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Famous Inventor
Frank Whittle - inventing the jet engine
Frank Whittle - inventing the jet engineSir Frank Whittle (1 June 1907–9 August 1996) was an English Royal Air Force officer. Sharing credit with Germany's Dr. Hans von Ohain for independently inventing the jet engine, he is hailed as a father of jet propulsion. By the end of World War II, Whittle's efforts resulted in engines that would lead the world in performance through the end of the decade.

 Early life

Whittle was born in a terraced house in Earlsdon, Coventry, England on 1 June 1907, the son of a mechanic. When Whittle was nine years old, the family moved to the nearby town of Royal Leamington Spa, where his father purchased the Leamington Valve and Piston Ring Company, which comprised a few lathes and other tools, and a single-cylinder gas engine. Whittle became an expert on the engine.

Whittle won a scholarship to Leamington College, but when his father's business faltered there was not enough money to keep him there. He left in 1923 to join the RAF.

In January 1923, having passed the RAF entrance examination, Whittle reported to RAF Halton as an aircraft apprentice. He lasted only two days: only five feet tall and with a small chest measurement, he failed the medical. He then put himself through a vigorous training program and special diet to build up his physique, only to fail again six months later. He then applied again under an assumed name and was ordered to RAF Cranwell where he passed the physical.

Through his early days as an Aircraft apprentice, first at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell, and latterly at RAF Halton, he maintained his interest in the Model Aircraft Society, where he built replicas. The quality of these attracted the eye of his commanding officer, who felt that Whittle was also a mathematical genius. He was so impressed that in 1926 he recommended Whittle for officer training at Cranwell, a rarity for a "commoner" in what was still a very class-based military structure. For Whittle, this was the chance of a lifetime: not only to enter the officer corps but also because the training included flying lessons.

Of the few apprentices that were accepted, only about one percent completed the course. Whittle graduated in 1928 at the age of 21. He ranked second in his class in academics and was described as an "exceptional to above average" pilot.

A requirement of the course was that each student had to produce a thesis for graduation: Whittle decided to write his on future developments in aircraft design, notably high-speed flight at high altitudes and speeds over 500 mph (800 km/h). In Future Developments in Aircraft Design he showed that incremental improvements in existing propeller engines were unlikely to make such flight routine. Instead he described what is today referred to as a motorjet; a motor using a conventional piston engine to provide compressed air to a combustion chamber whose exhaust was used directly for thrust—essentially an afterburner attached to a propeller engine. The idea was not new and had been talked about for some time in the industry, but Whittle's aim was to demonstrate that at increased altitudes the lower outside air pressure would increase the design's efficiency. For long-range flight, using an Atlantic-crossing mailplane as his example, the engine would spend most of its time at high altitude and thus could outperform a conventional powerplant.

 Development of the jet engine

Whittle continued working on the motorjet principle after his thesis work but eventually abandoned it when further calculations showed it would weigh as much as a conventional engine of the same thrust. Pondering the problem he thought "Why not substitute a turbine for the piston engine?" Instead of using a piston engine to provide the compressed air for the burner, a turbine could be used to extract some power from the exhaust and drive a similar compressor to those used for superchargers. The remaining exhaust thrust would power the aircraft.

In August 1928 Whittle joined No. 111 squadron flying Armstrong Whitworth Siskins, but was soon posted to Central Flying School, Wittering, for a flying instructor's course. He showed his engine concept around the base, and it attracted the attention of Flying Officer Pat Johnson, formerly a patent examiner. Johnson, in turn, took the concept to the commanding officer of the base. This set into motion a chain of events that almost led to the engine being produced much sooner than actually occurred.

Earlier, in July 1926, A. A. Griffith published a paper on compressors and turbines, which he had been studying at the RAE. He showed that such designs up to this point had been flying "stalled", and that by giving the compressor blades an aerofoil shape their efficiency could be dramatically improved. The paper went on to describe how the increased efficiency of these sorts of compressors and turbines would allow a jet engine to be produced, although he felt the idea was impractical, and instead suggested using the power as a turboprop. At the time most superchargers used a centrifugal compressor, so there was limited interest in the paper.

