Peterhouse : Peterhouse, Whittle Power Jet Papers


<p>The invention of the turbo-jet engine, and the determined effort to design and develop it to replace piston engines in the air, was one of the most important technical achievements of the 20th century. That one man accomplished this, working with a small but dedicated team of engineers and craftsman in the middle of a war, and in the face of many doubters, was a truly monumental achievement. The jet engine conceived by Frank Whittle, a young RAF officer, has made the world a village, and has introduced world-wide travel to ordinary people everywhere. This accomplishment was all the more remarkable given Whittle’s humble background as the son of a highly-skilled but largely uneducated machinist. He demonstrated, however, that he had the necessary intellect, vision, and dedication to make his dream of flying higher and faster a reality. After working in his father’s small machine shop Whittle joined the RAF as an apprentice aeroplane mechanic at RAF Cranwell. He excelled in both the practical workshop training and the more limited theoretical education available to apprentices, and as a result was awarded an officer cadetship at the Cranwell Cadet College. During this time he also learned to fly, which had always seemed to be a distant dream, and was again ranked very near the top of the large class of cadets at Cranwell. In 1928, near the end of his studies as a cadet, Whittle submitted a thesis entitled “Future Developments in Aircraft Design”. In this very detailed study he outlined the challenges of building aeroplanes capable of flying much higher and faster than was possible at the time. He then went on to describe the possibility of using a propulsion system that was completely different from anything then known. This was the kernel of what came to be known as “jet propulsion”, and led ultimately to the development of the turbo-jet engine.</p> <p>By 1934 Whittle’s continued interest in developing a novel new aircraft propulsion system had caught the attention of his superior officers who recognized his special engineering talents. As a result, the RAF decided to make a special case for Whittle, and agreed that he should be sent to Cambridge University for two years of further engineering study. Whittle was admitted to Peterhouse, the oldest college in Cambridge, and fortuitously the academic home of Roy Lubbock, a lecturer in mechanical sciences. Lubbock was assigned as Whittle’s tutor and took a great interest in the young inventor’s ideas. He was also instrumental in persuading the RAF to allow Whittle to spend an additional post-graduate year at Cambridge to work on his new engine concept. In 1935, during his studies at Cambridge, and with the help of some friends from his Cranwell cadet days, Whittle was finally able to secure funding to pursue his novel engine concept. In 1936 this resulted in the formation of a small company, “Power Jets Ltd.”, and he was given special dispensation to spend much of his time working on development of his new engine design. Whittle then began to approach a number of large industrial companies which he felt would have the necessary engineering and manufacturing capacity to make his engine a reality. Although he had approached Rolls-Royce early on, they decided that their commitment to building conventional piston engines in the quantities then required for the build-up of the RAF would preclude them from working on a new, and so-far untested, engine concept. However, another large company, British Thomson- Houston, or “BTH”, which designed and manufactured steam turbines for the electrical power industry, did take an interest and agreed to work with Power Jets as a subcontractor. BTH then spent several years working to put Whittle’s design ideas into practice, and also provided their abandoned foundry in Lutterworth as a test facility for Whittle’s early jet-engine designs. The papers in this collection were kept by Mr. Henry (“Harry”) Nathan Sporborg, the Chief Engineer of BTH at the time, and the prime contact for most of Whittle’s interactions with the company. They provide a unique insight into the challenges of developing a novel aircraft propulsion system, and from time to time illustrate the frustrations of a young and impatient inventor working with a large and rather staid manufacturing company. The papers consist primarily of correspondence between BTH and Power Jets, as well as internal BTH communications and correspondence with the Air Ministry, from early 1940 to mid-1941.</p> <p>R.L. Evans<br /> 2016</p> <b>Biographical Information</b> <p>H. N. Sporborg (1877-1965) an American by origin, was Chief Engineer and Senior Director of British Thomson-Houston (and became Chairman in 1944). From 1901 he was a design engineer there in traction engineering, from 1907 Chief Engineer, from 1907 to 1908 acting Works Manager. He became a Director in 1910 and Chairman in 1944 having been Chairman of the Manufacturing Committee from 1920 to 1922. He retired in 1945.</p> <p> The British Thomson-Houston archives are held by the Bodleian Library as MSS Marconi 2921-2937 and the files relevant to the development of the Whittle engine are described by Michael Hughes in, 'British Thomson-Houston and Whittle gas turbine and jet engine records in the Marconi archives', Bodleian Library Record XX (2007) pp. 153-8.</p> <p>The company originated in the United States as the Thomson-Houston Electric Company when Elihu Thomson (1853-1937), an emigrant from England, Professor of Chemistry and Physics at Central High School Philadelphia, and his colleague there as Professor of Natural Philosophy, Edwin James Houston (1847-1914), who had been invited by Frederick H. Churchill of New Britain in 1880 to join him in forming the American Electric Company, decided in 1892, Churchill having died in 1881, to establish their own company, which evolved, in due course, into the General Electric Company (of New York). The British Thomson-Houston Company, having purchased the patents, was established in 1894 with offices at 38 Parliament Square, Westminster. Their early work was on the electrification of tramways and railways and on electricity meters. The Rugby works were built in 1900-02 and 1903 saw their first turbine contract. Early work also included electric textile mills and marine equipment and Mazda lamps. In terms of the present papers, significant developments were the enlargement of the turbine factory from 1913 to 1918 and the equipment in 1932 of P & O ships with turbo-electric machinery. In 1933 they acquired the Ladywood Iron Works at Lutterworth, where Power Jets was to be housed, and undertook a comprehensive investigation of gas turbine cycles with a view to jet propulsion. They were approached by Frank Whittle in 1936 and the first of his engines was tested in 1937. From 1939, apart from work with Power Jets, they were involved in armaments, radio valves, aircraft equipment and radar.</p> <p>Sir Frank Whittle (1907-1996), aeronautical engineer and inventor of the jet engine was born in Coventry on 1 June 1907 and in 1923 entered the apprentice wing of RAF College, Cranwell where he wrote a thesis on 'Future developments in aircraft design'. In 1939 he was attached to the Central Flying School at Wittering where he made the acquaintance of William Evelyn Patrick Johnson with whose help he filed a patent in 1930. British Thomson-Houston, Armstrong Siddleley and the Bristol Aeroplane, on being approached, showed no interest. In 1932 Whittle was posted to the RAF officers' engineering course at Henlow and in 1934 was sent by the Air Ministry to Cambridge to read Mechanical Sciences and was admitted at Peterhouse on the recommendation of Roy Lubbock. While studying for the tripos he was visited by Rolf Dudley Dudley-Williams, who had been a fellow cadet at Cranwell, and his partner James Collington Burdett Tinling, who thought that they might be able to find finance to fund Whittle's further work. Even before the resultant company, Power Jets, was formally established, the British Thomson-Houston Company had produced tentative assembly drawings early in March 1936, which Whittle revised by the end of the month, before returning to his work for the tripos. He achieved a First Class leading the Air Ministry to give permission for him to have another year in Cambridge on postgraduate work, after which he was placed on the RAF special duty list to enable him to continue with his work. For a futher account of his career and subsequent honours see G. B. R. Feilden in ODNB.</p> <p>Sir Frank Whittle's papers, with a biographical introduction, are held by the Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge at <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''></a></p> <p>with associated papers at</p> <p><a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''></a></p> <p>Other relevant papers there are those of Geoffrey J. Gollin</p> <p><a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''></a></p> <p>and of Sir William Hawthorne</p> <p><a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''></a></p> <p> See also for Power Jets: Frank Whittle, 'Jet: the story of a pioneer' (London, 1953); John Golley, in association with Sir Frank Whittle, 'Whittle: the true story', Airlife Publishing Ltd, 1987, new edition as 'Jet' by Datum Publishing Ltd, 2010; 'Commemorating the Reactionaries, 1946-2001, and the 60th anniversary first flight of the Whittle Gloster E29/39 aircraft, May 15th 2001', ed. Robert Dale, n.p. 1998; </p> <p>and for British Thomson-Houston: H. A. Price-Hughes (compiler), 'B.T.H., Reminiscences, sixty years of progress', (The British Thomson-Houston Co. Ltd., 1946); The British Thomson-Houston Co. Ltd., 'The Whittle Gas Turbine used in Jet Propulsion: Pioneer Development Work as carried out by the British Thomson-Houston Co.' (1946); David J. Wilson, 'The establishment and decline of British Thomson-Houston and Metropolitan Vickers (Associated Electrical Industries Ltd, August 2005); E. D. P. Symons, 'The photographic archives of the British Thomson-Houston Company' Institute of Electrical Engineers Proceedings, vol. 136, Pt A, no. 6 (November 1989) <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''></a></p> <p>A spreadsheet containing basic information about the correspondents and others mentioned can be downloaded from <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>this page</a>. A full list of contents can be found on Sheet 1, and biographical information on Sheet 2.</p>

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