Sir Frank Whittle’s jet engine transformed travel. The jet engine has allowed millions of people now to do something that was barely thinkable just 70 years ago – crossing the Atlantic at speed. The Wright’s may have invented the first real aeroplane, but the credit for the invention of the jet engine goes to Sir Frank Whittle.

In the 1920’s, a young RAF man, Frank Whittle, had presented to the Air Ministry a design for a jet engine. They were unimpressed and rejected his idea. Regardless of this set-back, Whittle still patented his “turbojet engine” in 1930. His design appeared to solve the problem that had baffled inventors for some years – how do you create a chamber strong enough to house an engine that would create a lot of heat and vast directed thrust ? Many combustion chambers had simply been too weak to cope and had exploded under the strain.

Whittle’s engine had ten combustion chambers which produced impressive thrust : rather than having just one large chamber which would produce a volatile and potentially uncontrollable reaction, his engine effectively divided up the combustion created into the ten chambers but still did not decrease the power of the engines.

Increasing fears about problems in Europe, lead to the government having second thoughts about Whittle’s jet engine. In 1936, he went to Cambridge University, but he left and set up a company called Power Jets Ltd.

In 1937, using newly available alloys that were strong and light, he produced the first viable jet engine to be successfully tested in a laboratory. Now it had to be put onto a plane and the respective safety measures taken – as with all new planes.


Sir Frank Whittle in front of one of his jet engines

In 1941, a new jet fighter-prototype flew. Its successor, the Gloster Meteor, entered service with the RAF in 1944. However, the Gloster Meteor was not the first jet fighter. This claim goes to the Heinkel He 178 which first flew on August 24th 1939 – just days before World War Two started.

When the war finished, it seemed a logical move to apply this new invention to passenger planes. Journeys became quicker and the more powerful jet engine allowed passenger planes to get bigger so that more people could be carried on them.

The first proper jet engined passenger airliner is considered to be the De Haviland Comet. This came into operation in a blaze of publicity. Within two years, it was withdrawn from service after a series of tragic accidents which killed many. This, however, was not due to its jet engines but to a fault in its fuselage which lead to the pane breaking up in flight.

Boeing then took over the lead in jet-powered airliners. The Boeing 707 entered service in 1958. It was safe and allowed people to travel distances at speeds that would had been impossible just 10 years earlier. Whittle’s invention has transformed the world.