In late 1929 Whittle sent his concept to the Air Ministry to see if it would be of any interest to them. With little knowledge of the topic they turned to the only other person who had written on the subject and passed the paper on to Griffith. Griffith appears to have been convinced that Whittle's "simple" design could never achieve the sorts of efficiencies needed for a practical engine. After pointing out an error in one of Whittle's calculations, he went on to comment that the centrifugal design would be too large for aircraft use and that using the jet directly for power would be rather inefficient. The RAF returned comment to Whittle, referring to the design as being "impracticable".

Others in the RAF were not so sure. In particular Pat Johnson convinced Whittle to patent the idea in January 1930. Since the RAF was not interested in the concept they did not declare it secret, meaning that Whittle was able to retain the rights to the idea which would have otherwise been their property. This rejection would later turn out to be a stroke of luck.

In 1931 Whittle was posted to the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at Felixstowe as a test pilot of seaplanes, and armament officer. He was recommended for and moved onto the Officers' Engineering Course at RAF Henlow, Bedfordshire in 1932 and then exceptionally to Peterhouse, a college of Cambridge University, in 1934. He graduated in 1936 with a First in the Mechanical Sciences Tripos.

 Power jets

Whittle's jet engine patent lapsed in 1935 because he could not afford the renewal fee of £5. Soon after he was approached by Rolf Dudley-Williams and James Collingwood Tinling, both ex-RAF servicemen, who wanted to expand the development of his engine. They introduced him to two investment bankers, Sir Maurice Bonham-Carter and Lancelot Law Whyte, who had an interest in developing speculative projects that conventional banks wouldn't touch.

Whyte met with the twenty-eight-year-old Whittle on September 11, 1935, and was left with a positive impression:
“     The impression he made was overwhelming, I have never been so quickly convinced, or so happy to find one's highest standards met... This was genius, not talent. Whittle expressed his idea with superb conciseness: 'Reciprocating engines are exhausted. They have hundreds of parts jerking to and fro, and they cannot be made more powerful without becoming too complicated. The engine of the future must produce 2,000 hp with one moving part: a spinning turbine and compressor.'     ”
— Lancelot Law Whyte,

With Bonham-Carter and Whyte's backing to the tune of £2,000, Dudley-Williams, Tinling and Whittle incorporated as "Power Jets Ltd." in 1936. Work was started on an experimental engine at a factory in Rugby, Warwickshire belonging to British Thomson-Houston (BTH), a steam turbine company. The RAF still saw no value in the effort, but since Whittle was still a pilot they placed him on the Special Duty List and allowed him to work on the design as long as it took no more than six hours a week.

The Gloster E.28/39, the first British aircraft to fly with a turbojet engine

Funding development of the first engine, known as the WU (Whittle Unit) was a serious problem. Most potential investors shied from a privately funded project that appeared to be semi-secret yet had no RAF backing; if the project was going to work, why didn't the RAF fund it? Once again it seemed not everyone was so sceptical of Whittle's ideas and in October 1936 Henry Tizard, the rector of Imperial College London and chairman of the Aeronautical Research Committee, sent details of Whittle's engine to Griffith once again. Griffith himself had by this time started construction of an engine design, and perhaps to avoid tainting his own efforts he returned a much more positive review. He remained highly critical of some features, notably the use of jet thrust, seemingly ignoring the fact that the performance of Whittle's design at high speed and altitude was the crucial aspect of the programme.

Despite these problems Power Jets were able to complete the WU, which ran successfully on April 12, 1937. Tizard pronounced it "streets ahead" of any other advanced engine he had seen and managed to interest the Air Ministry enough to fund development with a contract for £6,000 to develop a flyable version. Nevertheless it was a year before all of the funds were available, greatly delaying development. Meanwhile testing continued with the WU, which showed an alarming tendency to race out of control. Due to the dangerous nature of the work being carried out, in 1938 development was largely moved from Rugby to BTH's semi-disused Ladywood foundry at nearby Lutterworth in Leicestershire where there was a successful run of the WU in March that year. Although the potential of the engine was obvious, the Air Ministry remained focused on the production of piston engine designs.

