May 8, 2014

Documents that Changed the World: Airline ‘black box’ flight data recorder, 1958

News and Information

David Warren, with his prototype of a flight data recorder.

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David Warren, with his prototype of a flight data recorder.

Recent headlines sadly explain why Joe Janes chose the latest installment in his Documents that Changed the World podcast series — he’s writing about airline flight data recorders, or “black boxes.”

In the podcast series, Janes, a professor in the University of Washington Information School, explores the origin and often evolving meaning of historical documents both famous and less known. UW Today presents these periodically, and all of the podcasts are available online at the Information School website.

As we know, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing on March 8, carrying 227 passengers and a crew of 12. Two months later, no evidence has been found.

Documents that Changed the World podcasts:

The mystery got Janes wondering why and how flight data recorders were invented. The resulting podcast is something of a departure from previous installments in the series.

“It’s not a specific document, though when used after a crash, it becomes a document in itself,” Janes said. “I was also struck by the notion of a document that nobody ever wants to be needed, but always wants to be there, just in case.”

In an ideal world, Janes says, no black box flight data recorders would ever be used. “But look at the uproar when one can’t be found.”

And though Janes found no “clear, single inventor” of the flight data recorder, he learned that many trace its origin to a certain fuel chemist named David Warren, then working for the Australian Department of Defence, who got to daydreaming one day during a meeting about a plane crash. “He lets his mind wander to a wire recorder he’d recently seen and how, if it had been in the cockpit, that might have helped them determine if the plane had been hijacked,” Janes said.

This fuel chemist’s epiphany, Janes describes in the podcast, was followed by “a long and onerous odyssey over five years, beset with indifference and bureaucracy, strongly flavored with gumption and stick-to-it-iveness” that yielded a prototype in 1958.

But Warren and colleagues never patented or profited much from the invention, which they called the “Flight Memory.” When Warren died in 2010, Janes notes, “Someone thoughtfully attached a label to his coffin: “FLIGHT DATA RECORDER INVENTOR: DO NOT OPEN.”

The Documents that Changed the World podcast series is also available on iTunes, with more than 85,000 downloads there so far.

Previous installments of the “Documents that Changed the World” series

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