Crash Test Genius

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Fall 2016

James Ryan's determination in the face of industry opposition led to the invention of the flight data recorder and the retractable seatbelt. His showmanship didn't hurt, either.

By Tim Brady, Illustration By Ellen Weinstein

James "Crash" Ryan earned his nickname honestly: He had a habit of smashing up cars. In September 1959, when he drove a Plymouth into a concrete wall between the University's engineering building and Memorial Stadium at 30 miles per hour, onlookers included Governor Orville Freeman (B.A. '40, LAW '46), members of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, hundreds of students, the local press, auto safety experts, and a documentary film crew.

In the cab of the Plymouth, two crash test dummies were strapped into their seats by midriff and shoulder harnesses, which were novel then but, thanks to Ryan, would one day be standard safety features. On the passenger side in the front seat, the dashboard had a deep cutout designed to prevent someone riding shotgun from banging her head. The steering wheel was designed to collapse on impact, preventing the driver from smashing into its otherwise unyielding frame. Hydraulic pistons, designed to absorb the impact, rested between the bumper and the body of the car, causing the bumper to jut out several inches.

After a brief speech and a countdown from 10, the driverless car accelerated toward the concrete. The unmistakable thud of metal against immovable object quickly followed. Glass shattered, metal wrinkled, and the audience made a noise somewhere between a gasp and nervous laughter. When the echo of the crash died away, the crowd responded with oddly polite applause.

Ryan had been in the habit of smashing cars since the early 1950s, often behind the wheel with a Gopher football helmet on his head. Born in small town Iowa to a second-generation Irish American family, he earned an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Iowa in 1925. He went to work for Westinghouse, was let go at the height of the Depression, but then found a job as an assistant professor in the mechanical engineering department at the University of Minnesota in 1931. He stayed for 32 years.

Prior to his foray into crash safety, Ryan worked on a project with Dr. Ancel Keyes to create a treadmill for the exercise, dietary, and altitude studies Keyes was conducting at the Mayo Clinic. Soon Ryan was doing another experiment through Mayo, which involved automatic opening devices for parachutes.

Here began Ryan's first experiences with test dummies, which in this case were flung from 40,000 feet with parachutes strapped to their backs. Too many real live parachutists were passing out from lack of oxygen after jumping at such high altitudes. There was also a problem with jumpers being jerked violently as the chute opened. Ryan was asked to determine the safest altitude for the parachutes to open, which turned out to be around 15,000 feet.

The recorder that Ryan built to measure speed, altitude, and the tension of forces on the falling dummies as they descended to earth spurred an idea for another application. Couldn't a similar tracking device record the flight path of airplanes? And wouldn't those measurements have value in helping understand the nature of the forces affecting its flight?

During World War II, Ryan and his engineering grad students began working on such a flight data recorder for General Mills, which had parlayed War Department contracts into the creation of an engineering division that worked out of the Thorp Building in northeast Minneapolis, the same building that's now home to scores of artists and part of the annual Art-a-Whirl festival. Ryan developed a test model for the machine in 1945 that recorded speed, altitude, vertical acceleration, time in the air, and flight direction on a strip of aluminum foil.

But development of the recorder ran into what would prove to be an ongoing problem: Airlines were not all that interested in finding out the circumstances under which planes crashed. As is true today, the companies in the 1940s objected to adding weight to a commercial airplane. They also contended that any recorder that couldn't survive the impact of a plane crashing or the heat of the ensuing fire was not worth the cost. Ryan managed to place his first flight recorder on a DC-4 that flew between Minneapolis and Tokyo and collected eight months'worth of data. The airline that had agreed to fly the recorder, however, was so blasé about the results that not once did they ask to check the readings.

Seeking federal aid for his invention, Ryan took it to the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA, forerunner to the Federal Aviation Administration), which agreed with the airlines' argument that if the data recorder couldn't withstand a crash, it wasn't all that useful. So Ryan returned to Minneapolis, wrapped the recorder in steel spheres with a thick cushion of insulation, and took it back to the CAA. There it was run though a battery of tests that included blowtorches, ovens that heated it to 1,000 degrees, then attached to the exterior of an airplane wing and slammed into barricades at speeds exceeding the pull of gravity by 100 times.

The flight recorder survived every brutality and won support from the CAA. Though commercial airlines and manufacturers remained unenthusiastic, lawmakers responded favorably. Congress enacted legislation requiring installation by the mid-1950s of a flight data recorder on every jet that left the ground.

Meanwhile, Ryan had moved on to the auto industry, where safety standards were essentially nonexistent and car crash casualties were astronomical: 30,000 deaths and 1.2 million injuries in 1960. With a $1,500 grant from the U, Ryan purchased a 1941 Buick, which he modified with a shock-absorbing hydraulic front bumper (a prototype of the one he would use a decade later for his experiment behind the engineering building). As added safety measures, he reversed the backseat so that passengers would be facing the back window and installed padded steel plates in front to protect driver and passenger.

As with his other experiments, Ryan knew the true test of his safety devices was a crash. He built his first concrete and sand barrier in back of the engineering building. So confident was he of the outcome that he eschewed dummies, donned a Gopher football helmet, and climbed behind the wheel. Unfortunately, the oil in his hydraulic bumpers stiffened in the 10-degree weather and failed to cushion the impact of the crash. Ryan was knocked unconscious.

Undeterred by his concussion or the fact that the U decided not to fund another test, Ryan secured money from the U.S. Air Force and began to test his safety systems by dropping cars suspended from cranes onto deserted highways. At 50 feet up, the impact approximated an accident at 40 miles per hour. The novelty of the tests began drawing broad attention, including from NBC's Dave Garroway Show, which filmed one of the experiments and interviewed Ryan about what he was doing.

Ryan was soon doing more tests at the wheel of a modified '56 Ford. At a test site in Alamogordo, New Mexico, he drove the car into a barrier at 20 miles per hour. Not only did the Ford survive the impact, Ryan and the grad student with him drove off for a downtown lunch. This experiment earned him a $100,000 grant from the Public Health Service and also put him back in the good graces of the U.

The big show with the '59 Plymouth behind the engineering building soon followed. Despite severe damage to the car, it was determined that the occupants would have walked away, and the experiment was deemed a success.

Ryan's safety tests continued until his retirement in 1963. Automakers continued to pay as little attention as they could, but by the mid-1960s lawmakers in Washington, with the aid of Ryan's data, began to grow more receptive to the idea of implementing safety standards. Spurred by a newcomer to the debate, attorney Ralph Nader, whose book Unsafe at Any Speed had become a surprise bestseller in 1966, Congress passed the first meaningful national traffic safety act. It required automakers to equip cars with headrests, energy-absorbing steering wheels, shatter-resistant windshields, and safety belts. By 1970, motor vehicle death rates began to decline for the first time in American history.

In a 1967 trip to the U to deliver a lecture on auto safety, Nader sat with Ryan in one of his last crash-proof cars and acknowledged his pioneering work. In his book, Nader called Ryan the only independent researcher to "squarely and persistently challenge automobile manufacturers to build crashworthy vehicles."

Ryan passed away at age 69 in 1973. In the garage at his home on Mississippi Boulevard in St. Paul were the '56 Ford and the '59 Plymouth-a little dusty and covered in cobwebs, but still equipped with hydraulic bumpers and otherwise ready to be crashed into a concrete barrier. A final note: the car that Ryan drove on a daily basis at the time of his death was a Corvair, the same vehicle that was the prime culprit in Nader's book Unsafe at Any Speed.


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