Airplane Propellers as a Nearly Perfect Version One

Posted on Apr 13, 2014  in Nerdery  | No Comments

I rode in a small pond hopper this morning. The gigantic propellers looked beautiful against the deep blue morning sky.

I recently wrote about the strange comfort I find in ships and the fact that on a basic level they’ve remained largely the same for thousands of years. Airplane propellers are similar.

The propeller as a mechanical device has been used in aquatic applications for a long time, beginning with Archimedes’ Screw (in the 3rd century A.D.) and being used to propel watercraft as early as the 1600s.

The aeronautic propeller, though, is a relatively young invention, pioneered in part by the Wright brothers at the beginning of the 20th century. Interestingly, their success didn’t come from drawing on knowledge about propellers for boats, but from the characteristics of the wings that they had already studied carefully.

Here’s the incredible thing: modern-day recreations of their original design have only achieved 5% more efficiency than the ones the Wright brothers built in the early 1900s. (Read the full story of the Wright Brother’s invention process.)

The inventors’ accuracy is certainly impressive considering the crude nature of their tools and resources (as compared with our modern machinery) and much more limited access to scientific information. Also, “the Wright brothers knew mathematics only as far as algebra and trigonometry. They made all of their calculations by hand.” Physics is physics and you don’t need a computer to produce precision, but the minimal difference in efficiency is still astounding.

There are certainly new and different types of propellers for airplanes that take advantage of more powerful engines, stronger materials and advances in our knowledge of physics and science. In a world that runs largely on updates, improvements and forward progress, though, it’s fascinating to encounter an object that was almost perfect at version one and to which modern science can only provide arguably negligible improvements.

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