Sir Frank Whittle

(1907—1996) aeronautical engineer and inventor of the jet engine

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British aeronautical engineer responsible for the design and development of the first successful jet engine. He was knighted in 1948 and admitted to the OM in 1986.

The son of a mechanic, Whittle assisted his father in his work from an early age. Unlike his father, however, he received a first-class technical education as a Royal Air Force apprentice at the RAF College, Cranwell and later (1934–36) at Cambridge. While at Cranwell Whittle wrote a thesis entitled ‘Future Developments in Aircraft Design’, in which he predicted that for planes of the future to fly significantly faster they would need to ascend to great heights, where air resistance was negligible. He accepted, however, that at such great heights the traditional propellor would be useless. Whittle thought almost immediately of jet propulsion but could not visualize the way in which it should work. It was only when, in 1929, it occurred to him to couple a compressor to a power-driven turbine rather than a piston engine that the turbojet seemed a feasible proposition. Although Whittle's plans were dismissed by the Air Ministry as impractical, he took out a patent in 1930. As the Air Ministry had no interest in the patent application, it was not considered necessary to place it on the secret list. When the patent was due for renewal in 1935, Whittle felt unwilling to invest a further £5 in the renewal fee. However, the German aircraft industry, less conservative than the British Air Ministry, began to develop Whittle's engine.

With the encouragement and support of two former RAF colleagues, R. Dudley Williams and C. Tinling, further patents were taken out, £20,000 of private capital raised, and the company Power Jets formed (in 1936). Only in mid-1939, by which time jet engines had actually been built, did the Air Ministry recognize Power Jets and provide funds. With a Whittle jet engine fitted, a specially built Gloster E28/39 made its first flight on 15 May 1941. It entered service with the RAF in 1944. In the same year Power Jets was taken over by the government; unhappy with ministry interference, Whittle resigned in 1945. For his work on the development of the jet engine he was awarded a tax-free sum of £100,000. He resigned from the RAF, with the rank of air commodore, in 1948; over the next thirty years he served as a consultant with such companies as Bristol Siddeley Engines and British Overseas Airways Corporation. In 1977 he moved to the USA to take up the post of research professor at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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