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'black box' inventor passes away

David Warren, inventor of "black box," dies in Australia at 85

Jul 22, 2010

SYDNEY – A pioneering Australian inventor whose "black box" flight data recorder revolutionised the safety of air travel and aided countless crash investigations has died aged 85, officials said Wednesday.

David Warren, whose own father died in a plane crash, hit upon the "black box" idea while probing a 1953 disaster involving the world's first commercial jetliner.

"Without any explanation, without any witnesses, without any survivors ... (it was) a really baffling mystery," Warren said in a 2003 interview.

Warren, who died on Monday, was the first European child born on Groote Eylandt, a remote Aboriginal island in Australia's northeast, in 1925.

His father was among 12 people on board the "Miss Hobart" mail plane that vanished over the southern Bass Strait in 1934, one of Australia's earliest air disasters.

Then just nine years of age, Warren was left with his father's last gift to him, a crystal radio set, which he used to listen to broadcasts after lights-out in his boarding school dormitory.

Building radios soon became his schoolboy hobby, but a World War II ban on amateur radio led Warren to dump his nascent ambitions as a "radio ham" in favour of chemistry, his ultimate career path.

He first hatched the idea of cockpit voice and data recording while investigating a 1953 crash of the Comet, the world's first commercial jet, basing his design on a miniature pocket recorder he had seen at a trade fair.

"I put the two ideas together," he said.

"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.'

"Any sounds that were relevant to what was going on would be recorded and you could take them from the wreckage."

After an initial lack of interest from authorities, Warren built a prototype "black box" in 1956. It was able to store four hours of voice recordings and instrument readings.

The idea was slow to catch on, with Australia's Department of Civil Aviation advising Warren that his "instrument has little immediate direct use in civil aviation".

Military authorities went further still, with the Royal Australian Air Force dismissing it as unnecessary and likely to "yield more expletives than explanations".

It took a lunchtime demonstration of the device to a visiting British official in 1958 for the potential of his design to be recognised and christened the "black box" -- a reference to its technical mastery.

"One of the people in the discussion afterwards said, 'This is a wonderful black box'," Warren said. "A black box was a gadget box. You didn't have to understand it but it did wonderful things."

It was 10 years before black boxes -- in fact brightly painted to make them easy to spot at crash sites -- were made mandatory in Australian aircraft.

Their modern equivalent is now used in passenger aircraft around the world.

"Dr. Warren's flight data recorder has made an invaluable contribution to safety in world aviation," Australia's defence department said in a statement.

Warren is survived by his wife, four children and seven grandchildren.

"Our driving force was air safety so we felt that it's succeeded in that regard," he said in 2003. "(It's) a very satisfying feeling."

David Warren, inventor of "black box," dies in Australia at 85
Dr. David Warren with the first prototype FDR / Image via

Source: AFP

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