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Air Born: How A Secret World War I Project Launched GE's Aviation Business

Tomas Kellner
November 14, 2018

Last weekend, the world remembered 100 years since the end of World War I, a conflict that changed the map of Europe and left an estimated 17 million people dead. But amid its devastation and disruption, the war also accelerated the rise of new industries like aviation.

The war was the first large military conflict that involved planes. In November 1917 — seven months after the U.S. entered the war alongside the U.K., France and Russia — GE President E.W. Rice received a note from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA. The U.S. government wanted to develop its own version of a turbosupercharger, a mechanical device designed to fill the cylinders of a piston engine with more air than it would typically ingest, and boost the performance of warplanes powered by the Liberty aircraft engine, which was central to America’s air combat effort.

The Liberty engine was rated 350 horsepower at sea level. But the problem was that its output dropped by half when it started sucking in thinner air at high altitudes, just like a climber struggling to catch their breath on a mountain peak. As a result, the planes equipped with the engine flew slower and were less nimble above 15,000 feet.

The military believed that supercharging the engine could fix the problem. Swiss engineer Alfred Buchi patented the turbosupercharger in 1910, but the device failed during flight testing in France. Although GE was at the time primarily focused on building turbines and other equipment for power plants, the government hoped to enlist the company’s help in developing the device for use by the American military. The task to lead the secret project fell to a GE gas turbine engineer named Sanford Moss.

 width= Above: A Le Pere biplane with a GE supercharger after making a record altitude flight. Moss is second from the left. Top: Lieut. John A. Macready dressed for an altitude flight in the supercharged Le Pere plane. At hight altitudes, pilots had to fight severe cold as well as a lack of oxygen. (Click to enlarge.) Images credit: Museum of Innovations and Science Schenectady.

Moss built a turbosupercharger that used the hot exhaust coming from the aircraft engine to spin a radial turbine of his design and squeeze the air entering the engine, making it as dense as air close to the ground and helping the plane recover its lost power.

In 1918, when he tested the device at 14,000 feet on top of Pikes Peak in Colorado, the engine delivered 352 horsepower, performing as it would close to the ground. This was also the moment GE entered the aviation business.

The first plane powered by a turbosupercharged Liberty engine was a Le Pere biplane. It took off for the first time on July 12, 1919, and later scored a record of reaching 137 mph at 18,400 feet, compared with 90 mph without a supercharger. Planes equipped with Moss’ design went on to set several world altitude records.

But WWI wasn’t the last time Moss’ engineering prowess helped fight the enemy. In 1937, as Hitler’s power was growing, GE received a large order from the Army Air Corps to build turbosuperchargers for Boeing B-17 and Consolidated B-24 bombers, P-38 fighter planes, Republic P-47 Thunderbolts and other planes. GE opened a dedicated supercharger department in Lynn, Massachusetts. In 1939, Moss even proposed to build one of the first turboprop engines. In 1976, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

 width= In 1918, when Moss tested the device at 14,000 feet on top of Pikes Peak in Colorado, the engine delivered 352 horsepower, performing as it would close to the ground. This was also the moment GE entered the aviation business. . Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady.

GE’s aviation business was just getting started. In 1941, the U.S. government asked GE to bring into production one of the first jet engines, developed in England by Sir Frank Whittle. (He was knighted for his feat.) A group of GE engineers called the Hush-Hush Boys designed new parts for the engine, redesigned others, tested the engine and delivered a top-secret working prototype called I-A. On Oct. 1, 1942, the first American jet plane, the Bell XP-59A, took off from Lake Muroc in California for a short flight. The jet age in the U.S. had begun.

Today, GE Aviation, which recorded $27 billion in revenue in 2017, is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of aircraft engines for passenger and military jets, as well as helicopters and turboprop engines. There are some 25,000 jet engines built by GE and CFM International, a 50-50 joint venture between GE Aviation and Safran Aircraft Engines, in service. As a result, an aircraft powered by GE or CFM engines takes flight every 2 seconds.

 width= The GE9X is the world's largest jet engine. GE Aviation engineers designed it for Boeing's next-generation 777X wide-body passenger jets. Image credit: GE Aviation.

