ON THIS DAY… The black box was born

Research scientist David Warren lost his father to an airline disaster when he was a boy, then went on to revolutionise global aviation safety.
ON 17 MARCH 1953, Melbourne Aeronautical Research Laboratory scientist David Warren brought a ‘game changer’ to the aviation industry, when he invented the world’s first-ever ‘black box.’
In little more than 60 years, it has gone from a single prototype, to a mandatory piece of airline equipment – this journey experiencing a fair share of turbulence along the way.
During the 1950s, David was working on investigations into a series of fatal crashes of the world’s first jet-powered commercial aircraft, the Comet. (It must have been work that hit close to home, having lost his own father in one of Australia’s earliest air disasters in 1934 when Miss Hobart crashed in the Bass Strait).
It was during this time he had his light-bulb moment – if the final moments of the flights had been recorded, they could have provided valuable information.
“Aircraft accidents can be very difficult to investigate if there are no survivors, no eyewitnesses and the aircraft wreckage is fragmented,” explains Neil Campbell, senior transport safety investigator at the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.
“This is exactly the scenario in the 1950s when the British Comet aircraft was developed and had a series of accidents. The accidents were very difficult to explain without black boxes.”
1985 ABC News Interview with Dr David Warren about his 1956 invention of the Black Box Flight Recorder. ABC News: ‘Black Box Flight Recorder Inventor’ first broadcast on 29 June 1985. (Source: Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
And so, in 1953, the first black box was born, featuring a thin metal wire that could continually store flight instrument readings and up to four hours of voice recordings before a crash.
He pitched the idea internationally, but it fell flat, and David – alongside team members Kenneth Fraser, Lane Sear and Dr Walter Boswell – spent the next few years developing the technology, producing a demonstration model in 1957.
In 1958, the idea took flight, when former British air vice-marshal Sir Robert Hardingham visited the laboratory and saw its potential and England’s Ministry of Aviation followed suit soon after.
However it wasn’t until 1960 – seven years later – that Australia caught on, when a Fokker F27 Friendship plane crash in Mackay, Queensland, killed 29 people, and the judge ordered black boxes be fitted in all future Australian aircraft.
Overnight, Australia went from taking little interest, to being the first country in the world to make cock-pit voice recording compulsory. (Courtesy Australian Geographic)
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