Remembering David Warren: the brilliant, charming Australian who invented the "Black Box"

There are times when our love and our passion (two words that may have parallel or convergent meanings) come together as one. Such was the case with a young Australian sixty years ago. His private love (of music) and his professional passion (for better outcomes) led him to show the world a better way of investigating what had been, hitherto, a frequently puzzling problem.

He was a brilliant research scientist at the Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne, and a lover of fine music. Forever seeking a better way to record his treasured music, wanting to carry it around for personal use, he saw a German invention in 1954 that allowed just that. It was a miniaturised recorder that ran about some 3000 – 4000 metres of wire from reel to reel. As the wire – about the thickness of a human hair – was drawn over an electromagnetic head, sound could be recorded on it.

The young scientist, Dr David Warren, was actually a fuels expert and part of the team investigating the mystifying inflight loss of the world’s first passenger jet aeroplane, the de Havilland Comet. He felt that if something so small (a relative term, it was about the size of the Concise Oxford Dictionary!) had been built into early flight data recorders and placed in those aircraft, it could have provided assistance in solving the losses. By recording cockpit voices up to the moment of disaster, investigators might gain essential clues.

Warren returned to Australia where he led a team that designed and built the world’s first ‘black box.’ He wrote to the Government of the day explaining what his team had developed and its potential to help air crash investigation if fitted mandatorily to all aircraft. Australia was subsequently the first country to do so but, in the meantime, the authorities wrote back a three-page letter that basically told the team the importance of such a device but overlooked the fact one was in existence awaiting inspection: theirs!

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A couple of years earlier, Warren mooted such a device in a memo to aviation authorities. Now, with the availability of a suitable recorder, he and his team had been able to make an operating unit. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with Australian inventions, the lack of interest and development capital saw the concept picked up by the British and Americans.

The resultant ‘black boxes’ (now separate devices, the Cockpit Voice Recorder and the Digital Flight Data Recorder), are universal fitment in all but the smallest passenger aircraft around the world. The love and the passion of this brilliant, likeable man created something for the benefit of mankind.

But it’s far more fascinating to hear it from the man himself: in this ABC TV interview, first broadcast in 1985, Dr Warren discusses how the invention came about. Despite his likely frustration at the time, with a lack of bureaucratic and governmental understanding for the project, his warmth and enthusiasm are evident.

Have you found a newfound respect for this passionate inventor? How do you feel about such a useful invention being overlooked for so long by bureaucracy?

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