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Influential but Inconspicuous Engineers: Frank Whittle

September 5, 2017

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gloster-whittle-jet

We’ve all heard of Leonardo da Vinci, Isambard Brunel, and Elon Musk, but who are the engineers who made a big splash without attracting a lot of attention?

We wanted to highlight some of the most important and influential engineers of modern history that you may not have heard of.

Every blog post will be dedicated to a different person and at the end of the series you will be able to vote for who you think made the most significant contribution to both the engineering field and every-day life.

This week, we’ll be finding out about Frank Whittle, who single-handedly invented the jet engine.

The Story of Frank Whittle

Born in a terraced house in Coventry in 1907, Frank Whittle was interested in planes from an early age. He tried to become a pilot in the RAF in 1923 but failed his medical due to his physique and height (just five feet tall). He later applied at another RAF station but this time passed the medical and became an aircraft mechanic. In 1926, after being recognised for his mathematical genius, Frank was recommended for officer training. Part of this training included flying, where Frank built a reputation for being a daredevil low-flyer, which was to get him into trouble on numerous occasions!

Whilst in officer training, he produced a thesis which argued that to travel faster, airplanes must fly at high altitudes and that this couldn’t be achieved with a propeller engine. He eventually proposed a gas turbine which would blast air out of an exhaust pipe, and the concept of the jet engine was born.

In late 1929, Whittle sent a jet engine concept to the Air Ministry, which Alan Griffith read and called it impracticable. Regardless, in 1930 Whittle patented the idea and spoke with British Thomson-Houston (part of General Electric) who believed in his concept, but weren’t willing to take the financial risk to develop the idea further.

In January 1936, Frank went on to form a private company called Power Jets Ltd with an aeronautical engineer and a retired RAF officer. After securing some funding, in 1937 in Rugby, Warwickshire, a great turbine began to spin on Whittle’s prototype, named the Whittle Unit (WU for short).

After some amends and improvements were made, the Air Ministry placed its first order in 1940 after some initial scepticism. In 1941, the first British jet engine took off, the Gloster E.28/39, also known as the Gloster Whittle.

In October 1941 Power Jets Ltd flew their engine to the USA, who would produce the XP-59A Airacomet by October 1942, beating the UK who produced the British Meteor to be operational by 1944.

The jet engine went on to change the way we travel, altering global economics and people’s lives across the world. Whittle shrunk the globe for all us with his invention.

Interesting Facts

  • His performance on a course whilst training to become an officer earned him a place at Peterhouse, Cambridge University, where he graduated with a First.
  • In May 2016 it was the 75th year anniversary of his achievement, which went mostly unnoticed. His son even thinks that mistakes by the government when the invention was first pitched, which resulted in Germany and Italy utilise the technology before the British, may explain why any potential celebration was marginalised.
  • Frank Whittle’s genius came with stresses. He suffered two nervous breakdowns in 1940 and 1944.
  • He worked at the United States Naval Academy after emigrating to USA in 1976.