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How Special Collections archival holdings tell the story of our time

Jet proponent propelled invention with friends’ help when Brit government balked, BU collection shows

By David J. Craig

In 1930, 23-year-old British fighter pilot Frank Whittle filed a patent for what would be the world’s first jet engine. But the British Air Ministry scoffed at the idea, and for the next several years Whittle (1907–1996) scrounged for resources to develop it. Among the first to recognize the potential of Whittle’s design was Lancelot Law Whyte (1896–1972), a consultant on financing new inventions for a London investment firm. Whyte left his banking job in 1936 to help the pilot form Power Jets Limited, the small company that built and successfully tested the first jet engine, in Rugby, England, in October 1937.

Lancelot Law Whyte, 1896–1972. Photo courtesy of BU Special Collections
  Lancelot Law Whyte, 1896–1972. Photo courtesy of BU Special Collections

A letter to Whyte from the British scientist H. T. Tizard, dated June 22, 1937, is among hundreds of revealing documents at the BU Department of Special Collections, part of its L. L. Whyte papers. In the letter, Tizard, the chairman of the British Air Ministry’s Aeronautical Research Committee, replies to an inquiry from Whyte, expressing optimism about Whittle’s jet, which he predicts “is of great importance from the point of view of defence and commerce.”

But why would Whyte seek out Tizard’s opinion on the technology more than a year after forming Power Jets Ltd.? Did he have second thoughts? Or was Tizard merely slow to respond to Whyte’s inquiry? Tizard’s letter, after all, is dated just weeks before Whittle finally tested his jet.

A more likely explanation is that Whyte needed the letter to loosen some purse strings — at the time, Tizard was one of only a couple of high-ranking supporters of the Whittle project in the British government, which until 1939 concentrated on developing propeller-driven fighter planes. A nod from Tizard, with his St. James’ Court address stamped in the letter’s corner, could have emboldened investors. “My general opinion of the importance of this work leads me to express the hope that the money will be raised privately,” Tizard adds in the letter, “so that the knowledge that it is going on will not be widespread.”

Moreover, confidential memos written by Whyte in subsequent months detail how Power Jets desperately needed to double its capital in order to see the invention through, and how the British Air Ministry kicked in very little money before taking over the company after the war started and financing the first British jet plane flight in 1941. (Britain took the Whittle engine seriously only after the Germans flew a jet plane in 1939, using an engine created by Hans J. P. von Ohain, a German working independently of Whittle. Years later, Whittle, the acknowledged inventor of the jet engine, would insist that if Britain had been more supportive of his project it would have flown a jet long before Germany.)

And who is to say whether the Allies ever would have put a jet in the air if not for the tenacity of Whyte, who chaired Power Jets and kept it afloat until the government takeover by vigorously courting investments from friends? “How peculiarly English,” Whyte wrote in a 1948 essay in the magazine The Listener, “to neglect new ideas.”

For his part, the Edinburgh native considered it his ethical obligation to be a midwife between “the development of new intellectual conceptions” and their “appropriate fulfillment in the life of the community.” The Whyte papers at Special Collections — which contain correspondence with Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, notebooks, diaries, and news clippings — depict a man whose raison d’être was to champion genius.

Whyte devoted himself fully to writing and lecturing after the war, earning a reputation as a great humanist and philosopher of science. He authored several books, including The Next Development of Man (1944) and Critique of Physics (1931), which tended to focus on the history of ideas and what he considered the unifying themes in nature and science.

“Mankind must create a society emancipated from all those evils which it is within human power to banish,” he wrote in The Listener. “Receptivity to the new, in so far as it can benefit man, is an ethical ideal, a moral value every whit as important as charity, integrity, courage, and so on. What is more, it is an ideal which can be socially realized, in increasing degree. . . . We want a community which will encourage all discovery. The world imagines that we in Britain are traditionalists, sentimentally attached to past methods which are no longer effective. Well, what about it?”


15 November 2002
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