top of page



Professor James J. “Crash” Ryan II, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota from 1931 to 1963, was an expert in instrumentation, vibration analysis, and machine design.  He became a national advocate for automotive safety following invention of the retractable seatbelt, and he greatly contributed to aircraft safety with the invention of the “black box” for flight data recording. 

Professor Ryan and his students developed the first automatic, fully retractable seat belt, which self-tightens during a collision, and he was responsible for improvements in shock absorbing hydraulic bumpers, recessed dashboards, and collapsible steering columns, long before Detroit automakers made such safety features a priority.   

Not only did he research and create safety features for cars (e.g. retractable seat belts, hydraulic bumper), he also crash-tested these devices himself – this before “crash dummies.”  Sporting a white football helmet, he would strap himself into either a car or a “crash sled” – a padded chair on a fast track – and then be thrusted into a barrier at 20 miles per hour.  He conducted dozens of hands-on crash tests which made him a campus legend during the 1950s.  


Because he sat behind the wheel during many of the impact tests, he acquired the nickname “Crash.”  The role of “test subject” was eventually assigned to non-human dummies.

From his laboratory at the University, Ryan and his students studied the problem of automobile fatalities.  During the 1950s and early 1960s, they crashed hundreds of cars in parking lots, on rural country roads, on laboratory “sleds”— even dropping cars from 80-foot cranes to simulate a 40-mph crash.

Ryan frequently appeared at county fairs and auto shows and on TV to campaign for automobile safety.  He was a tireless crusader, using the media to urge Congress to enact legislation requiring manufacturers to make cars safer. “It’s such a silly thing,” he opined, “to allow people to become a statistic, by reason of death due to an automobile accident.”

He received the patent for the first automatic retractable seat belt in 1963. His patent was for a seat belt that would maintain a certain amount of tension, but then give or retract under normal driving conditions. If there was sudden deceleration, the seat belt would lock up to reduce the forward motion of the driver and passengers.

Over the years, he had tried to convince Detroit automakers that the retractable seat belt should become standard in American cars, but his requests fell on deaf ears.  In 1965, he partnered with Ralph Nader (the consumer advocate), and in 1966 they helped get the “National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act” passed. Part of this Act required that all U.S. passenger vehicles have seat belts beginning in 1968.  Only when the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act were signed into law in 1966 did safety become a required part of automobile design.

Ryan’s work has been instrumental in saving lives.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSAA) estimates that from 1975 to 2006, seat belts have saved the lives of 226,567 people.  According to the NHTSA, more than 15,000 lives are saved each year in the United States because drivers and their passengers were wearing seat belts when they were in a road traffic crash. 

Those aren’t the only lives that Ryan has saved.  He is credited with another landmark invention, the first crash-survivable flight data record, more commonly known as the aviation “black box,” a purely mechanical unit that recorded flight data as impressions on metal film.


Flight data recorders 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.

No stranger to military problem-solving, Ryan had helped design precision recording altimeters, accelerometers and tensiometers during World War II. With the onset of the jet age, Ryan became the lead researcher on a project for the U.S. Air Force aimed at determining at what altitude and speed it was safe for an ejecting pilot to deploy his parachute—or for an automatic release device to deploy the parachute if the pilot could not do so. His work on that project provided a good foundation for developing an accurate and survivable flight data recorder—crucial for determining the causes of a crash.

Though now firmly focused on food, for many years General Mills had a mechanical division that developed a variety of devices.  General Mills had been involved in the development of precision equipment for the Air Corps, as well as other military branches, since early in the war.  Some of that work continued into the following decade. The company’s mechanical division started searching for an experienced engineer who could join its program to develop a new flight data recorder, known as the “FDR” project.  Ryan was selected.

In the 1950s, while working in partnership with the mechanical division at General Mills, Ryan developed the first crash-survivable, mechanical flight data recorder.  Flight data are also known by the misnomer “black box” -- they are in fact bright orange.  This distinct color, along with the strips of reflective tape attached to the recorders' exteriors, help investigators locate the black boxes after an accident.  

Ryan’s early device was about the size of a bread box, with two compartments.  One compartment contained measuring devices, an altimeter, accelerometer, and airspeed indicator, and the other a recording device.  Ryan’s research laid the foundation for the modern flight data recorder, contributing greatly to aviation safety.  His basic compartmentalized design is still used in flight data recorders today.   Descendants of his design are required equipment on all commercial and military aircraft.

The black box, like the retractable belt, wasn’t instantly embraced. It took years of lobbying to get airlines to accept it. By 1957, the Civil Aeronautics Board (soon to become part of the Federal Aviation Administration) had ruled that all aircraft over 12,500 pounds were required to have flight data recorders. Now no commercial airplane takes off without it.

Ryan was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1903.  He died in 1973 at age 69, a holder of six patents, having given away many of his patent rights to help save lives.

bottom of page