The National Archives Public Information Films
Print page Close window

The Wonder Jet

Taken from the production file (Catalogue reference: INF 6/408)

Here it is.

In the precise language of the engineer, it’s called the jet propulsion gas turbine. To you and me, it’s the jet engine - one of the marvels of this century of marvels.

When they start it up - stand back! Its deep-throated voice will climb to the shrieking of a thousand fiends.

Its flaming breath is white-hot gas, fed by draughts of liquid fuel.

Watch that gallon go!

And all around, the straining fury of its power sets the very air a-shudder.

Here is the inside story:
air and fuel ignited in combustion chambers and the resulting gas ejected through a jet-pipe at the rear. Now, in the path of the rushing gas, insert a bladed wheel: a turbine. Link the turbine to a powerful fan - so placed as to ram the air into the combustion chambers under pressure. Let the gas drive the turbine and the fan. Under fierce compression the temperature rises - and the expanding gas roars from the jet-pipe with tremendous force. This is the turbine jet - the power that is driving the fighters of today through the sonic barrier.

Now, on the forward end of the shafting system, mount an air- screw. Here is another new means of propulsion: the turbine propellor

The engine that is opening fresh vistas of simplicity, efficiency, speed.

To the British aircraft-industry, the turbine jet and turbine propellor engines have brought a golden opportunity. Says the dean of British air designers, Charles Clement Walker:

"In this new form of air travel, Britain has a chance to make up the leeway lost in the war when we were developing combat air-craft to the exclusion of all else"

In many a research centre, they are grappling with the special problems posed by the enormous power of the jet.

And as Britains’s new prototypes take shape - planes which many believe will give her a leading edge in the competition of the sky - a glimpse of the future they are heralding is given by the well-known air-line executive, Peter Masefield:

"At a speed of two thousand miles an hour, which is at least in sight, the journey from London to New York could be completed non-stop in about two hours, and because New York time is five hours back on London's time, passengers could leave London after lunch - say at two o'clock in the afternoon and arrive in New York for eleven o'clock Coke the same morning. "

"So as far as the clock goes, they have arrived three hours before they have started. " No wonder that amid such promise of adventure, the rising genera- tion should desert old loyalties to the footplate and the fire brigade: should crane its neck skyward to the streaking silver that bespeaks tomorrow.

"It's a Meteor".

"Look an AW 52".

"SR.A1 fighting flying boat. Gosh, look it's upside down!" "Hawker N7/46.

"That's a Vampire".

No wonder, too, that the eerie whistle of the jet should have brought a mysterious jargon all its own to the language of the engineer.

1st Man: "Well, with the tubular type heat exchanger, to get the area, you want a lot of tubes and consequently the inside diameters of the tubes are very small.

Consequently the power output of the engine goes down just like this."

It began in the year 1926. Remember? 1926, when the symbol of Great Britain was a famous bowler hat, when America stood silent at Valentino's grave, when Suzanne Lenglen was queen of the centre court at Wimbledon, when Donaghue was booting home the winners.

In that year, at the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell, there was a young cadet who had been interested in aircraft since .the tender age of three. His name: Frank whittle.

Now - in his nineteenth year - Cadet Whittle wrote a thesis.

His idea was not new.

Two thousand years ago, Hero of Alexandria had thought of it.

Later in the pages of history,

Newton had given it his passing attention.

But whittle believed that this Idea could - fly

It was fortunate indeed that Whittle’s notions should gain the sympathetic ear of his instructor, Flight Lieutenant Patrick Johnson: doubly fortunate that Johnson happened to be well acquainted with the world of patents.

Johnson: "Well, come and tell me about it."

Whittle: "Have you got time now?"

Johnson: "Yes, rather".

Whittle: "Well, look .."

Whittle: "This represents a centrifugal type of compressor, like an enlarged supercharger. I use this to pull in air at the front and to compress it into the combustion chambers like this, where the injection and burning of fuel heats and expands the air and. gives it enough energy to drive a turbine which drives the compressor after which the air still has enough energy to give a high velocity propelling jet."

Johnson: "Have you ever patented anything?"

Whittle: "No, I don't know a thing about it, Does a patent both publish and protect?"

Johnson: "That's the whole point of patents. But one thing's essential, to file the patent application before touting round. Otherwise you haven't a hope."

Johnson: "Tell you what, let's rough out a specification now."

Whittle: "Fine, what do we do?"

Johnson: "well, you make rather A clearer sketch and I'll get on with the clever bit, the writing." And so with the specifications of an idea tucked under his arm, Johnson walked, through London's statelv Inns of Court. On his way, he glanced into the Library: that famous Library where the walls are lined with dreams illustrious, unknown, crazy.

Would this dream fade forgotten too? Or might it usher in a revolution in technology? In the county of Leicestershire stands the town of Lutterworth.

