History of the jet engine

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Further information: Timeline of jet power

The jet engine has a long history, from early steam devices in the 2nd century BC to the modern turbofans and scramjets.


Jet engines can be dated back to the invention of the aeolipile around 150 BC. This device used steam power directed through two nozzles so as to cause a sphere to spin rapidly on its axis.[1] So far as is known, it was not used for supplying mechanical power, and the potential practical applications of this invention were not recognized. It was simply considered a curiosity.

Jet propulsion only literally and figuratively took off with the invention of the rocket by the Chinese in the 13th century fireworks but gradually progressed to propel formidable weaponry; and there the technology stalled for hundreds of years.

Archytas, the founder of mathematical mechanics, as described in the writings of Aulus Gellius five centuries after him, was reputed to have designed and built the first artificial, self-propelled flying device. This device was a bird-shaped model propelled by a jet of what was probably steam, said to have actually flown some 200 meters.

Ottoman Lagari Hasan Çelebi is said to have taken off in 1633 with what was described to be a cone-shaped rocket and then to have glided with wings into a successful landing, winning a position in the Ottoman army. However, this was essentially a stunt. The problem was that rockets are simply too inefficient at low speeds to be useful for general aviation.

The earliest attempts at airbreathing jet engines were hybrid designs in which an external power source first compressed air, which was then mixed with fuel and burned for jet thrust. In one such system, called a thermojet by Secondo Campini but more commonly, motorjet, the air was compressed by a fan driven by a conventional piston engine. Examples include the Caproni Campini N.1 and the Japanese Tsu-11 engine intended to power Ohka kamikaze planes towards the end of World War II. None were entirely successful and the CC.2 ended up being slower than the same design with a traditional engine and propeller combination.

Albert Fonó's ramjet-cannonball from 1915

In 1913, French aerospace engineer René Lorin patented a design for the world's first ramjet, but it was not possible develop a working prototype as no existing airplane could achieve sufficient speed for it to operate, and thus the concept remained theoretical for quite some time.

Even before the start of World War II, engineers were beginning to realize that the piston engine was self-limiting in terms of the maximum performance which could be attained; the limit was due to issues related to propulsive efficiency,[2] which declined as blade tips approached the speed of sound. If engine, and thus aircraft, performance were ever to increase beyond such a barrier, a way would have to be found to radically improve the design of the piston engine, or a wholly new type of powerplant would have to be developed. This was the motivation behind the development of the gas turbine engine, commonly called a "jet" engine, which would become almost as revolutionary to aviation as the Wright brothers' first flight.

Albert Fonó's German patent for jet Engines (January 1928- granted 1932). The third illustration is a turbojet

The key to a practical jet engine was the gas turbine, used to extract energy from the engine itself to drive the compressor. The gas turbine was not an idea developed in the 1930s: the patent for a stationary turbine was granted to John Barber in England in 1791. The first gas turbine to successfully run self-sustaining was built in 1903 by Norwegian engineer Ægidius Elling. Limitations in design and practical engineering and metallurgy prevented such engines reaching manufacture. The main problems were safety, reliability, weight and, especially, sustained operation.

In Hungary, Albert Fonó in 1915 devised a solution for increasing the range of artillery, comprising a gun-launched projectile which was to be united with a ramjet propulsion unit. This was to make it possible to obtain a long range with low initial muzzle velocities, allowing heavy shells to be fired from relatively lightweight guns. Fonó submitted his invention to the Austro-Hungarian Army but the proposal was rejected. In 1928 he applied for a German patent on aircraft powered by supersonic ramjets, and this was awarded in 1932.[3][4][5]

The first patent for using a gas turbine to power an aircraft was filed in 1921 by Frenchman Maxime Guillaume.[6] His engine was an axial-flow turbojet.

In 1923, Edgar Buckingham of the US National Bureau of Standard published a report[7] expressing scepticism that jet engines would be economically competitive with prop driven aircraft at the low altitudes and airspeeds of the period: "there does not appear to be, at present, any prospect whatever that jet propulsion of the sort here considered will ever be of practical value, even for military purposes."

Instead, by the 1930s, the piston engine in its many different forms (rotary and static radial, air-cooled and liquid-cooled inline) was the only type of powerplant available to aircraft designers. This was acceptable as long as only low-performance aircraft were required, and indeed all that were available.

Pre World War II[edit]

The Whittle W.2/700 engine flew in the Gloster E.28/39, the first British aircraft to fly with a turbojet engine, and the Gloster Meteor.

In 1928, RAF College Cranwell cadet [8] Frank Whittle formally submitted his ideas for a turbo-jet to his superiors. In October 1929, he developed his ideas further.[9] On 16 January 1930 in England, Whittle submitted his first patent (granted in 1932).[10] The patent showed a two-stage axial compressor feeding a single-sided centrifugal compressor. Practical axial compressors were made possible by ideas from A.A. Griffith in a seminal paper in 1926 ("An Aerodynamic Theory of Turbine Design"). Whittle would later concentrate on the simpler centrifugal compressor only, for a variety of practical reasons. Whittle had his first engine running in April 1937. It was liquid-fuelled, and included a self-contained fuel pump. Whittle's team experienced near-panic when the engine would not stop, accelerating even after the fuel was switched off. It turned out that fuel had leaked into the engine and accumulated in pools. So the engine would not stop until all the leaked fuel had burned off. Whittle was unable to interest the government in his invention, and development continued at a slow pace.

Heinkel He 178, the world's first aircraft to fly purely on turbojet power.

In 1935, Hans von Ohain started work on a similar design in Germany, and it is often claimed that he was unaware of Whittle's work.[11] Ohain said that he had not read Whittle's patent, and Whittle believed him (Frank Whittle 1907–1996). However, the Whittle patent was in German libraries, and Whittle's son had suspicions that Ohain had read or heard of it.[12]

Years later, it was admitted by von Ohain in his biography [13] that this was so. Author Margaret Conner states ″Ohain's patent attorney happened upon a Whittle patent in the years that the von Ohain patents were being formulated". Von Ohain himself is quoted as saying "We felt that it looked like a patent of an idea" "We thought that it was not seriously being worked on." As Ohain's patent was not filed until 1935, this admission clearly shows that he had read Whittle's patent and had even critiqued it in some detail prior to filing his own patent and some 2 years before his own engine ran.

VON OHAIN: ″Our patent claims had to be narrowed in comparison to Whittle’s because Whittle showed certain things." "When I saw Whittle’s patent, I was almost convinced that it had something to do with boundary layer suction combinations. It had a two-flow, dual entrance flow radial flow compressor that looked monstrous from an engine point of view. Its flow reversal looked to us to be an undesirable thing but it turned out that it wasn't so bad after all though it gave some minor instability problems.″

His first device was strictly experimental and could only run under external power but he was able to demonstrate the basic concept. Ohain was then introduced to Ernst Heinkel, one of the larger aircraft industrialists of the day, who immediately saw the promise of the design. Heinkel had recently purchased the Hirth engine company, and Ohain and his master machinist Max Hahn were set up there as a new division of the Hirth company. They had their first HeS 1 centrifugal engine running by September 1937. Unlike Whittle's design, Ohain used hydrogen as fuel, supplied under external pressure. Their subsequent designs culminated in the gasoline-fuelled HeS 3 of 1,100 lbf (5 kN), which was fitted to Heinkel's simple and compact He 178 airframe and flown by Erich Warsitz in the early morning of 27 August 1939, from Rostock-Marienehe aerodrome, an impressively short time for development. The He 178 was the world's first turbojet-powered aircraft to fly.[14]

The world's first turboprop was the Jendrassik Cs-1 designed by the Hungarian mechanical engineer György Jendrassik. It was produced and tested in the Ganz factory in Budapest between 1938 and 1942. It was planned to fit to the Varga RMI-1 X/H twin-engined reconnaissance bomber designed by László Varga in 1940 but the program was cancelled. Jendrassik had also designed a small-scale 75 kW turboprop in 1937.

Whittle's engine was starting to look useful and his Power Jets Ltd. started receiving Air Ministry money. In 1941, a flyable version of the engine called the W.1, capable of 1000 lbf (4 kN) of thrust, was fitted to the Gloster E28/39 airframe specially built for it and first flew on 15 May 1941 at RAF Cranwell.

A picture of an early centrifugal engine (DH Goblin II) sectioned to show its internal components.

British aircraft engine designer, Frank Halford, working from Whittle's ideas, developed a "straight through" version of the centrifugal jet; his design became the de Havilland Goblin.

One problem with both of these early designs, which are called centrifugal-flow engines, was that the compressor worked by accelerating air outward from the central intake to the outer periphery of the engine, where the air was then compressed by a divergent duct set-up, converting its velocity into pressure. An advantage of this design was that it was already well understood, having been implemented in centrifugal superchargers, then in widespread use on piston engines. However, given the early technological limitations on the shaft speed of the engine, the compressor needed to have a very large diameter to produce the power required. This meant that the engines had a large frontal area, which made it less useful as an aircraft powerplant due to drag. A further disadvantage of the earlier Whittle designs was that the air flow was reversed through the combustion section and again to the turbine and tailpipe, adding complexity and lowering efficiency. Nevertheless, these types of engines had the major advantages of light weight, simplicity and reliability, and development rapidly progressed to practical airworthy designs.

A cutaway of the Junkers Jumo 004 engine.

Austrian Anselm Franz of Junkers' engine division (Junkers Motoren or Jumo) addressed these problems with the introduction of the axial-flow compressor. Essentially, this is a turbine in reverse. Air coming in the front of the engine is blown towards the rear of the engine by a fan stage (convergent ducts), where it is crushed against a set of non-rotating blades called stators (divergent ducts). The process is nowhere near as powerful as the centrifugal compressor, so a number of these pairs of fans and stators are placed in series to get the needed compression. Even with all the added complexity, the resulting engine is much smaller in diameter and thus, more aerodynamic. Jumo was assigned the next engine number in the RLM numbering sequence, 4, and the result was the Jumo 004 engine. After many lesser technical difficulties were solved, mass production of this engine started in 1944 as a powerplant for the world's first jet-fighter aircraft, the Messerschmitt Me 262 (and later the world's first jet-bomber aircraft, the Arado Ar 234). A variety of reasons conspired to delay the engine's availability, this delay caused the fighter to arrive too late to decisively impact Germany's position in World War II. Nonetheless, it will be remembered as the first use of jet engines in service.

The Heinkel-Hirth aviation powerplant firm also tried to create a more powerful turbojet engine, the Heinkel HeS 011 of nearly 3,000 pounds of thrust at full power, very late in the war to improve the propulsion options available to new German military jet aircraft designs, and to improve the performance of existing designs. It used a unique "diagonal" compressor section that combined the features of both centrifugal and axial-flow compressor layouts for turbojet powerplants, but remained on the test bench, with only some nineteen examples ever produced.

In the UK, their first axial-flow engine, the Metrovick F.2, ran in 1941 and was first flown in 1943. Although more powerful than the centrifugal designs at the time, the Ministry considered its complexity and unreliability a drawback in wartime. The work at Metrovick led to the Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire engine which would be built in the US as the J65.

Post World War II[edit]

Following the end of the war, the German jet aircraft and jet engines were extensively studied by the victorious allies and contributed to work on early Soviet (see Arkhip Lyulka) and US jet fighters. The legacy of the axial-flow engine is seen in the fact that practically all jet engines on fixed wing aircraft have had some inspiration from this design.