These delays and the lack of funding slowed the project. In Germany, Hans von Ohain had started work on a prototype in 1935 and had by this point passed the prototype stage and was building the first flyable design, the Heinkel HeS 3. There is little reason to believe that Whittle's efforts would not have been at the same level or more advanced had the Air Ministry taken a greater interest in the design. When war broke out in September 1939, Power Jets had a payroll of only 10 and Griffith's operations at the RAE and Metropolitan Vickers were similarly small.

The stress of the continual on-again-off-again development and problems with the engine took a serious toll on Whittle. He suffered from stress-related ailments such as eczema and heart palpitations, while his weight dropped to 9 stone (126 lb / 57 kg). In order to keep to his 16-hour workdays, he sniffed Benzedrine during the day and then took tranquilizers and sleeping pills at night to offset the effects and allow him to sleep. Over this period he became irritable and developed an "explosive" temper.

Following the outbreak of World War II the Air Ministry changed priorities and once again looked at the various advanced projects underway. By 1939, Power Jets could barely afford to keep the lights on when yet another visit was made by Air Ministry personnel. This time Whittle was able to run the WU at high power for 20 minutes without any difficulty. One of the members of the team was the Director of Scientific Research, H. E. Wimperis, who walked out of the demonstration utterly convinced of the importance of the project. A contract for full-scale development was immediately sent to Power Jets, along with a number of tenders to various companies to set up production lines for up to 3,000 engines a month in 1942. Power Jets had no manufacturing capability, so the Air Ministry offered shared production and development contracts with BTH, Vauxhall and the Rover Company. However, the contract was eventually taken up by Rover only. They also sent out a contract for a simple airframe to carry the engine, which was quickly taken up by Gloster.

Whittle had already studied the problem of turning the massive WU into a flyable design, and with the new contract work started in earnest on the "Whittle Supercharger Type W.1." However, Rover was unable to deliver the W.1 production engine before Gloster's experimental airframe was ready. Whittle then cobbled together an engine built from various test parts and called it the W.1X ("X" standing for experimental), which ran for the first time on December 14 1940. This engine powered the Gloster E.28/39 for taxi testing on April 7 1941 near the factory in Gloucester, where it took to the air for two or three short hops of several hundred yards at about six feet from the ground.

The "full" W.1 of 3.8 kN (850 lbf) thrust ran on April 12, 1941, and on May 15, 1941 the W.1-powered E.28/39 took off from Cranwell at 7:40 pm, flying for 17 minutes and reaching a maximum speed of around 340 mph (545 km/h). Within days it was reaching 370 mph (600 km/h) at 25,000 feet (7,600 m), exceeding the performance of the contemporary Spitfires. Success of the design was now evident and nearly every engine company in Britain started their own crash efforts to catch up with Power Jets.

The W2/700 engine flew in the Gloster E.28/39, the first British aircraft to fly with a turbojet engine, and the Gloster Meteor.

Work on a new design known as the W.2 was then started. Like the W.1 it featured a "reverse flow" design of the burners, in which the heated air from the flame cans was piped back towards the front of the engine before entering the turbine area. This allowed the engine to be "folded", with the flame cans lying around the turbine area, thereby creating a shorter engine. Power Jets also spent some time in May 1940 drawing up the W.2Y, a similar design with a "straight through" airflow that resulted in a longer engine and (more critically) driveshaft but having a somewhat simpler layout. To reduce the weight of the driveshaft as much as possible, the W.2Y used a large cylindrical shaft almost as large as the turbine disk, "necked down" at either end where it connected to the turbine and compressor.

The Air Ministry was eager to obtain an operational jet aircraft and authorised BTH to press ahead with the design of a twin-engined jet interceptor, which would evolve into the Gloster Meteor. The Meteor was intended to use either the W.2 or the similar Halford H.1 (later named "Goblin") but de Havilland later decided to keep all the Halfords for their own design, the Vampire.


In 1941 the Rover Company set up a new laboratory for Whittle's team along with a production line at their disused Barnoldswick factory as well as a parallel effort with their own engineers at Waterloo Mill, Clitheroe. Here Adrian Lombard attempted to develop the W.2 into a production quality design, dispensing with Whittle's "reverse flow" burners and developing a longer but simpler "straight-through" engine instead. Work at Barnoldswick continued on Whittle's original design, now known as the W.2B/23, while Lombard's new design became the W.2B/26. Whittle was upset by this course of events, feeling that all work should concentrate on producing a single design as soon as possible.

By late 1941 it was obvious that the arrangement between Power Jets and Rover was not working. Whittle was frustrated by Rover's inability to deliver production-quality parts, as well as with their "we know better than you" attitude and became increasingly vocal. Rover was losing interest in the project after the delays and constant harassment from Power Jets.


In 1940, Stanley Hooker of Rolls-Royce had met with Whittle and later introduced him to their current CEO, Ernest Hives. Hooker led the supercharger division at Rolls-Royce, which was naturally suited to jet engine work. Hives agreed to supply key parts to help the project and it was Rolls engineers who helped solve the surging problems seen in the early engines. In early 1942 Whittle contracted Rolls for six engines as well, known as the WR.1, identical to the existing W.1.

The problems at Rover became a "public secret" and eventually Spencer Wilkes of Rover met with Hives and Hooker at the Swan and Royal pub near the Barnoldswick factory. They decided to trade the jet factory at Barnoldswick for Rolls' tank engine factory in Nottingham. A handshake sealed the deal. The handover took place on January 1, 1943, although the official date was later. Rolls closed Rover's parallel plant at Clitheroe soon after, although they continued development of the W.2B/26 that had been developed there.

Testing and production was immediately stepped up. In December Rover had tested the W.2B for a total of 37 hours, but within the next month Rolls-Royce tested it for 390 hours. The W.2B passed its first 100-hour test at full performance of 725 kgf (7.11 kN) on May 7, 1943. The prototype Meteor airframe was already complete and took to the air on June 12, 1943. Production versions started rolling off the line in October, first known as the W.2B/23, then the RB.23 (for Rolls-Barnoldswick) and eventually the Rolls-Royce Welland. Barnoldswick was too small for full-scale production and turned back into a pure research facility under Hooker, while a new factory was set up in Newcastle-under-Lyme. The W.2B/26, as the Rolls-Royce Derwent, opened the new line and soon replaced the Welland, allowing the production lines at Barnoldswick to shut down in late 1944.

Despite lengthy delays (Hitler initially demanded the Me 262 be a bomber), the Luftwaffe beat the British efforts into the air by nine months, which in turn, had also been delayed at Rover. Since their German counterparts were forced to deal with a serious shortage of high temperature alloys, the Junkers axial-flow engines, designed by Dr. Anselm Franz, would typically last 10–25 hours (longer with an experienced pilot) and sometimes exploded on their first startup. Thus the engines that powered the Meteor were much more reliable by comparison. The equivalent British engine would run for 150 hours between overhauls and had twice the power-to-weight ratio and half the specific fuel consumption. By the end of the war every major engine company in Britain was working on jet designs based on the Whittle pattern, or licensed outright.

 Continued development

A cutaway General Electric J31 (I-16) turbojet engine based on the W.1/W.2B

With the W.2 proceeding smoothly, Whittle was sent to Boston, Massachusetts in mid-1942 to help the General Electric jet programme. GE, the primary supplier of turbochargers in the U.S., was well-suited to quickly starting jet production. A combination of the W.2B design and a simple airframe from Bell Aircraft flew in autumn of 1942 as the Bell XP-59A Airacomet.

Whittle's developments at Power Jets continued, resulting in the improved W.2/500 and later the W.2/700. Both were fitted for testing on Meteors, the W.2/700 later being fitted with an afterburner ("reheat" in British terminology), as well as experimental water injection to cool the engine and allow for higher power settings without melting the turbine. Whittle also turned his attention to the axial-flow engine type as championed by Griffith, designing the L.R.1. Other developments included the use of fans to provide greater mass-flow, either at the front of the engine as in a modern turbofan or at the rear, which is much less common but somewhat simpler.

