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Black Boxes

February 24, 2004

A public radio commentary

Most people know that the black boxes used in airliners to record cockpit conversations are actually orange, but what is less well known is that, in a way, they were inspired by Big Band Swing music.

The black box's inventor, David Warren, worked at Australia's Aeronautical Research Laboratory in Melbourne in the 1950s. He developed special jet fuels, so he kept a careful eye on aviation around the globe. Making headlines at the time was the world's first commercial jetliner: The British Comet.

The Comet's revolutionary jet engines grabbed attention: They made the Comet's ride smooth, quiet and quick. Soon, though, the Comets made news by exploding in mid-air. David Warren had a very personal resonance with these disasters: In 1926 his father died in one of Australia's first commercial crashes.

Thirty year later, at the time of the Comet crashes, David Warren was fascinated by American Swing music, especially the big bands of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. He even used early tape recorders to make copies of his favorite songs for friends.

In the 1950s as Warren browsed an electronics trade show looking for new tape recorders for his hobby, he kept in the back of his mind the Comet crashes. At the trade show he saw the first pocket-sized recorder: A German Minifone, which weighed about 3 pounds and was just a bit larger than a hand. It occurred to Warren that if one of these had been running in the cockpit of a Comet, and if it had been recovered, it might give clues about what the pilot knew at the moment of disaster.

With that insight, he spent the next five years building and perfecting his own special recorder - the first Cockpit Flight Recorder - only to find very little interest. The Royal Australian Air Force said that such a device would "yield more expletives than explanations." And the Federation of Australian Air Pilots declared that "no plane would take off in Australia with Big Brother listening."

Not surprisingly it was the British, the owners of the failing Comet Jets, who championed the idea. They invited Warren to England to demonstrate his device, which they named the "Black Box" because of the dark bakelite coating used to protect it in a crash. Nowadays, of course, we moved beyond this early plastic and now make the "black" boxes bright orange. With British support Black boxes, manufactured in America, became standard issue on all commercial aircraft. And they are now coming to every vehicle.

Recently auto makers have installed black boxes on car, which automatically record a car's speed and other information. Today, as many as 40 million vehicles have electronic data recorders. Just like for aircraft, safety researchers, insurers and prosecutors use them to reconstruct what happened in the seconds before an auto accident.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises