Cambridge Science Centre


Cambridge innovators: Frank Whittle

Written on 18 Jul 2013 in Blog

“I want a thousand Whittles” said Winston Churchill in 1941. But who (or what) was Whittle, and why was he so important? Churchill was referring to Sir Frank Whittle, a small man who helped make a small world. As the inventor of the jet engine, we have him to thank for speeding us off to our holiday destination in just a few hours.

Born in 1907, and always fascinated by flying, I really admire Whittle’s determination to get into the RAF. He failed the medical twice due to his height and slight build, despite designing a training regime for himself after the first refusal. Told he had no more chances, he eventually got into the RAF training school at Cranwell under a pseudonym.

He turned out to be a talented and daring pilot. He received many warnings for dangerous flying; as a flying instructor he was almost court-martialled, whilst his involvement in testing sea planes involved being catapulted in them over the North Sea! But he was also academically gifted. As part of his course at Cranwell he wrote a thesis about aircraft development, and unsurprisingly, he was particularly interested in flying higher and faster! The jet engine was the result of these aims - his first patent was filed in 1930.

The RAF finally realised Whittle’s potential as an engineer and sent him to Cambridge in 1934, where he completed an engineering degree in characteristically speedy fashion. In 1937, after many set-backs and little help from the Air Ministry, Whittle finally got some funding from old RAF colleagues and built a prototype jet engine. The first successful flight using his engine was on May 15th 1941. Whittle is commemorated here in Cambridge where a laboratory at the engineering department is named after him.

Written by Julia Grosse