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The Black Box

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The small community of LeClaire, Iowa, at the head of the Rock Island Rapids, may well hold the record for turning out important people. There's Buffalo Bill Cody, for starters. Then James Eads who designed the great Eads Bridge at St. Louis, and Captain Walter Blair, one of the premier Upper Mississippi steamboat pilots. There are the Van Sants, whose boat yard built the first raftboat to take logs down the river to sawmills.

At least one other name deserved to be added to that list: James J. Ryan. Jim was the son of an insurance man in LeClaire. Even as a boy, he was curious about what made things tick, about how machines worked. He was eccentric, but smart, is how folks in LeClaire put it.

This fascination with machines led Jim to a career as a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota. It was here in the 1940s that he began to tinker with an instrument he called a flight recorder—a machine which could provide clues to the causes after airplane crashes. It was not an easy task. Such a machine would have to withstand shock, fire, water, and exposure to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.

By 1948, Jim had developed his first operating flight recorder. Lockheed Aircraft bought the rights to the Ryan Recorder in 1958, and it became the prototype of today's black box, an invaluable tool in helping prevent air accidents.

Jim Ryan died in 1973, but you can see several flight recorders and other Ryan artifacts today in a corner of the Buffalo Bill Museum in LeClaire—donated by Jim himself on one of his many visits to his boyhood home.

Buffalo Bill and Jim Ryan provide an instructive lesson, side by side. On one of his return visits to the museum, the people of LeClaire presented him with the round window from the bell tower of the old Presbyterian church on which was written, "Jim Ryan oiled the bell, March 13, 1920." Buffalo Bill, for his exploits—killing thousands of buffalo, scalping an Indian chief, and putting on a good show—was presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Which do you think was the better award?

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.