BIRTH OF THE JET AGE

On the 21st June 1945 Sir Frank Whittle made the first public presentation of the jet engine in the lecture theatre at the Institutional of Mechanical Engineers.

Frank Whittle was a 21 year old cadet at RAF College Cranwell when he wrote his revolutionary thesis ‘Future Developments in Aircraft Design’. In it he envisaged speeds of over 500mph in the stratosphere, at a time when the maximum speed of RAF fighters was 150mph. His Cranwell professor apparently admitted that he did not understand a lot of it but gave him 30 out of 30 despite this. There had been a concern amongst the senior Cranwell officers that Whittle had not shown an aptitude for, or an interest in, sport. His thesis proved his instructors right: in response to the senior officers they had declared that they had found a mathematical genius. He was also to become an accomplished pilot.

Modest Wilbur! You'd never think he was one of us! Whittle press cutting, 1944.
Modest Wilbur! You’d never think he was one of us! Whittle press cutting, 1944.

Whittle concluded that the piston engines then in use would not be able to fly the faster speeds and longer distances which he desired; planes would also need to fly at higher altitudes in order to achieve this. During his early career he continued to work on his ideas for a high-altitude, high-speed aeroplane. It was while training as a flight instructor at the Central Flying School that he first considered using a gas turbine to provide jet propulsion. With support from his Commandant he brought his ideas to the attention of the Air Ministry. A meeting was arranged with Dr Alan Arnold Griffith, a gas turbine expert, but he was unimpressed. The Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough described Whittle’s idea as impracticable in 1929. Despite this setback, Whittle filed a patent on 16 January 1930. The Government could have exercised their right to keep the invention a secret: they did not do so; and after the Second World War had ended copies of the patent were found in various laboratories across Germany.

After completing the officers’ engineering course at Henlow, the RAF sent Whittle to Cambridge University to study Mechanical Sciences in 1934. When interviewed for ‘Whittle-The Jet Pioneer’ Whittle stated “I had to work like hell because I was designing the jet engine and preparing for my finals at the same time… that was a very difficult thing to do”. At this time some of his former colleagues interested the engineering firm General Enterprises in Whittle’s idea. A new patent was obtained (the first having lapsed) and a firm of investment bankers, OT Falk and Partners, provided funding. Power Jets Limited was formed in January 1936 and Whittle was permitted to act as Honorary Chief Engineer, although on a strictly part-time basis.

An engine was constructed by the British Thomson-Houston Company, and was ready for its first test run on 12 April 1937. Although it ran Whittle was not satisfied, and after attempting modifications, decided that a complete rebuild was necessary. After some difficulties funding was eventually obtained. Whittle was posted to the Special Duty List, meaning that work on the engine was now his official full-time employment.

In the summer of 1939 an Air Ministry contract was signed for a flight engine and an experimental aircraft – the Gloster/Whittle E.28/39, Britain’s first jet. Its maiden flight was on 15 May 1941, it was aptly named ‘The Pioneer’. Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown (a witness to the flight and top test pilot) reminisced that “I was quite astonished to know what it was because I’d never heard, at this stage in my career, of a jet.” It is hard to imagine what hearing the new sound must have been like, so accustomed we are to every aspect of jet powered flight. A jet fighter aircraft entered service in 1944. Such was the impact of the invention that Winston Churchill stated “get me a thousand Whittle’s”.

Whittle’s success helped to change the world; just as earlier engineers had done through inventions such as the locomotive and the telephone. He had invented the first viable jet engine, and with it the jet age.

Archives, Institution of Mechanical Engineering

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