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Sir Frank Whittle - photograph supplied by Coventry Central Library
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Sir Frank Whittle

Jet Engine Pioneer

MAJOR ACHIEVEMENT Inventor of the jet engine
BORN 1 June 1907, Newcombe Road, Coventry
DIED 8 August 1996, Columbia, Maryland, USA
FAMILY Eldest son of a factory foreman
Married in 1930, divorced in 1976. Married second wife, Hazel, in the USA in the same year.
Two children, David and Ian.
EDUCATION Earlsdon Council School
Leamington College
Royal Air Force College, Cranwell
Cambridge University
1923 RAF Cranwell, aircraft apprentice
1926 Selected for officer and pilot training
1928 Writes his final thesis for the RAF College - contains the initial germ of the idea for jet propulsion. Becomes a commissioned officer
1929 Develops the initial idea of the jet engine - using a gas turbine to produce a propelling jet.
1930 Applies for a patent for the jet engine concept - "a reaction motor suitable for aircraft propulsion" (granted April 1931). The idea is ignored by the Air Ministry.
1931-32 Test pilot on floatplanes and flying boats
1934 Flight Lieutenant Frank Whittle sent to Cambridge University as a mature student by the RAF. Enters Peterhouse College. Whilst at Cambridge encouraged to pursue his idea for jet propulsion.
1935 While at Cambridge University meets up with two former RAF pilots keen to develop the jet engine.
1936 Power Jets Ltd set up by Whittle and colleagues in a factory in Rugby owned by BTH.

[In Germany, Herbert Wagner and Hans von Ohain independently and in secret begin development of their own turbojet proposals at Junkers and Heinkel respectively.]
1937 Power Jets tests first experimental bench engine, the WU.
1938 Testing moves to a derelict foundry in Lutterworth for safety reasons.
1939 The Air Ministry's Director of Scientific Research finally acknowledges that Whittle's ideas are feasible. Power Jets are awarded a contract to develop a flight engine, the W1.
[The contract to build a plane to put the engine in is given to the Gloster Aircraft Company]
1941 15 May : first test flight of a Gloster E28/39 powered by Whittle's jet engine.

October : an engine prototype (W1X) is shipped to General Electric in the USA.

[A jet-engined Heinkel He 178, developed from von Ohain's work, had first flown in Germany on 27 August 1939 - but the flight had not been very successful and it took the Germans another five years to perfect the technology]

[America's first jet plane built in 1943]

1944 First official public news of the jet engine.
A jet-engined Gloster Meteor flies in combat - the only Allied jet aircraft to participate in World War Two. The Power Jets company is nationalised.
1946 Taken off the design and development of jet engines. Resigns from the project.
Awarded the Daniel Guggenheim Medal for the development of the jet engine.
1948 Invalided out of the Air Force with health problems caused by stress.
Knighted by King George VI.
Becomes Honorary Technical Adviser to BOAC.
1952 Writes autobiography 'Jet - The Story of a Pioneer'.
1953 Joins Shell as a technical adviser, mainly involved with oil well drilling technology.
1959 Consultant and lecturer.
1961 Becomes technical consultant to Bristol Siddely Engines.
1966 Awarded the Coventry Award of Merit.
1976 Emigrates to the USA.
1977 Research Professor at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis.
1986 Receives the Order of Merit from the Queen.
1991 Awarded the Charles Stark Draper Prize jointly with Hans von Ohain.
1992 Awarded the SAE Aerospace Engineering Leadership Award jointly with Hans von Ohain.


A number of sources designate Sir Frank Whittle as the 'co-inventor' of the jet engine (with Hans von Ohain) rather than the sole inventor. This is not correct.

Facts provided by Sir Frank Whittle's son, Ian, clarify the true course of events :

  • The turbo jet was patented in 1930.
  • The patent details entered the public domain 1931.
  • The German Embassy in London despatched copies of the patent to Germany 1932.
  • Copies of the patent to Goettingen, Heinkel, Junkers, Brunswick and elsewhere.
    Von Ohain a student at Goettingen (Aerodynamic Research Division) 1934/5.
  • Von Ohain begins to study the possible application of the internal combustion jet to aeronautics in 1934.
  • Herbert Wagner at Junkers and Ohain at Heinkel begins turbo jet development April 1936.

The 'popular' belief that von Ohain invented the turbo jet has been generated in America and is unsound history.

Von Ohain invented a unique form of internal combustion turbine. Heinkel employed him to develop this for jet propulsion. After five years, the project was abandonned and Ohain was put to work on turbo jets designed by other engineers.

Von Ohain only claimed to have 'invented' the turbo jet about 25 years after the end of World War II when Wagner et al were safely out of the way. He may have been encouraged in this by his fellow German-Americans and also by Americans who are uncomfortable with the impact of the British invention.  

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Genesis of the Jet - John Golley

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