How Two People Simultaneously Invented the Jet Engine
The invention of the jet engine is a classic tale of wartime one-upmanship except that the two inventors knew nothing about each other.
Two aviation engineers, Germany's Hans Von Ohain and Great Britain's Frank Whittle, invented the jet engine almost simultaneously, yet due to the secrecy of World War II, had no knowledge of each other's work at the time.
When the war had ended, however, the two men would come together to receive credit for their revolutionary contribution to transportation.
World War I planes handy but limited
The skies over Europe were already speckled with planes by World War I; propeller-driven machines were made of wood and usually outfitted with machine guns.
Though they were able to carry just one or two men at a time, the planes' usefulness was apparent to military commanders, and used by both sides for reconnaissance, bombing and air-to-air combat, according to the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission website.
After the war, and with new conflicts looming on the horizon, scientists from both the victorious and vanquished countries got to work on improving airplane technology.
Jet propulsion, the mechanics of which were just beginning to be understood in the 1930s, was the answer.
In a jet propulsion engine, a large amount of air is sucked through a turbine and then compressed, mixed with fuel and shot through the back. This creates enormous thrust which propels the aircraft forward, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab at the California Institute of Technology, greatly improving its speed over the old propeller technology.
Race to the skies
Both Whittle and von Ohain independently recognized the need for a more powerful engine to propel aircraft, according to a Royal Air Force profile on Whittle.
In 1933, von Ohain drew up his first theory for jet propulsion in Germany. His designs were completely independent of Whittle's, who had submitted a patent for the jet engine just three years earlier in Great Britain, according to the Flight Commission.
However, von Ohain had abundant financial backing from private German industry, leading his to be the first design realized, said Margaret Conner in Hans von Ohain: Elegance in Flight (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2002).
The historic first flight of an airplane powered by von Ohain's fully-operational jet engine took place in 1939. His engine was fit into a German Heinkel He 178 airplane. Amazingly, Whittle struggled to receive support from the British government, which viewed his designs with skepticism, according to the Royal Air Force. The first test jet using Whittle's engine design, the Gloster E28/39 Pioneer, flew in 1941 in the town of Cranwell.
Propelling the industry forward
Improvements in technology through World War II to make the jet engine more efficient -- and planes ever faster -- ultimately led to widespread commercial jet flight, which took off in earnest in the 1950s.
One wonders whether that could have happened sooner if Whittle and von Ohain were working together.
Thirty years after World War II, von Ohain and Whittle met in the United States, became close friends, and had long talks about the difficulties of the development of their engines, wrote Conner, who added in her book that von Ohain acknowledged it was funding alone that allowed Germany to beat Great Britain into the air.