Papers and correspondence of SirFrank Whittle, 1907-1996

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Biographical material is substantial. Whittle's career in the RAF is documentedby academic notebooks from his years at RAF College Cranwell, RAF College Henlowand the University of Cambridge; two of his flying log books, the earliercovering his flight cadet training at Cranwell, the other containing entries,1928-1946; Whittle's own accounts of personal experiences such as the 'crazyflying' display at Hendon, and papers detailing a number of his proposedinventions. There is an assemblage of material relating to the history of theturbo-jet including papers and articles by Whittle and a visitors' book forPower Jets Ltd. A large series of diaries and pages of typewritten diaryentries spans the years 1927 to 1991. For the years covering the work on thejet engine and the turbo-drill there are, in many places, long and detailedentries concerning technical matters, meetings and foreign trips. There ispersonal correspondence, 1946-1989, with friends such as Sir RolfDudley-Williams and R.G. Voysey and authors of books and articles on thehistory of aviation, the jet engine etc. Whittle's sporadic involvement inpolitical affairs is also documented by papers, including drafts of articlesand speeches relating to his chairmanship of the Migration Council and publicaddresses at the 1955 (Exeter) and 1964 (Smethwick) General Elections.

Research and Development papers document Whittle's work on the development ofthe jet engine, his later interests in jet propulsion and jet-powered flight,and the work on the turbo-drill for the oil industry. A series ofcorrespondence and papers, including copies of notes of interviews and meetingsetc, reports and technical papers, reflects the day to day involvement ofWhittle in the jet engine project from the formation of Power Jets Ltd to thenationalisation of the company. The financial affairs of Power Jets Ltd andthe relations between various prominent individuals and companies collaboratingin the work are also covered. There is also a series of notebooks in Whittle'shand, 1939-1950, with graphs, calculations and experimental results. Thepapers concerning his later jet interests are diverse and cover his work forBOAC (1948-1952); a patent infringement case in which he provided expertevidence in support of the defendants, Rolls-Royce Ltd; the problems of 'jetnoise'; supersonic aircraft; and a brief consultancy position. A number of hisnotebooks and sketchbooks, 1973-1993, relate to both jet-powered flight and theturbo-drill. The turbo-drill papers document the various stages of Whittle'sinvolvement: with the Shell Group, Bristol Siddeley Engines and the periodfollowing Rolls-Royce's takeover of Bristol Siddeley. There are also smallgroups of papers relating to Whittle's analysis of possible German submarinedevelopment in 1943 and his NAVAIR Research Professorship, 1977-1979.

Whittle's publications are documented by a chronological sequence of drafts forpublications and editorial correspondence, 1932-1992. Included is a draft ofan early paper on Whittle's turbo-jet idea, dated to 1931 or 1932, entitled'The Case for the Gas Turbine'. Lectures and broadcasts material covers theperiod 1943-1987. The jet engine is the chief topic of the lectures, but somerelate to the oil industry and supersonic flight. Drafts and notes forlectures include those for his Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on the oilindustry, 1954. Broadcasting material is slight but includes correspondenceand papers concerning a BBC television programme Jet Propelled, 1966, in whichWhittle appeared. Documentation of visits and conferences dates fromWhittle's USA visit in 1942 to view American progress on jet propulsion. Thereare many reports covering his travels while working for BOAC; these give hisviews on various aspects of civil aviation, including the possibilities for the'Comet' airliner. He toured the USA on a number of other occasions before hisemigration; one of these, in 1974-1975, allowed Whittle to promote Concorde anddiscuss the possibility of advanced supersonic travel. Societies andorganisations material reflects Whittle's associations chiefly withengineering, scientific and learned societies and organisations in the field ofaviation, all in Britain or the USA, including the Royal Society, the RAFTechnical College and the International Aerospace Hall of Fame.

Whittle's correspondence principally consists of an alphabetical sequence ofcorrespondence with individuals and organisations including M.L. Bramson, LordDacre, S.G. Hooker, A. Pouring and the Royal Air Force Museum Hendon, and achronological sequence of miscellaneous correspondence covering manyprofessional and personal matters 1946-1994. There is also correspondence withinventors who sought Whittle's advice or support, and a small number of 'cranks'letters (Whittle's designation).

Administrative / Biographical History

Frank Whittle was born in Coventry on 1 June 1907. After attending LeamingtonCollege he applied to join the RAF as an apprentice in January 1923. He wassuccessful in the entrance exam, only to fail the medical on account of hisdiminutive stature. After going through a strenuous physical exerciseprogramme, he applied again six months later and was accepted. In 1926 he wasoffered a cadetship to the RAF College, Cranwell, and began training as apilot. After passing out of the College in 1928, he undertook various flyingduties including service in III Fighter Squadron at Hornchurch and postings tothe Flying Training School, Digby, and the Marine Aircraft ExperimentalEstablishment, Felixstowe, as a float plane test pilot. In 1934 he graduatedfrom the Officers' School of Engineering at Henlow with such exceptionalresults that he was sent to Cambridge University as an undergraduate ofPeterhouse to take the Mechanical Sciences Tripos.

