As wild as it seems, we can trace back the invention of jet engines to 150 BC with the development of the aeolipile. And it is truly the aeolipile’s technology that allowed Dr. Hans von Ohain and Sir Frank Whittle to invent the jet engine as we know it today, albeit it separately and unbeknownst to each other. Additionally, it was Sir Frank Whittle’s jet engine that provided the United States of America the initial technology to build their own jet engines.
Sir Frank Whittle was an English aviation engineer as well as a test pilot in the Royal Air Force. It was in 1930 that he received his first patent on turbojet propulsion and, in just ten short years, he was able to construct, prove out, and secure his first contract of purchase for what was then called the W1 Whittle engine. It was May 1941 when the first historic flight with this new technology occurred.
This leads us to the fall of 1941 when a group of GE engineers in Lynn, Massachusetts received a secret present from King George VI via wooden crates on aircraft, as part of a contract from the U.S. War Department. Inside of the crates were parts of the first jet engine ever flown by the allies; a Whittle engine. The goal of this gift? To improve the handmade engine, bring it to mass production and help win the war.
Over 1000 people worked on the clandestine project, but only a select few knew the goal and what was being built. Those that did know were told they couldn’t talk to anyone about the work being performed. If they did, the consequence was death. As a result, they were called the “Hush-Hush Boys.”
With a timeline of 6 months, the team of engineers and technicians were tasked with redesigning the jet engine for commercialization. The accomplishment was completed in five months and in the fall of 1942, the first official aircraft flight occurred, powered by two jet engines, producing a total of 2,600 pounds of thrust.
Interested in learning more? I highly recommend the following.
- Read here about Joseph Sorota, the last of the Hush-Hush boys and a key player in this engineering feat.
- Find an image of the first US Jet Engine here as well as a magnificent video made by GE.