The Invention of the Jet Engine: Frank Whittle and Hans von Ohain

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Hans Von Ohain. Lab Chief Scientist in the 70's. Inventor of the first jet engine.

An Englishman and a German both contemporaniously invented jet engines.

Sir Frank Whittle is often given credit for the invention of the turbojet engine which made jet airplanes possible. The truth is that he and a German physicist Hans von Ohain both independently invented jet engines in the late 1930’s. Ohain’s jet was the first to fly, but nobody knew about it due to military secrecy under the Nazi regime. Whittle’s engine was the first to be patented and was used in the first publicly recorded jet flight. Like Charles Linbergh, Whittle knew that high altitudes could make a significant difference in an engine’s fuel efficiency. He pursued his pioneering work independently while most experts scoffed at his idea. It was a long hard road, but Whittle eventually proved them all wrong.

An American modification of the Whittle engine powered the Bell X-1 on the first supersonic flight. Ohain’s engine was the basis for such military aircraft as the now famous early Messerschmitt ME-262 which was the world’s first operational jet fighter. Throughout WWII British, American, and German researchers continued to develop jet aircraft technologies. After the war, civilian jets revolutionized air travel by providing very fast dependable air transportation. Today thousands of jets fly daily at high altitudes between almost all the major cities of the world. Jet aircraft are a key technology for what has come to be known as globalization. Jets allow people and goods to span the globe almost at will.

None of this would be possible without the jet engine, and it is worthwhile to remember that so many people told Frank Whittle that his idea was impossible that his research did not receive any government funding until after it was already virtually accomplished. Being an RAF Officer, Whittle was forced to work at his assigned duties during the day and spend evenings developing his engine. The long days told on him, and made him dependent on drugs. The one bright side of all this was that the British Government’s failure to recognize the importance of or fund his project gave him the patent rights which made him a wealthy man in his later years. These rights would have otherwise belonged to the RAF.

Whittle and Ohain should both be remembered in association with this important invention. They both immigrated to America in their later years, and despite a short controversy over who was actually first eventually became good friends. They were both truly pioneers whose impact on our lives in the modern world is far reaching.