April 12th, 1937 – Britain Invents the Turbojet Engine

Today-In-History

Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle was an English Royal Air Force (RAF) engineer air officer. He is credited with single handedly inventing the turbojet engine. A patent was submitted by Maxime Guillaume in 1921 for a similar invention; however, this was technically unfeasible at the time. Whittle’s engines were developed some years earlier than those of Germany’s Dr. Hans von Ohain who was the designer of the first operational jet engine.

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Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle (June 1st, 1907 – August 9th, 1996)

From an early age, Whittle demonstrated an aptitude for engineering and an interest in flying. At first he was turned down by the RAF but, determined to join the Royal Air Force, he overcame his physical limitations and was accepted and sent to No. 2 School of Technical Training to join No 1 Squadron of Cranwell Aircraft Apprentices. He was taught the theory of aircraft engines and gained practical experience in the engineering workshops. His academic and practical abilities as an Aircraft Apprentice earned him a place on the officer training course at Cranwell. He excelled in his studies and became an accomplished pilot. While writing his thesis there he formulated the fundamental concepts that led to the creation of the turbojet engine, taking out a patent on his design in 1930. His performance on an officers’ engineering course earned him a place on a further course at the University of Cambridge where he graduated with a First.

Without Air Ministry support, he and two retired RAF servicemen formed Power Jets Ltd to build his engine with assistance from the firm of British Thomson-Houston. Despite limited funding, a prototype was created, which were first ground-tested on April 12th, 1937. Official interest was forthcoming following this success, with contracts being placed to develop further engines, but the continuing stress seriously affected Whittle’s health, eventually resulting in a nervous breakdown in 1940. In 1944 when Power Jets was nationalized he again suffered a nervous breakdown, and resigned from the board in 1946.

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

In 1948, Whittle retired from the RAF and received a knighthood. He joined BOAC as a technical advisor before working as an engineering specialist in one of Shell Oil‘s subsidiaries followed by a position with Bristol Aero Engines. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1976 he accepted the position of NAVAIR Research Professor at the United States Naval Academy from 1977–1979. In August 1996, Whittle died of lung cancer at his home in Columbia, Maryland. In 2002, Whittle was ranked number 42 in the BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.

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