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Note-Worthy Scientists: why Sir Frank Whittle should be the face of the new £50 note

Coming up with a face for the new £50 banknote is a tough challenge, and I’d like to put forward a candidate from our very own neck of the woods – the father of the jet engine and one of the greatest engineers of all time, Sir Frank Whittle. The struggles he went through to bring his invention to the world and the way his ideas have revolutionised the world make him a worthy contender for the honour.

Born in Coventry in 1907, Whittle was the son of a mechanic, and one of the few great inventors to be reared in a working-class background. He expressed an interest in joining the RAF from an early age – he was rejected twice as a result of his lack of height, before eventually being accepted as an apprentice in 1923 and qualifying as a pilot officer in 1928.

Whittle wrote a thesis as a cadet arguing that planes needed to fly at high altitudes, where air resistance is much lower, in order to achieve long ranges and high speeds (his professor awarded him full marks, stating “I couldn’t quite follow everything you have written, Whittle. But I can’t find anything wrong with it”). Piston engines and propellers were unsuitable for this purpose, so he concluded that you would need rocket propulsion or gas turbines driving propellers (the idea of jet propulsion hadn’t entered his mind at this point).

Whittle was the son of a mechanic, and one of the few great inventors to be reared in a working-class background 

The idea was considered by many to be science-fiction, but Whittle’s calculations had proven it possible. He patented the idea after the Air Ministry turned him down, and began work on his idea. He secured financial backing and formed a company, Power Jets Ltd. The initial test engine didn’t achieve the desired results, and Whittle concluded that a complete rebuild was necessary – he didn’t have the necessary money, but protracted negotiations with the Air Ministry meant the project could go ahead. By April 1941, the engine was ready for tests, and the first flight was made on 15 May. By October, the USA heard about the project and asked for details – Whittle shared his knowledge, and the two countries soon had working jet planes.

Whittle’s jet engine was really well-received, especially in America. He retired from the RAF in 1948 with the rank of air commodore, and he was knighted the same year. He went on to work in America shortly after, becoming a research professor at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis until his death in 1996.

Nowadays, many of us take jet travel for granted – it is hard to understate how many billions of lives were changed because of Whittle’s invention, and yet he remained warm and down-to-earth for his entire life. Sure, Whittle was an undisputed genius (as is evident in the way he revolutionised a great traditional industry in his youth), but his story is also one of drive, and the constant pursuit of excellence.

Whittle’s jet engine was really well-received, especially in America

The late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said of Whittle that “his life and work are an object lesson on the creativity and inspiration of British engineering at its best. He has always retained the great gift of original thought and exposition.” Whittle’s genius still touches the life of millions of people every single day, and his tenacity is inspirational to us all – he would be an excellent choice for the new £50.

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