prompted the grounding of the entire fleet pending an investigation.  Dr. Warren, a chemist specializing in aircraft fuels, was involved in a professional committee discussing the possible causes.  Since there had been neither witnesses nor survivors, Dr. Warren conceived of a crash-survivable method to record the flight crew's conversation (and other pre-crash data), reasoning they would greatly assist in determining a cause and enabling the prevention of future, avoidable accidents of the same type.
Despite his 1954 report entitled "A Device for Assisting Investigation into Aircraft Accidents" and a 1957 prototype FDR called "The ARL Flight Memory Unit", aviation authorities from around the world were largely uninterested. This changed in 1958 when Sir Robert Hardingham, the Secretary of the UK Air Registration Board, visited the ARL and was introduced to Warren.
In 1960, the judge in an enquiry into an aircraft crash in Mackay, Queensland, recommended the installation of flight recorders in all airliners. As a result, Australia became the first country to make cockpit voice recording compulsory.

Vale, Dr Warren, and thank you for your important contribution to air safety.


Anonymous said...

The Inventor of the Flight Data Recorder was Prof. James Ryan. Ryan started work on this in 1948 and had a working prototype in 1951. US Patent 3075192, priority date 1953, resulted from his work


Unknown said...

Anonymous -

You are absolutely correct. Prof. James Ryan was instrumental in the development of the Flight Data Recorder (FDR), which is a device to record information such as velocity, acceleration and altitude.

The modern "black box", however, includes a cockpit voice recorder (CVR) that is capable of surviving a catastrophic accident with the recording intact. As stated in our article, Dr Warren was the first to develop a prototype coupled FDR/CVR, which went on to be the basis for the device that was first made compulsory in Australia in 1960, and is the forerunner of the devices now deployed in all commercial airliners.

There is no question that, like many inventors, Dr Warren stood on the shoulders of those that came before him. But this is no reason not to acknowledge his significant contribution to air safety.

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