Biography Frank Whittle

Sir Frank Whittle (1907-1996) was a British Royal Air force officer, honoured with the credit for inventing the jet engine, which revolutionised the performance of engines by the end of the century.

Early Life

Frank Whittle was born into a humble family in Coventry, England in 1907. When he was nine years old, his Father, a mechanic, started an engineering factory in nearby Leamington Spa which meant the family had to move.
Frank won a scholarship to Leamington College, but when his father’s business faltered there wasn’t enough money to keep him there, so he spent hours in the local library where he learnt about steam and gas turbines.
In 1923, Frank left Leamington College and joined the RAF, where he worked initially as an aircraft apprentice. During this time, he maintained his interest in the Model Aircraft Society where he built replicas, which were of such quality that his commanding officer dubbed him a mathematical genius and recommended him for officer training at the RAF College in Cranwell, Lincolnshire, just three years after he joined the RAF.
As a rare “commoner” at the College, Whittle graduated in 1928 at the age of 21 and was ranked second in his class in academics and an “Exceptional to Above Average” pilot.
A requirement of the course was a written thesis and Whittle decided to write his on future developments in aircraft design, notably high-speed flight at high altitudes and speeds over 500 mph (800 km/h). He showed that incremental improvements in existing propeller engines were unlikely to make such flight routine and instead described what is today referred to as a motor jet or motorjet. It wasn’t a new design but Whittle demonstrated that at increased altitudes the lower outside air pressure would increase its efficiency.

The Jet Engine

Whittle continued to develop his idea but abandoned it after he felt that the engine would weigh as much as a conventional engine.
From this, he developed a similar idea which substituted the piston engine for a turbine, but this was rejected by the Air Ministry as being inefficient and impractical. Whittle turned to the RAF who seemed more positive and some colleagues, like Johnny Johnson, encouraged him to patent the idea in 1930. As the RAF weren’t particularly interested in the idea, they didn’t ask that Whittle kept it secret so he managed to hold exclusive rights.
Frank Whittle married Dorothy Lee in May 1930 and they had two sons, David and Ian. The marriage was dissolved in 1976 and Whittle re-married Hazel Hall later that year.
Meanwhile, his career was taking off. In 1932, Whittle moved onto the Officers’ Engineering Course at RAF Henlow in Bedfordshire before going to Peterhouse, a college of Cambridge University, where he graduated in 1936 with a First in the Mechanical Sciences Tripos.
In the meantime (1935), his patent lapsed because he couldn’t afford the 5 renewal fee. But he was approached by two ex-RAF men, Rolf Dudley-Williams and James Collingwood Tinling, who showed some interest and the three of them began Power Jets Ltd in 1936 with a bank loan of 2,000. Work began on an experimental engine at a factory in Rugby, Warwickshire and the RAF helped out by placing Whittle on the Special Duty List, agreeing to let him work on the design as long as it took no more than six hours a week.
In 1936, Henry Tizard, the rector of Imperial College London and chairman of the Aeronautical Research Committee, sent details of Whittle’s engine to A. A. Griffith, who had previously rejected his idea when at the Air Ministry. But this time he was much more positive, although he still remained highly critical of some features.
Testing and developing the engine was transferred to Lutterworth in Leicestershire in 1938 but were still held up by a lack of interest and funding from the Air Ministry.
This meant that German Hans von Ohain had already passed the prototype stage and was building the first flyable design, the Heinkel HeS 3, while Whittle was still in the development stage.
The stress began to take its toll on Whittle who started to suffer from stress-related ailments such as eczema, heart palpitations and dramatic weight-loss. He also sniffed Benzedrine to maintain concentration during the day and took tranquilizers and sleeping pills at night to offset the effects and allow him to sleep. Over this period he became irritable and developed an “explosive” temper.
By the outbreak of World War Two, Whittle had a working prototype and gained interest from the Air Ministry and during the course of the war, his engine was put into mass production.

Post War

By the end of the war, all major engine company were manufacturing their own designs based on Whittle’s engine. Power Jets Ltd was nationalised in 1944 and Whittle left in 1946, disenfranchised by what had happened to his dream and his company, even though Concorde’s maiden flight in 1969 was testament to his successful jet engine.
Looking for something else to occupy his life, he turned to politics and became the Conservative MP for Exeter after the nationalisation of Power Jets Ltd had turned him away from left-wing politics which had previously dominated his political persuasion.
He also retired from the RAF, complaining of ill health, leaving with the rank of Air Commodore. Shortly afterwards he received 100,000 from the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors, partly to pay him for turning over all of his shares of Power Jets when it was nationalised.
Whittle returned to work in 1953 as a Mechanical Engineering Specialist in one of Shell Oil’s subsidiaries. While he was there, he developed a new type of drill that was self-powered by a turbine running on the mud pumped into the hole that was used as a lubricant during drilling. He also gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 1954 on The Story of Petroleum.
He left Shell in 1957 but the drill project was developed further by Bristol Siddeley Engines from 1961, who set up Bristol Siddeley Whittle Tools. Rolls Royce bought Bristol Siddeley but financial pressures and eventual bankruptcy led to the eventual disappearance of Whittle’s “turbo-drill”, only to reappear successfully in the late 1990s.

Later Life

In 1976 Whittle emigrated to the US after marrying American Hazel Hall shortly after his first marriage was dissolved and in the following year he accepted the position of NAVAIR Research Professor at the US Naval Academy Annapolis, before going part-time from 1978 when he began writing a textbook on gas turbine thermodynamics.
It was at this time that he met Hans von Ohain and was initially upset because he believed the German had taken his idea as his own. But the two became good friends and later toured the US giving talks together. In 1991 they were awarded the Charles Stark Draper Prize for their work on turbojet engines.
His work wasn’t always published but he continued to write articles and even addressed environmental issues and The Greenhouse Effect’ as early as the 1970’s.
In 1986 he was awarded the order of merit by the Queen in recognition of his huge achievements not only personally in his education and rising through the RAF, but also his contribution to technical writing and, of course, the jet engine which he dedicated a large proportion of his life to developing.
Frank Whittle died on 8 August 1996 of lung cancer at his home in Columbia, Maryland, USA. He was cremated in America and his ashes were flown to England where they were placed in a memorial in a church in Cranwell.
The “Whittle Arch” statue acts a permanent memorial outside the Coventry Transport Museum in England.