In the Spotlight

News & Features
News StoriesWeb Features
Ten Ways U Research Affects You
By Steven John, February 2001

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | intro

8. Driving a car or flying in an airplane is safer, thanks to the work of "Crash" Ryan

The "black box," or flight data recorder, was developed by University of Minnesota engineer James "Crash" Ryan. Flight data recorders are now required equipment on all commercial airlines. Ryan also developed the retractable seat belt.
(MPR Photo - Melanie Sommer)

Safety devices developed by James J. Ryan are found in all modern cars and trucks and in commercial aircraft. The University of Minnesota researcher developed the retractable seat belt and the flight recorder.

In the 1950s, James J. Ryan proved the effectiveness of seat belts in reducing injuries during car crashes. Donning a Gopher football helmet, Ryan earned his nickname, "Crash," for his hands-on crash tests of the seat belt and other safety features, such as collapsible steering wheel columns, padded dashboards and hydraulic bumpers.

Ryan obtained a patent for the retractable seat belt in 1963, but Detroit automakers showed little interest in the device. It took years of knocking heads, literally and figuratively, but eventually James Ryan convinced Washington and Detroit that his safety features would save lives. His retractable seat belt has become standard equipment in all autos and trucks made in the U.S.

While at the university's Department of Engineering, Ryan's research also led him to the sky. He developed the "black box" flight recorder to record flight information on airplanes. But just as the auto manufacturers were cool to his safety innovations for cars, Ryan ran into similar reluctance from the airlines in regard to the flight recorder. With research funding from the mechanical division of General Mills, Ryan developed the technology to measure flight patterns of airplanes. But it took his lobbying efforts in Washington to convince Congress to pass the laws that made flight recorders mandatory in all commercial aircraft. The information recorded by the black box is essential for determining the causes of airplane crashes.