Here, John Wycliffe was born. From here, Thomas Cook organised his first tour.

And here, too, in a disused foundry, a little company set out to bring the idea of the jet to roaring life.

Here, whittle and his associates started up the age of the gas turbine - and in so doing, embarked on the inventor's long road of discouragement and danger.

Man: "Come back".

Man: "Come back".

England heard little of all this. but what it heard convinced it that this idea could only fly in the face of all experience.

1st Golfer: "Have you heard the latest crazy idea about aero engines? Some Air Force chap - Whittle I think his name is - or something like that."

2nd Golfer: "Yes, something about gas at five hundred or six hundred degrees tempera- ture.

1st Golfer: "Nothing can take a temperature like that - why, the whole thing would explode in his face.

But across the fields of Leicestershire, across the hunting shires where Squire Obaldeston ran his thirty miles a day, and Nimrod talked horses all night while the port went round, a new music began to mingle with the sound of hoof and horn: the whining cry of a gas turbine, running sweet and true.

But, as yet, only for a moment. Time and time again they saw the instant of success dissolve once more into weary hours of failure.

Whittle: "I'm sorry to say we’ye just had another blade failure. We were running at practically full speed when one of the blades came off."

Whittle: "If we can only get another fifty degrees Centi- grade, it'll do the trick."

Whittle: "Yes, please do. I’m sure we’re almost there."

They were - almost there. For in the final months of World War 2 the idea was not only aloft, but on active service. And as the British Meteors tore into the flying bombs, jet met jet in combat.

In a few short years the gas turbine has burnt its fiery mark into the calculations of engineers and economists alike.

Yesterday a hope in the minds of a dogged few, today manpower and money on a national scale are flowing into its development. For in this latest wonder of applied science, Britain sees a source of her future wealth and welfare.

To the birthplace of the jet are coming students from all the world, to take their first peep at this child, of Britain’s brains.

But most vital to a people whose memorials of the poignant past daily remind them of the stark needs of the present, is the fact that this invention places in their hands an export attractive to nearly every progressive country overseas.

In the factories whose devoted labour sustained the fighter pilots through the days of peril, skills famous the world over are now working to capacity on foreign orders for a new prime mover at once cheap, efficient, simple.

And in the heart of London, the company which pioneered the jet now adds to Britain's earnings of foreign currency by the sale of licenses abroad.

Johnson: "We’re prepared to grant your company a license under these patents and an option under the ether three hundred or so which applies to gas turbines in general on the terms I gave you yesterday."

Meanwhile - screaming from the rooftops to the stratosphere - the jet is opening realms of height and speed hitherto unknown to British test pilots like John Cunningham and John Derry.

Cunningham: "The greatest height we've been to so far is 59,446 feet which is nearly twelve miles high and about double the height of Everest."

Derry: "We have exceeded the speed of sound in the D.H. 108 which has done most of the work and, contrary to opinion, this has no physical effect on the human body." History, they say is but a series of exploded ideas.

Each day, each hour, the jet propulsion gas turbine is making history before our eyes - piling record upon record-breaking record - shattering the accepted ideas and limits of the piston- engine age.

But today, British engineers are fore telling as great a future for this marvel on the groud as in the air. In workshops which were know to Watt and Stephenson, they are now forging a second industrial revolution - based on the gas turbine. Soon, a crack British Railways express will be gas-turbine hauled. Says Chief Engineer Hawksworth of the Western Region:

Hawksworth: "Two locomotives powered by gas turbines are at present under construction for the Western Region of the British Railways."

Hawksworth: "We hope to use them to pull the famous Corn- ish Riviera Express and we believe they will be capable of very high average speeds." From other furnaces are coming the special secret-formula metals to start the new power source on its career at sea.

Soon, one of Britain's largest tankers will be equipped, with a marine gas turbine engine, designed to give maximum performance on the cheapest of fuels.

Captain: "I've just had a commnunication from the Company in which, they say that our gas turbine is nearly ready."

Chief. Engineer: "We are all ready to accommodate it and test it out in sea-going conditions." But Captain MacDougall will not be the first skipper to sail under gas. For already under trial is the first gas turbine warship - His Majesty1s experimental Gunboat Number 2009.

By land, and sea and air the story is the same. From Britain's laboratories and factories and airfields the whistle of the jet is spreading all around the globe - a contribution of dimensions yet unfathomed to mankind's mastery of space and speed and power.

Today, the Cranwell cadet of 1926 is Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle, K..B.E. , C. B. , F.R.S.

Today, the little company in the disused foundry has given birth to another mighty field of industrial endeavour. And now - behind the lonely pioneers of an idea there stands the science of two continents.

A quarter-century ago the jet propulsion gas turbine did not exist. In a quarter century it has given us a vision of the sounds and shapes of future time. What wonders will the jet have wrought - a quarter-century from now?

  Print page Close window