Sir Frank Whittle’s jet engine blueprints drawn during WWII expected to fetch £ 30,000 at auction next month

Sir Frank Whittle’s jet engine blueprints drawn during WWII expected to fetch £ 30,000 at auction next month

Photo story (Clockwise from top left): (1) Sir Frank during WWII, seated at his desk with first British jet aircraft and first jet engine models (2) A sophisticated drawing by Sir Frank Whittle showing development of jet engines (3) First American jet fighter Bell XP-59A Airacomet during WWII (4) first British jet fighter Gloster Meteor during WWII

Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle was a Royal Air Force engineer air officer. The turbojet engine was single handedly invented by him and he was the first to register a patent for it in January 1930. German engineer Hans Von Ohain also independently developed the first operational jet engine. Both of their turbojet engine designs are considered to be examples of simultaneous invention. But Von Ohain earned patent on his version of turbojet engine in 1936. However, von Ohain’s turbojet design first flew in 1939. Sir Frank’s jet engine flew in 1941. The Daily Mail reported that a unique archive consisting of Sir Frank’s around 220 drawings, technical specifications, blueprints, letters and memoranda during the development period of the jet engine is expected to fetch up to £ 30,000 at next month’s auction at Bonhams’ sale of Maps, Books, Manuscripts & Historical Photographs. The auction would be held in London, UK on the 12th November, 2013.

Mathew Haley, specialist at Bonhams, said that it was one of the most important and through archives on technological development that had shaped all our lives. He added that it was ‘a fascinating insight’ into the tricky way in which a theory took shape and advanced through research and development against the backdrop of mistakes and professional frustrations. His works during the crucial early years of the WWII not only shaped the course of the war but also established the massive expansion of commercial aviation in the post WWII period. For the first time aircrafts were able to fly at speeds of over 500 miles per hour or 805 kilometers per hour and at high altitude.

Frank Whittle was born in Coventry, England on 1st June, 1907. His father was a mechanic and highly inventive practical engineer. When his father’s business faltered Whittle quickly mastered practical engineering skills to be a helping hand in his father’s workshop. At the age of 15 he applied to join the RAF. He passed the RAF entrance exams in January 1923 but failed the medical at RAF Halton due to being just 5 feet tall with small chest measurement. Determined Whittle went through vigorous physical training and on his third attempt he was successful to join RAF Cranwell apprentice school. In July 1928, he was commissioned as a Pilot Officer.

In October 1929, Whittle came up with a thesis arguing that aircrafts with piston engines and propellers were not suitable to fly at high altitude where the air resistance is much lower.  He theorized that gas turbine driven propellers or rocket propulsion and compressor blades with aerofoil shaped cross section would be required for this purpose. But the Air Ministry turned him down mentioning Frank’s design ‘impracticable’. A persistent Whittle patented the design himself.

Whittle secured financial backing in 1935. One of his financer Lancelot Law Whyte said that he had never been so quickly convinced and that Whittle ‘was genius, not talent’. OT Falk, Whittle, the Air Ministry and William & Tinling created the Power Jets Ltd in 1936. The Air Ministry changed their mind due to the threat of war and the need for technological advances. Power Jets began constructing a turbojet engine on test basis in July 1936. But Whittle concluded that it was inconclusive and required a complete rebuild.

The archive to be auctioned is contained in a special file which belonged to the chief engineer and senior director of British Thomson-Houston Henry Nathan Sporborg. Under contract from the Air ministry, Thomson-Houston manufactured the jet engine for Whittle and Power Jets Ltd between January 1940 and June 1941. On 15th May, 1941 the first flight was made. United States heard of the project by October and asked for an engine and details. An engine and a team of Power Jets experts including Whittle were flown to Washington to help General Electric analyze it and begin construction.

US Air Force’s first jet fighter Bell XP-59A Airacomet made its first flight in October, 1942 as the Americans worked quickly. The first British jet fighter Gloster Meteor became operational in 1944. Sir Frank retired from RAF with the rank of Air Commodore in 1948. He received a knighthood in the same year. He worked for different organizations since then and in 1976 emigrated to the US. He became a NAVAIR research professor at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. He died of lung cancer on 9th August 1996 at his home in Columbia, Maryland. In 2002, Sir Frank Whittle was ranked 42 in the BBC’s poll of 100 Greatest Britons.

Mohammad Rafi Saad

Mohammad Rafi Saad is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE