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Inventor of the flight recorder, seat belts, the first collapsible bumper and other auto safety equipment. : James J. Ryan II (1903-1973)

James J. Ryan II (1903-1973)
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James J. Ryan II    Safety belts save lives, and no one knew that better than the legendary James “Crash” Ryan, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota from 1931 to 1963. Professor James J. Ryan II was a 1920 graduate of LeClaire High School, later attending Iowa State University and teaching at the University of Minnesota.
A national advocate for automotive safety, Ryan was responsible for improvements in shock-absorbing hydraulic bumpers, recessed dashboards, collapsible steering columns and seat belts. In 1963 he obtained a patent for the first automatic retractable safety seat belt. Ryan earned his nickname “Crash” by using himself and his graduate students as subjects in numerous crash tests conducted on campus. 

Years earlier, Ryan also developed the first aircraft “black box” flight recorder, a purely mechanical unit that recorded flight data as impressions on metal film. Black boxes have been used since the earliest days of aviation. The Wright brothers carried the first flight recorder aloft on one of their initial flights. This crude device registered limited flight data such as duration, speed, and number of engine revolutions. Another early aviation pioneer, Charles Lindbergh, used a somewhat more sophisticated version consisting of a barograph, which marked ink on paper wrapped around a rotating drum. The entire device was contained in a small wooden box the size of an index card holder. Unfortunately, these early prototypes were not sturdily constructed and could not survive a crash.

As civil aviation developed in the years before World War II, “crash-survivable” flight recorders came to be seen as a valuable tool in analyzing aviation disasters and contributing to the design of safer aircraft. However, truly serviceable recorders that had any chance of surviving plane crashes were not produced until several years after the war. Black box technology did not advance further until 1951, when Professor James J. Ryan joined the mechanical division of General Mills. Ryan was an expert in instrumentation, vibration analysis, and machine design. Attacking the problem of FDRs, Ryan came up with his own VGA Flight Recorder. The "V" stands for Velocity (airspeed); "G" for G forces (vertical acceleration); and "A" is for altitude. The Ryan Recorder was a 10 lb device about the size of a bread box with two separate compartments. One section contained the measuring devices (the altimeter, the accelerometer, and the airspeed indicator) and the other contained the recording device, which connected to the three instruments. As released in 1953 and sold by General Mills to the Lockheed Aircraft Company, the entire apparatus was enclosed in a yellow-painted spherical shell. Beginning in 1958, larger civilian passenger aircraft in the United States were required to carry survivable FDRs, and numerous other devices were produced employing various recording media, from metal strips to, eventually, magnetic tape.

Ryan's basic compartmentalized design is still used in flight recorders today, although it has undergone numerous improvements. Today the descendants of his device are required equipment on all commercial and military aircraft. The Ryan Flight Recorder, known as the “Black Box” is one of the many items on display in the Buffalo Bill Museum in LeClaire, Iowa. Ryan’s entire office contents, tools, files and awards are also on display at the museum.
 With great honor we recognize James J. Ryan II as a Hero of Industry and Technology. Accepting the award on behalf of the Ryan family is grandson Dan Ryan of Chicago, Illinois.

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