While still at Cranwell Whittle wrote a thesis exploring the possibilities offlight at higher altitudes and speeds. He examined the potential of rocketpropulsion and gas turbines but the idea of using a gas turbine for jetpropulsion did not occur to him until the year after he left Cranwell. The AirMinistry believed the gas turbine to be completely impracticable but Whittlenevertheless took out a patent in 1930. His attempts to attract commercialinterest in the idea were fruitless until 1935 when he was still at Cambridge. Two friends and former RAF pilots, Rolf Dudley Williams and J.C.B. Tinling, whowere in business together, secured financial backing from a city banking firmand, after negotiations with the Air Ministry, a company called Power Jets Ltdwas formed. Whittle was allotted shares in return for assigning all his patentrights to the company, while a contract for the design of an experimental benchengine, the 'WU' was given to the British Thomson Houston Company, Rugby. After gaining a first class honours degree at Cambridge, Whittle was granted afurther postgraduate year to supervise the work on the WU which made its firstrun on 12 April 1937.

Whittle was appointed to the Special Duty List and continued to work for PowerJets as Honorary Chief Engineer. By June 1939 the work had progressedsufficiently for the Air Ministry to place an order for a flight engine (theW.1) with the company. The Gloster Aircraft Company was contracted to build anexperimental aircraft, the E.28/39, which was to be powered by the W.1. Thehighly successful first test flights of E.28/39 on 15 May 1941 resulted in anexpansion of the project and the beginning of co-operation between Britain andthe USA on the development of the turbo-jet engine. Before the outcome of thetest flights a decision was taken to build a twin-engined fighter, the GlosterF.9/40 (Meteor), using the more powerful W.2.B engine. In 1944 the Meteorentered service and was the only Allied jet to be operational in World War Two. Before his attachment to Power Jets ended in 1946, Whittle was also responsiblefor the development of the W2/500 and the W.2/700 engines, the parents ofsubsequent Rolls-Royce engines.

The nationalisation of Power Jets in 1944 hastened the break up of a remarkablytalented and dedicated team of engineers. In 1946 the company (with theexception of a 'rump', Power Jets R&D Ltd) was merged with part of the RoyalAircraft Establishment to form the National Gas Turbine Establishment which waschiefly restricted to research work and excluded from designing and developingengines. Whittle and most of his team resigned and his bitterness over theGovernment's policy remained for many years. As the break up of the teamresulted in the abandonment of turbo-fan and exhaust-fan projects (arising froma number of Whittle patents), he could claim with some justification thatnationalisation seriously retarded Britain's post-war jet industry. In 1948 heretired from the RAF on grounds of ill health, leaving with the rank of AirCommodore. Shortly afterwards he received a gratuity of 100,000 from theRoyal Commission on Awards to Inventors which took into account the fact thathe had handed over all his shares in Power Jets to the government when thecompany was nationalised.

From 1948 to 1952 he was technical advisor on aircraft gas turbines to theBritish Overseas Airways Corporation, travelling extensively in the USA,Canada, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In 1953, having completed his bookJet: The Story of a Pioneer, Whittle turned to his interest in oil industrytechnology and joined the Shell Group as Mechanical Engineering Specialist toone of their subsidiaries. He devoted most of his energy to developing hispatented turbo-drill which incorporated a hydraulic turbine to drive thecutting bit. Whittle left Shell in 1957 and the project was shelved until 1961when Bristol Siddeley Engines became interested in its practical development. Asubsidiary company, Bristol Siddeley Whittle Tools was formed in 1963 butRolls-Royce's takeover of Bristol Siddeley in 1966 had serious consequences forthe drill project. Support for the latter stages of development fell away asRolls-Royce's financial difficulties increased and by 1971 work on the drillceased, despite demonstrations of its commercial practicability.

In 1976 Whittle emigrated to the USA. He returned to aerodynamic work, takingup the post of NAVAIR Research Professor at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, in1977. His research concentrated on the boundary layer before his professorshipbecame part-time from 1978 to 1979. The part time post enabled him to write atextbook on gas turbine aero-thermodynamics.

During the years following his retirement from the RAF Whittle gave a number oflectures on the development of the aircraft gas turbine, supersonic travel andthe oil industry, including the 1954 Christmas Lectures at the RoyalInstitution. He participated in several anniversary events commemorating thefirst running of the WU and the first flight of the E.28/39. After his move tothe USA, he became friends with the German jet pioneer, Hans von Ohain, and thetwo regularly attended conferences and functions, sometimes giving jointpresentations.

In the years following World War Two Whittle sometimes expressed strong views ontwo major political issues: immigration and nationalisation. He was Chairman ofthe Migration Council, 1950-1951, and advocated planned emigration from Britainto Commonwealth countries to reduce over-population. His extreme dislike ofnationalisation led him away from his earlier Socialist beliefs and at the 1955General Election he gave a public address at Exeter supporting RolfDudley-Williams, the Conservative Party candidate. In 1964 Whittle gave anelection address at Smethwick where the campaign was dominated by immigrationissues.

Whittle was elected FRS in 1947 and became a Founder Fellow of the Fellowship ofEngineering (Royal Academy of Engineering) in 1976. He was knighted in 1948 andbecame a member of the Order of Merit in 1986. He died on 9 August 1996.

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Readers intending to use theArchives Centre must write in advance to the Keeper of the Archives givingdetails of their research subject and listing the collections they will wish toconsult. New readers should also provide a letter of introduction and some formof identification (such as a passport or driving licence).

Acquisition Information

The papers were received forcataloguing from the Churchill Archives Centre in June 2002


This description compiled by Dr Tim Powell, NCUACS, March 2005

Other Finding Aids

Printed Catalogue of the papersand correspondence of Sir Frank Whittle: NCUACS catalogue no. 125/11/03, 155 pp.Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath

Related Material

Whittle Associated Papers, Ref: GB 014 WHTL AS. 3 boxes.

Papers deposited by people who knew or worked with Frank Whittle. The contentsare mainly reports produced for Power Jets Limited during World War II.1940-1997