Another version of this story previously appeared in GE Reports.

General Relativity

Physics Rocks! Gravity Waves Vindicate Einstein's Theory

Tomas Kellner
February 12, 2016
Scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) eavesdropping on two colliding black holes half a universe away heard enough to confirm the existence of gravitational waves. These ripples in spacetime were predicted by Albert Einstein in 1915, but never previously observed.
The sound, which science writer Dennis Overbye described as a "simple chirp, which rose to the note of middle C before abruptly stopping," vindicates Einstein's theory of general relativity: 10 equations published a century ago that rocked the foundations of physics and changed how we view the universe.

The equations upended our intuitive understanding of space and time and redrew the Cosmos as a funhouse where two parallel lines can intersect and time can run at different speeds. “Einstein’s theory, and the intervening century of experimentation, provided a way to satisfy one of the most fundamental yearnings: to understand what is out there in the universe, how it all began and humanity’s place in it,” The Economist wrote on the anniversary.

But it wasn’t always obvious that he would sit in the pantheon of great geniuses. When Einstein visited GE in 1921, the GE-produced newspaper Schenectady Works News described him as the “noted German scientist who has the world guessing with his theory of relativity.” Even when Einstein received his Nobel Prize in physics later the same year, it wasn’t for relativity but for explaining the photoelectric effect.

121442 Steinmetz and Einstein uncropped[1] Einstein outside the RCA broadcast center in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Einstein and Steinmetz (in white suit) stand in the center. GE's Irving Langmuir is third to the right from Steinmetz. In 1932, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work that led to early coronary artery imaging. All images credit: Museum of Innovation and Science in SchenectadyEinstein spent much of his time exploring GE technology in the company of Charles Steinmetz, a fellow German engineer and scientist who ran GE research and helped build the grid and electrify America. (Like lines in curved spacetime, their work eventually converged. Today, GE's grid management business is using Einstein's relativity to digitize and synchronize power distribution and prevent outages.)

Einstein, Steinmetz and their entourage of more than a dozen scientists and executives then toured a high-power transoceanic radio station in New Brunswick, New Jersey. It was operated by the Radio Corporation of America, which was co-founded by GE and featured a high-frequency alternator designed by GE engineer Ernst Alexanderson in 1918.

The machine was so powerful that the U.S. military took charge of it during World War I. American commanders used it to communicate with their allies and the American Expeditionary Forces in France. “It became a vital national security tool, especially after failures in the transatlantic cables,” says Chris Hunter, a historian at the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady.

Einstein reportedly “expressed great surprise and interest at the high perfection" of American radio development. “To demonstrate the efficiency of radio communication, Prof. Einstein was asked to send a message to the station at Nauen, Germany,” the Works News wrote. “He did and in exactly six minutes received the following reply: Many thanks and reciprocations. Most hearty greetings to the great German scientist. Officer in charge POZ.”

The moment endures in a classic photograph of the scientists, including Einstein, Steinmetz and GE researcher and Nobel Prize winner Irving Langmuir, standing in front of the RCA radio station.

Alexanderson High Frequency Alternator, New Brunswick, New Jersey Wireless Station, being inspected by military. The alernators developed by General Electric engineer Ernst Alexanderson were valuable communication tools during WOrld War I. The Alexanderson high frequency alternator at the New Brunswick radio station during military inspection. The machine,  developed by GE engineer Ernst Alexanderson, was a valuable communication tool during World War I. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

General Electric engineer Charles Steinmetz works in the laboratory building at his Wendell Avenue home in Schenectady. GE engineer Charles Steinmetz at his Wendell Av. home laboratory in Schenectady, New York. When he died suddenly in 1923, then Secretary of Commerce and future U.S. President Herbert Hoover wrote that "his mathematical reasoning broke the path for many of the advances in electrical engineering in recent years and solved problems that were vital to the progress of the industry." Steinmetz also was the first person to create artificial lightning. A friend described the creative freedom Steinmetz enjoyed at GE to the writer of the engineer's New York Times obituary: "He was allowed to try to generate electricity out of the square root of minus one." Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

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