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Various new technologies and methodologies were developed in Australian aviation in a range of fields. Lawrence Hargraves invention of a train of four box kites in 1893 which lifted off the ground in following year was probably the first of these. Procedural innovations were also important such as the introduction in 1940 of Flight Checking Officer (FCOs). FCOs provided an Operational Control service which was uniquely Australian. Their critical role was to ‘check flight plans and ensure that adequate fuel was carried, to divert aircraft if conditions at the destination were unsafe, close airports if weather conditions deteriorated below minimum standards, and to keep pilots informed of changing flying condition’.[i] Events such as the tragic Kyeema airline crash underscored the importance of such a development. A Sydney FCO, Norman Rodoni, was also to invent a computational device called the ‘Rodoniscope’ in 1944. It made possible the accurate prediction of when faster planes travelling in the same trunk air routes would pass a slower aircraft.[ii]

A major innovation in aviation navigation pioneered in Australia was distance measuring equipment. A prototype was developed by James ‘Gerry’ Gerrand (1919-2012) at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s Division of Radiophysics between 1944-45 under the supervision of Dr E.G. Bowen. Gerrand had previously been working on radar systems. Easy to operate and weighing eleven kilograms, the equipment measured the distance between a plane and an aerodrome. The design was adopted by the Federal Department of Civil Aviation and subsequently by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.[iii] In the early 1950s, the Amalgamated Wireless Australasia Limited developed a variation of the system.[iv]

Prototype of black box flight recorder by David Warren (Museum Victoria)

Australian scientist David Warren (1925-2010) worked at the Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne from 1952 to 1983. There, he was to invent and develop the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder – the ‘black box’. Instruments deigned earlier had been used to record a variety of flight data. But they did not record voices and had a one-off use. On 19 March 1954, Warren wrote a memorandum entitle ‘A device for assisting investigation into aircraft accidents’. Two years later, he produced a prototype called the ARL Flight Memory Unit. In a 1985 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Commission he told a reported that: ‘If a businessman had been using one of these in the plane and we could find it in the wreckage and we played it back, we’d say: “We know what caused this”’. The invention was developed in Britain and the USA due to lack of interest on the part of Australian authorities.[v]

Later innovations in Australian aviation include the all-glass Control Tower built in 1995 at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith airport in 1995, the first of its kind in the country. Each controller workstation was equipped with five glass displays for Surface Movement Radar, Terminal Area Radar, meteorological data, Voice Switch and Monitoring.[vi] A 2014 report undertaken for the conservative American Hudson Institute noted that the most advanced and innovative systems in air traffic control were in Australia, Canada, Germany, Britain and New Zealand where they ‘have moved air traffic control into single-mission organisations charging directly for their services, issue revenue bonds for capital improvements, and [are] governed by aviation stakeholders’.[vii] Innovation is also fostered in Australia in areas such industrial design and aviation psychology.[viii]

Microwave Landing System, VIC (Airways Museum)

Heritage Sources

Apart from the major milestone objects and personal stories, much of the story of Australian aviation innovation remains unexplored and difficult to access in government archives and the specialist records of organisations like CSIRO. With structural change in these organisations, such holdings may be under threat.

Museums, Collections & Archives

CSIRO, Black Mountain, ACT

One of the great centres of innovation of Australian aviation. The CSIRO has collaborated with various departments to develop and create innovative ways of navigation and safety such as the flight recorder, stress fatigue tests and microwave landing equipment.

National Archives Australia, ACT

Patents and documents relating to innovative inventions and individuals such as Lawrence Hargrave, David Warren and John Duigan who built and flew the first Australian made aircraft.

National Library of Australia, ACT

Documents, photographs and ephemera relating to early airlines such Western Australian Airways and Qantas.

National Museum of Australia, ACT

The Neil Jensen Collection is objects and documents relating to Neil Jensen who designed and manufactured the first low-wing cantilever monoplanes in the Commonwealth in 1930. The collection includes an example of the Gull monoplane by Edgar Pervical and various documents, letters and manuals relating to Neil Jensen.

Powerhouse Museum, NSW

A large collection of technology and innovation regarding aviation. Several collections with Lawrence Hargrave material such as sketches, models and documents. 

Airways Museum, VIC

A large collection of civil aviation objects, documents and photography such as numerous radio and communication systems, air traffic consoles and surveillance systems.

Some examples are a SWB8 High Frequency radio transmitter, original console from the Essendon Control Tower and the Bellini-Tosi Medium Frequency Direction Finder.

Museums Victoria, VIC

Has several prototypes of the flight recorder that was invented by David Warren.



Llandilo International Transmitting Station Stoney Creek Rd , Shanes Park, NSW


The Llandilo International Transmitting Station is played an important part in Australia’s aviation and international air routes coming into Australia.

Sydney Airport Air Traffic Control Tower General Holmes Dr, Sydney Airport, NSW


Nominated on the Commonwealth Heritage List for its innovative design and aesthetics. The air traffic control tower at Kingsford-Smith remains a landmark on the Sydney landscape.

DSTO Aeronautical and Maritime Research Laboratory Lorimer St Port Melbourne, VIC

Aeronautical research facility and aircraft manufacturing since the late 1930s.

Microwave Landing System Antennas at Melbourne Airport, Tullamarine Fwy, Melbourne Airport, VIC


Collaborative effort between CSIRO, AWA and the Department of Civil Aviation to develop a new landing system. Located at the Melbourne Airport, the site is nominated for the Commonwealth Heritage List.

People & Organizations

Amalgamated Wireless Australasia

Designed and manufactured equipment used in almost all aspects of Australian aviation operation including communications equipment. Relevant collection materials distributed throughout aviation heritage collections in Australia such as Powerhouse and Airways Museum, VIC.


Was involved in the development of new navigation and communication systems with the Department of Civil Aviation in the 1950s.

David Warren

David Warren was the inventor of one of the most important pieces of aviation used today, the flight recorder or black box. Material regarding David Warren and his invention can be found in the Melbourne Museum and the Powerhouse Sydney.


[i] Roger Meyer, ‘Air Traffic Control – Part 1’, Airways Musuem, http://airwaysmuseum.com/Air%20traffic%20control%20pt1.htm accessed 2 May 2014.

[ii] ibid.

[iii] Sydney Morning Herald, ‘James Gerrand, 1919-2012’, 9 January 2013, http://www.smh.com.au/comment/obituaries/engineer-exploded-myths-in-many-fields-20130108-2cell.html accessed 2 May 2014.

[iv] ‘Distance Measuring Equipment’, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distance-Measuring-Equipment accessed 2 May 2014.

[v] ’80 Days That Changed Our Lives: Black box flight recorder invented in Melbourne’, ABC http://ww.abc.net.au/archives/80days/stories/2011/10/27/3367965.htm accessed 1 May 2014. See also Defense Science and Technology Organisation, ‘Dave Warren’, http://www.dsto.defence.gov.au/page/3384/ accessed 2 May 2014.

[vi] W. R. Eckhardt, ‘Sydney’s New Air Traffic Control Tower and its Associated Technical Facilities’, Airport Engineering Innovation, no. 95/07, 1995, pp. 113-115.

[vii] Justin Burns, ‘Study Claims US Air Traffic Control System “Falling Behind”’, Airport World, 7 January 2014.

[viii] See, for example, Graham Edkins and Peter Pfister (eds), Innovation and Consolidation in Aviation: Selected Contributions to the Australian Aviation Psychology Symposium 2000, Ashgate, Farnham, 2003.