Centrifugal-flow engines have improved since their introduction. With improvements in bearing technology the shaft speed of the engine was increased, greatly reducing the diameter of the centrifugal compressor. The short engine length remains an advantage of this design, particularly for use in helicopters where overall size is more important than frontal area. Also, as their engine components are more robust they are less liable to foreign object damage than axial-flow compressor engines.

Although German designs were more advanced aerodynamically, the combination of simplicity and the lack of requisite rare metals for the necessary advanced metallurgy (such as tungsten, chromium and titanium) for high-stress components such as turbine blades and bearings, etc. meant that the later produced German engines had a short service life and had to be changed after 10–25 hours. British engines were also widely manufactured under license in the US (see Tizard Mission), and were sold to Soviet Russia who reverse engineered them with the Nene going on to power the famous MiG-15. American and Soviet designs, independent axial-flow types, for the most part, would strive to attain superior performance until the 1960s, although the General Electric J47 provided excellent service in the F-86 Sabre in the 1950s.

By the 1950s, the jet engine was almost universal in combat aircraft, with the exception of cargo, liaison, and other specialty types. By this point some of the British designs were already cleared for civilian use, and had appeared on early models like the de Havilland Comet and Avro Canada Jetliner. By the 1960s all large civilian aircraft were also jet powered, leaving the piston engine in such low-cost niche roles such as cargo flights.

Relentless improvements in the turboprop pushed the piston engine (an internal combustion engine) out of the mainstream entirely, leaving it serving only the smallest general aviation designs and some use in drone aircraft. The ascension of the jet engine to almost universal use in aircraft took well under twenty years.

However, the story was not quite at an end, for the efficiency of turbojet engines was still rather worse than piston engines, but by the 1970s with the advent of high bypass jet engines, an innovation not foreseen by the early commentators like Edgar Buckingham, at high speeds and high altitudes that seemed absurd to them, only then did the fuel efficiency finally exceed that of the best piston and propeller engines,[15] and the dream of fast, safe, economical travel around the world finally arrived, and their dour, if well founded for the time, predictions that jet engines would never amount to much, were killed forever.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The History of the Jet Engine. Retrieved: 29 June 2010.
  2. ^ propeller efficiency Archived May 25, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ Patent number 554,906
  4. ^ Gyorgy, Nagy Istvan, "Albert Fono: A Pioneer of Jet Propulsion", International Astronautical Congress, 1977, IAF/IAA
  5. ^ Dugger, Gordon L. (1969). Ramjets. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, p. 15.
  6. ^ Maxime Guillaume, "Propulseur par réaction sur l'air," French patent no. 534,801 (filed: 3 May 1921; issued: 13 January 1922). Available on-line (in French) at: http://v3.espacenet.com/origdoc?DB=EPODOC&IDX=FR534801&F=0&QPN=FR534801 .
  7. ^ "sod1280.tmp" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-03-26. 
  8. ^ "Chasing the Sun - Frank Whittle". PBS. Retrieved 2010-03-26. 
  9. ^ "History - Frank Whittle (1907 - 1996)". BBC. Retrieved 2010-03-26. 
  10. ^ Frank Whittle, "Improvements relating to the propulsion of aircraft and other vehicles," British patent no. 347,206 (filed: 16 January 1930). Available on-line at: http://v3.espacenet.com/origdoc?DB=EPODOC&IDX=GB347206&F=0&QPN=GB347206 .
  11. ^ The History of the Jet Engine - Sir Frank Whittle - Hans Von Ohain
  12. ^ The History of the Jet Engine - Sir Frank Whittle a genius betrayed - )
  13. ^ "Elegance In Flight" (Hans von Ohain: Elegance in Flight (Reston, Virginia: American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc.), 2001)
  14. ^ Warsitz, Lutz: THE FIRST JET PILOT - The Story of German Test Pilot Erich Warsitz (p. 125), Pen and Sword Books Ltd., England, 2009
  15. ^ "ch10-3". Hq.nasa.gov. Retrieved 2010-03-26.