Whittle's work had caused a minor revolution within the British engine manufacturing industry, and even before the E.28/39 flew most companies had set up their own research efforts. In 1939, Metropolitan-Vickers set up a project to develop an axial-flow design as a turboprop but later re-engineered the design as a pure jet known as the Metrovick F.2. Rolls-Royce had already copied the W.1 to produce the low-rated WR.1 but later stopped work on this project after taking over Rover's efforts. In 1941, de Havilland started a jet fighter project, the Spider Crab – later called Vampire – along with their own engine to power it; Frank Halford's Goblin (Halford H.1). Armstrong Siddeley also developed an axial-flow design, the ASX but reversed Vickers' thinking and later modified it into a turboprop instead, the Python.

With practically every engine company producing their own designs, Power Jets was no longer able to generate realistic income. In April 1944 Power Jets was nationalised, becoming the "National Gas Turbine Establishment" at the original Ladywood experimental site. In 1946 it was reorganised with the RAE divisions joining them.

 After the War
Frank Whittle speaking to employees of the Flight Propulsion Research Laboratory (Now known as the NASA Glenn Research Center), USA, in 1946

Whittle, disenfranchised, quit what was left of Power Jets in 1948. Long a socialist, his experiences with nationalisation changed his mind and he later campaigned for the Conservative Party (especially for his friend Dudley Williams, who was Managing Director of Power Jets and became Conservative Member of Parliament for Exeter). He also retired from the RAF, complaining of ill health, leaving with the rank of Air Commodore. Shortly afterwards he received £100,000 from the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors, partly to pay him for turning over all of his shares of Power Jets when it was nationalised. He was made a Knight of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in that same year.

He joined BOAC as a technical advisor on aircraft gas turbines and travelled extensively over the next few years, viewing jet engine developments in the United States, Canada, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. He left BOAC in 1952 and spent the next year working on a biography, Jet: The Story of a Pioneer. He was awarded the Royal Society of Arts' Albert Medal that year.

Returning to work in 1953, he accepted a position as a Mechanical Engineering Specialist in one of Shell Oil's subsidiaries. Here he developed a new type of self-powered drill, driven by a turbine running on the lubricating mud that is pumped into the borehole during drilling. Normally a well is drilled by attaching rigid sections of pipe together and powering the cutting head by spinning the pipe, but Whittle's design removed the need for a strong mechanical connection between the drill and the head frame, allowing for much lighter piping to be used. He gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 1954 on the The Story of Petroleum.

Whittle left Shell in 1957 but the project was picked up in 1961 by Bristol Siddeley Engines, who set up "Bristol Siddeley Whittle Tools" to further develop the concept. In 1966 Rolls Royce purchased Bristol Siddeley, but the financial pressures and eventual bankruptcy due to cost overruns of the RB211 project led to the slow wind-down and eventual disappearance of Whittle's "turbo-drill". The design would eventually appear only in the late 1990s, when it was combined with continuous coiled pipe to allow uninterrupted drilling at any angle. "Continuous-coil drilling" has the ability to drill straight down into a pocket of oil and then sideways through the pocket to allow the oil to flow out faster.

In 1976 Whittle emigrated to the US and the next year he accepted the position of NAVAIR Research Professor at the US Naval Academy (Annapolis, Maryland). His research concentrated on the boundary layer before his professorship became part-time from 1978 to 1979. The part-time post enabled him to write a textbook entitled Gas turbine aero-thermodynamics: with special reference to aircraft propulsion, published in 1981. It was at this time that he met Hans von Ohain, who was working at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. At first upset because he believed von Ohain had developed his engine after seeing Whittle's patent, he eventually became convinced that von Ohain's development was his own. The two became good friends and often toured the US giving talks together. In 1991 von Ohain and Whittle were awarded the Charles Stark Draper Prize for their work on turbojet engines.

 Later life

Frank Whittle married Dorothy Lee in May 1930 and they had two sons. While at Cranwell he lodged in a bungalow at Dorrington. The marriage was dissolved in 1976 and Whittle re-married to Hazel Hall. He died on 8 August, 1996 of lung cancer, at his home in Columbia, Maryland, USA. He was cremated in America and his ashes were flown to England where they were placed in a memorial in a church in Cranwell (United Kingdom).


