How Australian Scientist David Warren Invented the World's First Flight Recorder

The brains behind the 'black box'

By Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

Dr David Warren AO

Australian scientist Dr David Warren (1925–2010) invented the world’s first flight recorder. While investigating an air crash in 1954, he had the idea that recording the final moments in the cockpit before the crash would have helped determine what went wrong.

In the late 1950s Warren built a prototype capable of recording voices and sounds in the cockpit as well as basic flight data. Australian aviation officials did not initially understand the significance of the device and did not support its development, but a chance meeting led to English company S Davall & Sons Ltd producing a commercial flight recorder.

Today, every commercial aircraft carries a flight recorder.

Dr David Warren (2004)National Portrait Gallery

The inspiration

David Warren’s lifelong interest in electronics was inspired by a crystal radio set, the last gift he received from his father, who died tragically in a crash when Warren was a child. Reverend Hubert Warren was a passenger on the Miss Hobart plane when it crashed in 1934, killing everyone on board. 

This plane is similar to the Miss Hobart passenger plane that crashed in 1934, killing David Warren’s father.

Warren became involved in aviation safety during a period of rapid growth and pioneering in Australian aviation. He was appointed principal research scientist at the Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne in 1953 and assigned to investigate the explosion of a new de Havilland Comet jetliner that had been en route to Australia, as it was suspected that the fuel tank had exploded.

This proved not to be true, and prompted Warren to think that if there had been a recording of the conversation on the flight deck, the mystery of the crash could have been solved quickly without all the speculation and argument.

A DH.84 Dragon aeroplane outside De Havilland Aircraft Pty Ltd hangar (1930s) by Photographer not recordedMuseum of Applied Arts and Sciences

The 'black box'

This is one of the original flight recorders used by S Davall & Sons Ltd to demonstrate flight recorder functions. It also served as a prototype for later models.

Today’s flight recorders still use Warren’s original ideas of a rounded shape and bright colour. Unlike the earlier model, they are bright orange so they are easy to locate, even though they have the popular name ‘black box’ and are housed in the aircraft’s tail so they are more likely to survive a crash.

'Black Box' prototype flight recorder (1960) by Dr David WarrenMuseum of Applied Arts and Sciences

Despite initial resistance to Warren’s ideas, Australia was the first country to make flight recorders mandatory. Today they provide invaluable information for investigators.

In 2002, Warren became an Officer of the Order of Australia for his ‘service to the aviation industry, particularly through the early conceptual work and prototype development of the black box flight data recorder.’

The Powerhouse Museum holds a rare example of an original prototype produced by Warren and the Davall company which demonstrated how the devices would work.

Black box flight recorder (1968-1978) by Designed by Dr David WarrenMuseum of Applied Arts and Sciences

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