The History of the Black Box (Flight Data Recorder)

Front and internal view of a flight data recorder (black box)
Peter Chadwick / Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

David Warren had a deeply personal reason to invent the flight-data recorder (commonly referred to as the “black box”). In 1934, his father died in one of Australia’s earliest air crashes. 

Early Life and Career

David Warren was born in 1925 on Groote Eylandt, and island off the Northern coast of Australia. Gadgets and devices, like the ham radio left to him by his father, helped Warren through his childhood and adolescence. His educational record speaks for itself: he graduated with honors from the University of Sydney before earning a diploma in education from the University of Melbourne and a Ph.D. in chemistry from Imperial College London.

In the 1950s, as Warren was working for the Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne, a few developments occurred to reignite his instincts regarding in-flight recordings. In Britain in 1949, the de Havilland Comet was introduced—only to experience a disaster in 1954 with a series of high-profile crashes. Without any kind of recording device from inside the aircraft, determining the causes and investigating the intricacies of these disasters was a famously difficult task for the British authorities. Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself was quoted as saying, “The cost of solving the Comet mystery must be reckoned neither in money nor in manpower.” Around the same time, the earliest tape recorders were being introduced in trade shows and storefront windows. It was a German-made one that first caught Warren’s eye, leading him to wonder how much more information the authorities would have during its investigations if a device like this had been in the Comet.

Inventing the "Memory Unit"

In 1957, Warren completed a prototype—which he termed the “Memory Unit”—for his device. His idea, however, was greeted with no shortage of criticism from the Australian authorities. The Royal Australian Air Force haughtily suggested that the device would capture “more expletives than explanations,” while the Australian pilots themselves worried about the potential for spying and surveillance. It took the British—the maker of the tarnished Comet—to appreciate the necessity of Warren’s device. From there, flight-data recorders proceeded to become standard procedure not only in Britain and Australia but also in America and in the commercial flying industry all across the world.

There seems to be some dispute as to how Warren’s device came to be known as the black box, considering that the color of Warren’s prototype was closer to red or orange, in order to make the device stand out amidst the wreckage of a crash. However, the black-box moniker has stuck, perhaps owing to the intense steel casing required to protect the box.

Warren has never received financial reward for his invention, although he has—after what was initially quite a battle—been officially recognized by his own country: in 2002, he was awarded the Order of Australia for his contributions. Warren died in 2010, at the age of 85, but his invention continues to be a mainstay on aircraft worldwide, recording both cockpit chatter and instrument readings of altitude, speed, direction, and other statistics. Additionally, car manufacturers have recently started installing black boxes in their vehicles, adding another chapter in the evolution of Warren’s originally maligned idea.

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Your Citation
Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Black Box (Flight Data Recorder)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 26). The History of the Black Box (Flight Data Recorder). Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Black Box (Flight Data Recorder)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 15, 2021).