What do you want to be when you're grown up? An age-old question
but a hundred years ago, and for many years since then, a boy
would commonly answer 'an engine driver'. A girl might have said
'a nurse' and quite a number still would, thank goodness. Few
however would now choose to drive railway trains. The appeal of
controlling a heavy hurtling steam locomotive has now
disappeared except on a handful of historically reserved private
tracks as between Paignton and Kingswear.
Today's equivalent occupation for ambitious imaginative boys, and of course girls too, might be to captain and pilot a commercial airline 'Jumbo' or an A380 Airbus or a supersonic military plane. The existence of that possibility owes more to one English man than to any other single individual. He lived from 1907 to 1996. His name is Frank Whittle. He was a professional Engineer, a great inventor and an RAF pilot, and he lived in Chagford, Devon, from 1963 to 1976.
Until Whittle came along aircraft were propeller-driven with the power coming from internal combustion piston engines. Whittle revolutionised aircraft by inventing and developing gas turbine engines, both jet engines and turbo-props. We all now take for granted the hundreds of thousands of civil and military aircraft flying every day all over the world. Before Whittle's first experimental jet aircraft flew in May 1941 there were none. In less than one lifespan world travel has been changed from thousands voyaging by ship, often for weeks on end, to millions flying between countries and continents in hours. Of course, many people have helped to bring about this astonishing change but it was Whittle's imagination, inventive genius and engineering skill which launched the transformation.
Whittle's father owned a small engineering business in Leamington Spa, near Coventry, where the family lived. Frank won a scholarship to Leamington College but he was not a star pupil academically for he was too interested in aeroplanes and flight. When he was sixteen, he won an apprenticeship with the RAF at Cranwell. There he took great interest in aircraft design and his final coursework project in 1928 was an essay on 'Future Developments in Aircraft Design'. He concluded that a new type of power plant was required to increase fighter aircraft speed from about 150 mph to 500 mph. That was a fine target but he did not then appreciate how it could be achieved. The idea of direct jet propulsion did not occur to him until he had learned to fly and been posted with a Commission to a flying instructor's course as a trainee.
Whittle was a Chartered Engineer. He acquired that status after first qualifying as a pilot in the RAF and before being sent on a Service Engineering course and, in 1934, to Cambridge University to undertake an Engineering Degree. Even before he was transferred from flying to technical duties Whittle had made his first masterly invention. It was to propel an aircraft by a hot gas jet produced as the exhaust from a gas turbine. The other function of that turbine was to drive through a common shaft an air compressor; the outlet from the compressor led to a combustion chamber and thence to the turbine. In order for this concept to work, the compressor and turbine designs available at the time had to be improved greatly and significantly better heat-resistant materials had to be developed, particularly for the combustion chamber and for the turbine blades.
Whilst he was still an RAF Officer in wartime Whittle was allowed to form a Company, Power Jets, to work out solutions to all the practical problems and several young Engineers were directed to help him. One or two industrial firms were given sub-contracts by Power Jets not only to find solutions to the technical problems but also to build prototype engines. Over the next decade, British Thomson-Houston, Rover, Metropolitan-Vickers, de Havilland, Shell, Bristol Engines and Rolls-Royce were introduced into the effort to turn the original ideas into a practical proposition.
Because the project was being undertaken in wartime much secrecy was involved. The first jet aircraft, for example, was transported cross country on a truck under wraps. Since the general shape gave away the fact that there was an aeroplane under the covers, a false propeller was added to the front to conceal the form of the air intake. The secret was well kept until the flight of a prototype aircraft was achieved, thereafter it became increasingly difficult to pretend all was normal as the uniquely fast aeroplane with no propeller flashed around the Midland skies. Success meant that experimental design and development gave way to factory production. Before the war ended in 1945 a new twin-jet-engined fighter, the Meteor, capable of more than 600 mph, was in squadron service with the RAF and since that time an increasing majority of aircraft built around the world have been jet-propelled. All primarily based on that first, and several other, inventions made by Whittle and the Power Jets team.
His great idea of direct jet propulsion then came to him and he shared his thoughts with the Instructor who taught him blind flying. This was an amazing contact at a crucial time for the Instructor, Flying Officer Patrick Johnson, was a young qualified Patent Attorney unable, in those days, to practise his profession until he became twenty five years of age. Johnson explained to Whittle that making an invention is only the first half of the story. Protecting one's right to it legally is at once essential and has to be properly done. Whittle was convinced. Johnson was willing to attend to all the formalities and for the next ten years and more the two worked together so that all the inventions of Whittle and of his Power Jets colleagues were protected by patents throughout the industrial nations of the world.
