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Black box flight recorder
voice and instrument recorder for aircraft

Sometimes innovation lies in an idea, the kernel of thought that creates a new product, that starts a new industry, that makes life better. The person with the idea may not benefit financially yet still make a great contribution to society.

In 1953 Dave Warren, a chemist, joined an Australian team investigating a series of Comet jet airliner crashes. If only he could have asked the pilot what had happened, but dead people tell no tales. Or do they?

It was Warren's idea to build machines that recorded the voices in the cockpit as well as data from flight instruments. If these machines could survive a crash, they could play back the final moments of a flight to discover what went wrong.

He designed a prototype at the Australian Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne, using a wire recorder inside a thick asbestos box. Short-sighted management and Australian authorities dismissed Warren's idea as unnecessary. But others thought it was brilliant and his Black Box recorders (which are actually bright orange so they're easy to find after a crash) were manufactured in the UK and USA from 1960 onwards. Every commercial plane in the world now carries a flight recorder.

Warren's only financial reward was a trip to England to accompany the prototype. His consolation is that he helped make flying a safer way to travel

Who Did It?
Key Organisations
Aeronautical Research Laboratory : R&D

S Davall & Sons (UK) : design, manufacture
Key People
David Warren : inventor
John Hardingham : promoted idea in UK

Further Reading
'The box: Australian genius lost out to bureaucratic myopia'
Geoff Maslen
The Age, 25 May 1985.

Museum Victoria black box information sheet (pdf)
Black Box contribution to air safety
Radio Australia. Innovations 10-12 Sept 2000
Black Box Flight Recorders and Cockpit Voice Recorders
How black box flight recorders work

Questions & Activities
Black box flight recorder

An early ?red egg? Black Box flight recorder designed to survive a crash and fire. Courtesy Powerhouse Museum. Photo Sue Stafford.
Fire testing the prototype flight recorder. Department of Defence. Defence Science and Technology Organisation, Aeronautical and Maritime Research Laboratory (neg no 5758-E). Commonwealth of Australia copyright reproduced by permission.
ATSE Powerhouse Museum