David Warren died last week in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. He was 85. You may never have heard of this aeronautical researcher, but his work has impacted anyone who travels by air. David Warren is credited with the invention of the black box. (A splendid obituary by Douglas Martin in the New York Times can be found here.)
In 1934, when Warren was just 8 years old, his father died in a plane crash. His last gift to his son was a ham radio set. After earning a PhD in chemistry from the Imperial College in London, Warren went to work for the Australian defense department, where he investigated a spate of civilian air crashes.
Thinking like a good risk manager, he recognized the need for better data at the time of the crash. He volunteered to work on developing a flight recorder system. His bosses were not impressed. One went so far as to say: "If I find you talking to anyone, including me, about this matter, I will have to sack you."
His peers went on to note that if his idea had any merit, the Americans would have already made it (!). Preserving pilot conversations would yield "more expletives than explanations." (The pilots, naturally, did not like the idea of a permanent record of their chatter.) It was only a visit by a high ranking British aviation official in 1958 that triggered a positive response. Warren was flown to England to show off his little black box (which, for the record, was and remains red or orange). The rest, as they say, is history - a history that has significantly enhanced our ability to understand exactly why a given plane went down.
Obscurity and Fame
We live in an age of instant (unmerited) celebrity: you can become rich and famous for doing absolutely nothing (did someone say Snooki???). The quiet Australian David Warren accomplished a great deal in his long life and managed to stay in the background. He was able to transform the painful loss of his father into safer skies for everyone. It will not surprise you that he never profited from his work. Even if his government had offered him all the profits from his invention, he says he would have refused. He quipped that if he were to profit from his good idea, he might also get billed for the ones that amounted to nothing.
The latest generation of black boxes are self-ejecting, encased in steel and insulated against fire. They provide more than 200 measurements and dump data 128 times a second. These technical wonders have their origins in the mind of young child tinkering with a radio set and dreaming of a father who never came home. We should all be grateful for the exemplary life of this humble man.