Those inventions were concerned with all aspects of design and operation of the three main components of a jet engine, namely the air compressor(s), the combustion system and the turbine(s). Whittle personally made decisive improvements to compressor and combustion chamber design. He also made a most imaginative change to the basic layout of jet engines so that today they are almost all of a 'by-pass' type. In this concept, dating from 1936, the air entering the engine is divided so that some passes through the basic compressor, combustion and turbine stages but a greater part 'by-passes' most of the compressor and the core engine rejoining the engine stream in the propulsive jet. Such a design has a considerably better propulsive efficiency than is obtainable with a 'straight-through' jet, which is an important consideration particularly for commercial aircraft. Higher efficiency there means less fuel is needed, range is increased, operating costs and fares can be reduced.
When Whittle first put forward his ideas not many supported them. It was true that to carry them into effect there would need to be a considerable support in well directed research and development effort. Gradually, and then with more acceptance under wartime pressure, greater priority was given by those in authority to Whittle and to the Power Jets company. Once the practicability of jet propelled aircraft had been demonstrated, the importance and extent of the jet revolution became obvious. Under wartime conditions great inventions of this kind were shared between the Allies. Whittle found himself sending engine drawings and performance calculations to the US Government Agencies so that US industry could go into jet engine production. Whittle himself was sent to the USA to explain his work and his plans. A contract was placed by the American Government on the General Electric Company to make a first batch of engines to the British drawings. The foyer of the GE factory office at Lynn Massachusetts, near Boston, contained, and probably still does, a display of one of those engines. The enormous resources of the USA meant that the US Air Force as well as the RAF had jet fighters in service before World War II ended.
By 1946 the jet engine 'baby' had outgrown its Power Jets parent. Arrangements were made for that company to concentrate on research and development, on disseminating gas turbine technology and in world wide patent protection and licensing. Whittle himself had been promoted to Air Commodore RAF and knighted but it was difficult fo him to be incorporated into any Service or Industrial structure. He retired from the RAF as his wartime work and the enormous range of his innovations became widely known.
Honours of all kinds flowed his way. In his own words '. . . at home, I have a large collection of gold medals . . . .' In this country he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Commission on Awards to wartime Inventors sponsored a grant to him of £100,000 tax free, an enormous sum in those days and the largest amount ever paid. In later years HM the Queen personally made him a Member of the 'Order of Merit', a very great honour indeed.
Whittle's later life was calmer and quieter than the pre-war and wartime years had allowed. For example, the twelve years he spent living at Chagford on the edge of Dartmoor were a period of his life when he managed to keep himself out of the limelight and certainly out of notice of the media. He was not, however, a recluse; he made and kept friends and never lost touch with his former Power Jets' colleagues. From time to time he suffered ill-health but apart from those periods he continued to take great interest in the aircraft industry and also in occasional parallel ventures in co-operation with the Shell Company and with Bristol Siddeley Engines Ltd.
Whittle's greatest contributions had all come, however, in the first half of his life. It was then that he was able to make fundamental technical proposals, primarily through a gift of imaginative perception. His proposals and inventions often came in the form of 'obvious' solutions to problems which had defied all efforts of others, sometimes for years. Such an ability is not always welcomed by those 'others' and he had suffered more than his fair share of their jealousy. It did not always help his reputation with his professional colleagues that often he simply could not comprehend their inability to see what he could see. Also he was almost always right in his technical diagnoses. To err is human, to be uncannily right most of the time is hard to forgive!
During the wartime years Whittle was working under great pressure in his unique capacity as a serving RAF Officer who was simultaneously bringing about a technological revolution within an established industry. Every day brought problems of all kinds. Some were technical, others were human and personal and much time was occupied coping with the Civil Service bureaucratic machine. A ridiculous example of the latter is found in the lengthy correspondence he exchanged with the RAF Personnel Branch about the appropriate daily subsistence allowance to which he was entitled when he was sent to the United States. The rates for Washington and Boston were different, so how did he divide his time? There were not many more important people sent to co-operate with the Americans at that time but he had to abide by all the rules and even as a Wing Commander had to await his turn in the queue for a place in a Liberator aircraft flying across the Atlantic!
From these comments it will be realised that although Whittle was a 'Great Man' of abnormal ability he was not absolved from everyday difficulties of life. Nevertheless his training as a professional engineer provided a solid foundation for his career. He chose to accept the discipline of study and the acquisition of relevant experience over several years to achieve the competence and status of a Chartered Engineer. Those acquiring that recognition in the community are all engaged in the application of science to the design, development and operation of machinery, of technical equipment and of construction works. There are various branches of Engineering in which one can choose to specialise. In Whittle's case it was Aeronautical. For others it might be Electrical, Mechanical, Structural, Transport, Manufacturing. Without fully qualified men and women working in all these fields of activity our lives would be much the poorer and less interesting. And every young Chartered Engineer has the prospect during his working life of making significant changes to an industry or even to transforming life for great numbers of people.
Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle OM FRS FREng did! We are all his beneficiaries.
R C Orford