Statue of Sir Frank Whittle under the Whittle Arches, Coventry

 In Coventry, England, UK

    * The "Whittle Arch" statue is a large double wing-like structure situated outside the Coventry Transport Museum, Millennium Place, Coventry City Centre.

The Whittle Arches in Coventry

    * A statue of Whittle by Faith Winter is situated under the Whittle Arch in Millennium Place, Coventry. It was unveiled on the 1 June 2007 by his son, Ian Whittle, during a televised event. It shows Whittle at RAF Cranwell looking towards the sky observing the first test flight of a Gloster-Whittle E28/39 on 15 May 1941.
    * In the Walsgrave suburb of Coventry, there is a school named after Whittle. It was called Frank Whittle Primary up until 1997, before being re-named Sir Frank Whittle Primary School. A jet engine replica sits in the reception area of the school, Whittle himself donating it before his death.
    * There is a commemorative plaque on the house in Newcombe Road, Earlsdon, Coventry, where he was born and brought up in up to the age of nine years.
    * On Hearsall Common, near to Whittle's birthplace in Coventry, a plaque commemorates where Whittle gained inspiration when he saw an aircraft land.
    * Coventry University has named one its buildings after him.
    * The main hangar at the Midland Air Museum is called the The Sir Frank Whittle Jet Heritage Centre.
    * Whittle house is one of the four "houses" at Finham Park School

 Outside Coventry

Sir Frank Whittle's memorial at Farnborough Aerodrome

    * A full-scale model of the E.28/39 Whittle has been erected just outside the northern boundary of Farnborough Airfield in Hampshire, England, United Kingdom.
    * A similar memorial has been erected in the middle of a roundabout outside Lutterworth where much of Whittle's development, including the invention of the jet engine, was carried out.
    * The Sir Frank Whittle Medal is awarded annually by the Royal Academy of Engineering.
    * Two roads in Derby are named Sir Frank Whittle Road and Sir Frank Whittle Way, as a tribute to his work at Rolls-Royce.
    * Whittle Parkway in Burnham is named after him.
    * One of the main buildings at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell is called Whittle Hall. It houses the Officer & Aircrew Cadet Training Unit and the Air Power Studies Division of King's College London.
    * Cambridge University Engineering Department has a Whittle Laboratory.
    * A road in Rugby is named Whittle Close.
    * Whittle Close in Clitheroe is named after him.
    * Sir Frank Whittle Way, a new road in Blackpool Business park, Blackpool.
    * The Jet public house in Leamington Spa is named in honour of Whittle and was actually called The Jet and Whittle until recent times.
    * The Whittle Gas field in the Southern North Sea operated by BP.[citation needed]
    * The Whittle Inn near the Gloster Aircraft Company's former test runway in Hucclecote, Gloucestershire is named after Whittle; the nearby Tesco has a picture of a Meteor incorporated in part of its glass frontage.

 See also

    * Timeline of jet power


   1. ^ a b c d e f g Frank Whittle. 'Whittle - the Jet Pioneer' (History Channel broadcast & DVD). The History Channel (TV broadcast) & Quantal films (extended DVD of broadcast). Retrieved on 2007-10-05.
   2. ^ a b c d e f Sir Frank Whittle, The Daily Telegraph, Obituaries, August 10, 1996
   3. ^ Gentlemen, I give you the Whittle engine
   4. ^ Lee Payne, The Great Jet Engine Race... And How We Lost, Air Force Magazine, Vol. 65, No. 1 (January 1982)

    * Frank Whittle (1953). Jet: The story of a pioneer. Frederick Muller Ltd.
    * Frank Whittle (1981). Gas turbine aero-thermodynamics: with special reference to aircraft propulsion. Pergamon.
    * John Golley (1997). Genesis of the Jet: Frank Whittle and the Invention of the Jet Engine. Crowood Press. ISBN 1-85310-860-X.
    * David S Brooks (1997). Vikings at Waterloo: Wartime Work on the Whittle Jet Engine by the Rover Company. Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust. ISBN 1-872922-08-2

 External links

    * News report - Memorial for University of Cambridge Student who Invented The Jet Engine
    * More about Frank Whittle.
    * More about Frank Whittle and the jet age at the 'Royal Air Force History' website
For the complete inventors list please click here
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