The Invention of the Black Box

Some inventions result from a need to construct something specific, some are stumbled across and some are born from personal loss and tragedy. It was because of a devastating plane crash in Australia that the Black Box, or Flight Data Recorder, was first imagined. It was invention that no-one knew they needed and that would become instrumental in saving many lives.

After World War Two the aviation industry started to boom. Unfortunately, a number of disastrous and fatal aircraft crashes left many people doubting airplanes and loved ones with unanswered questions. In 1934, Australia experienced its first major airline accident and aboard the doomed flight was Dr. David Warren’s father. He was only a young boy at the time, but he had always wondered what had happened to cause the accident and if it could have been prevented. Air crash investigators at the time could only speculate as to the reasons for an aircraft to crash as there was no means available to determine if human error was the culprit or if there was a mechanical failure. Not being able to establish if faulty instruments or mechanics were to blame meant that errors and defects could not be corrected.

In the year 1950, Dr. David Warren started to experiment with creating a cockpit recorder which was able to record the voices of the crew and instrument functions. He was working at the Aeronautical Research Laboratory at the time. The first Flight Data Recorder, called the ARL Flight Memory Unit, was encased in a titanium box that was both crash and fire resistant. Data was captured through a steel wire and stored and included recordings of the altitude, speed, engine temperature, instrument readings and cockpit voice recordings. Today the wire has been substituted by a memory chip or magnetic tape. His invention of the Black Box was scoffed at and it took eight years for this amazing piece of equipment to be valued.

Since 1958, after receiving assistance from the Secretary of the United Kingdom Air Registration Board, a Flight Data Recorder has been used all aircraft and its installation became compulsory from 1967 onward. This vital aviation instrument has been invaluable in the investigation of air disasters and the prevention of them. Even though Dr. David Warren, after the invention of the Black Box, has not become wealthy from his idea, it has given him great satisfaction to see his invention being used across the globe.

Today, the units that are known as the “Black Box”, are no longer housed in a black casings, but they have been improved and made more accurate as the years have passed. The future for recording cockpit movements will be in the hands of video recorders shortly, but data from the aircraft will still be gathered by the trusted Black Box.