“Turbo”—the Jet Engine’s Grand-daddy

Thanks to Jet Engine History

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By Wallace Wood

Proud of your “turbo” car?


You should be.  Short for “turbo-supercharger”, it’s the grand-daddy of all jet engines.

The jump is a short one from your car to a roaring Boeing 747 headed down the runway for takeoff.  Jam a lot of air in a tight space.  Mix in some fuel and spark it off.  Instead of having this extra boost push down on the pistons, open the back door and let ‘er rip.  You fill in the details.

Early in the wild new 20th Century, mechanics and engineers were looking for more power.  They used a turbine fan compressor to jam extra air into autos, trucks and airplane engines.  This was “super-charging” the gas mixture.

The Turbine Aeroplane Thanks to
Coanda Aeroplane

Superchargers gave an engine that extra boost.  “Turbo” means high performance.


The gas turbine engine was the next step.  Why have a belt or gear turn the supercharger?  Squirt some gas in and let it turn itself.  Like your car’s turbo, it used the hot exhaust gases to power the compressor fan.  Use that spin for driving wheels or a propeller instead, and off you go! 

Son of the “Turbo”, the gas turbine was the turbojet’s direct “daddy”.  Turbo-prop airplanes are still common today. Gas turbine race cars threatened to take over the Indianapolis 500 --type races until rule makers choked it to death.

Frank Whittle’s first experimental jet engine, 1937
Thanks to Aircraft Engine Design

The bright idea occurred to lots of people: turn a supercharger into a jet for some real power by opening the back gate.  Three people did something about it:  Henri Coanda  in France, Hans Von Ohain in Germany and Frank Whittle in Great Britain. 

The Frenchman was there first, but he is all but forgotten.

The first jet aircraft—Henri Coanda’s “Air Reactive Engine”, which flew briefly in 1910 near Paris, France.   On display at the Grand Palais in Paris a month before the “flight”

Coanda went straight for the back gate. His jet was a crossover of supercharger and afterburner. A four-cylinder gas engine turned the air compressor. More gasoline was added to the compressor’s exhaust for jet thrust. Voila! Power. Coanda claimed 220 kilograms (about 450 pounds) of thrust.

While adjusting his engine during a test on December 16, 1910, Henri realized his aircraft was moving.

Then I looked up and saw the walls of Paris approaching rapidly. There was no time to stop or turn round and I decided to try and fly instead. Unfortunately I had no experience of flying…”The “Air Reactive Engine” took to the sky with a

Frank Whittle using a slideruleThanks to Aircraft Engine Design

jump—and soon came back down as Coanda tried learning to fly the hard way.   He was thrown clear and the aircraft burned.  The first jet had flown—very briefly.  It would be 30 years before another one did that Coanda died in 1972 without getting credit for being a man far ahead of his time.

 Not the first jet to fly, but the first successful jet aircraft, the Heinkel  He-178 Thanks to
Aircraft Engine Design

Von Ohain and Frank Whittle were more cautious, leaving the flying to others.

They did their tests in the laboratory, with the engines tied down (and occasionally exploding and burning as well).

Neither Von Ohain  nor Whittle apparently knew of the other’s work.  Whittle was a Royal Air Force officer

and beat his rival to the patent office with a turbojet engine design by 1930.

Aircraft designer Von Ohain lost the patent race, but got his engine in the air almost two years ahead of Whittle in 1939.  The aircraft was a Heinkel He-178.  Though Heinkel Aircraft Company was first to have a successful jet stay aloft, it would be Messerschmitt’s Me-262 twin-engine jet that became the first mass-produced jet fighter.

Whittle’s engine took to the air on May 15, 1941 in a design by the Gloster Aircraft Company.  The E28/39 had a single Whittle engine and was the forerunner of England’s first jet fighter, the twin-engine Gloster Meteor.


Hans Von Ohain, at 25 years of age in 1937
Thanks to
Aircraft Engine Design

In recognition of his development work on jet engines, Frank Whittle was knighted by King George VI in 1948 and so became Sir Frank Whittle.

Frank Whittle’s engine. The compressor blades can be seen in white at the left, with the combustion chambers looking like mufflers going around the sides.  The hot jet gases pass by the driving turbine blades—white in the center-- and exit out the cone on the right in this cut-away drawing.

Von Ohain’s engine, a type of “axial flow”, with intake at left and jet gas exit at right. Thanks to
Aircraft Engine Design

A well-known automobile company by the name of Rolls-Royce took over making the engines Whittle designed.  It was a strategic move.  Rolls-Royce turbojets still power airplanes worldwide today.

Britain’s first jet fighter was the Gloster Meteor, which went into action in July of 1944 fighting German V-1 “buzz bombs”.  Those flying bombs used another simple type of jet, the ramjet, and were the first cruise missiles.
Germany’s first mass-produced jet fighter was the Messerschmitt Me-262 “Swallow” using Von Ohain’s rival design to Whittle’s. It appeared in 1944 ahead of the Meteor, but the two never met in combat.

The Meteor saw combat with Australian pilots in the Korean War in 1950 and in the Arab-
Israeli conflicts.  In the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, a Syrian Meteor shot down a newer type of British aircraft.  What irony.

First British jet aircraft---the Gloster Aircraft Company’s E28/39 flew in 1941 Thanks to
Aircraft Engine Design

After WW II,  Rolls-Royce gave the Soviet Union its best jet engines in a bizarre political pool game.
A new Socialist Party Prime Minister in Britain, Clement Atlee, wanted to ease up the developing Cold War tensions.  He invited Russian engineers to tour the still secret Rolls-Royce factory. Atlee was a little naive about Soviet intentions.  Though the Soviets got German jet engines and technicians as war booty, they were still trying to convert superchargers and gas turbines to jets, and were having problems.  The Rolls-Royce turbojet was the best in the world.  They jumped at the invitation.


When the tour was over, a Russian engineer joined in a friendly game of billiards with Atlee.  If the Russian won, he proposed the British would sell them a shipment of Rolls-Royce engines and a license agreement--which meant the Soviets would have the engine plans.

Win the Soviet representative did.  In a big way.

Whittle got the title, “Sir”, and Von Ohain was called “Professor”. 

You can name your “Turbo” whatever you like.




Wallace Wood (no relation to the famed Mad Magazine cartoonist) is a San Jose State University journalism graduate. He worked for the San Jose Mercury/News as a stringer, then briefly for the Sunnyvale Standard/Mt.View Register-Leader (now defunct) before spending years at the Santa Cruz Sentinel. All California papers. He is now "retired".

A series of his on paper subdivisions won third place in Associated Press competition for the tiny Sentinel statewide behind two L.A. Times writers. But another series on the business of death at funeral homes had greater impact, leading to many self-imposed reforms in the industry.

Wallace Wood

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