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Wright Whirlwind engine

The single-row Whirlwind models of five, seven, and nine cylinders were under development for more than 16 years.

Wright Aeronautical Company

Wright Aeronautical can trace its ancestry back to Wilbur and Orville Wright. In 1909, a group of prominent New York businessmen and bankers offered support for a company to manufacture and sell Wright aircraft. On November 22, 1909, the Wright Company was incorporated in the state of New York. Wilbur Wright was president.

While the brothers spent much of their time pursuing their patent suit against Glenn Curtiss and others, the Wright Company concentrated on building small numbers of aircraft, developing new models, and running a training school for military and civilian flyers. When Wilbur died in 1912, Orville took over as president of the company. But he never felt as comfortable in the top job as his brother had, and the company fell behind its competitors. When the United States banned flying instruction on Wright pusher-type aircraft and began shifting to Curtiss and Martin tractor designs, the Wright Company had no tractor design to offer.

In 1915, Orville bought back the shares of the company from its stockholders and sold the entire company to a new group of New York investors. The pusher aircraft that this group developed could not compete with Curtiss and Martin trainers, and they began considering an alternative product—aircraft engines.

World War I meant that there would be a steady need for engines. To supply them, the investors bought an interest in the Simplex Automobile Company. After a trip to France to study engines, they decided to build the Hispano-Suiza engine in the United States under license from the French government. Wright received a contract to build 450 "Hissos," as they were popularly called.

The company directors also approached Glenn Martin, a producer of aircraft, about a merger with his company. Martin agreed, and the Wright-Martin Aircraft Corporation was formed in September 1916. When the United States entered the war in 1917, Wright-Martin was the only American company that was working on a usable airplane engine. The company produced more than 5,000 engines during the war. Martin, however, wanted to build airplanes and resigned from the company to establish his own aircraft company once more.

During this time, two men had joined the company. Richard Hoyt helped arrange financing to expand Wright-Martin's wartime production. Guy Vaughan was an experienced automobile engineer who helped increase the company's rate of production from about 10 engines per month to 500 engines per month.

After the war, most of the companies that had been producing aircraft engines returned to their former product—automobiles. Only three companies continued producing aero engines: Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Corporation, the Packard Motor Car Company, and Wright-Martin. In October 1919, Wright-Martin was dissolved and the company reorganized as Wright Aeronautical. A new group of senior engineers joined the company, and Frederick Renstschler, an engineer who had been involved in producing the Hispano-Suiza engine, became vice president and general manager. In 1921, he became president of the company.

Engine manufacturing proved to be more stable than aircraft manufacturing, and the company's fortunes grew during the next four years as it received steady business from the military. Most U.S. fighter planes in the first few years after the war used Wright-built Hispano-Suiza engines, which soon became known as Wright engines. The company also supplied larger liquid-cooled engines to the Navy for its torpedo planes and long-range patrol planes.

But the switch to air-cooled engines was on its way. In 1921, a young engineer Charles Lawrance, had delivered an experimental air-cooled radial engine, the J-1, to the Navy that produced as much horsepower as the heavier liquid-cooled Wright Model E. The Navy ordered 50 J-1s, but the Lawrance Aero Engine Company was too small to produce them. The Navy asked both Wright and Curtiss to produce the new radial engines but neither was interested. Wright was doing well with its Model E and saw no reason to change. But the Navy told Wright that unless Wright started to produce the J-1, it would stop buying the Wright Model E. Wright responded by merging the Lawrance company into Wright and bringing Charles Lawrance to Wright to provide radial-engine expertise

At Wright, Lawrance continued improving his engines. The also hired a talented English engineer, Samuel Heron, who had been working for the U.S. Army Air Service. He was the world's leading expert in the design of air-cooled cylinders for radial engines. During 1925, he redesigned the basic Lawrance engine, producing the J-5, better known as the Whirlwind. The Whirlwind powered Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis in its famous transatlantic flight.

The Whirlwind came at a time when American aviation was beginning to recover from its post-war slump, and Wright made a fortune on the Whirlwind. It was used to power several single-engine passenger planes and in the new airliners that were just entering production such as the Ford 4-AT Trimotor and the Fokker F.VIIa. Wright also won two big contracts from the Navy and the Army Air Service. Engine production doubled.

A drawback to the Whirlwind was its lack of power, and the newer aircraft that were emerging demanded greater power. Wright engineer Frederick Renstschler wanted the company to invest more money in developing more powerful radial engines. When he felt he wasn't getting enough support from Wright, he left the company, taking two talented engineers with him. He convinced the Navy to give him some business and persuaded the Pratt & Whitney Company, a machine tool manufacturer in Hartford, Connecticut, to invest in his new venture. Renstschler incorporated the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company in July 1925. Six months later, his new company produced the successful Wasp engine.

Even with the new competition, Wright continued to sell Whirlwinds at a good pace to both commercial operators and the military. Wright improved the Whirlwind more, building a series of engines that offered more power and had interchangeable parts. In 1927, the company introduced the Cyclone, which won orders from the military and commercial aircraft companies. During 1928, Wright produced a total of 1,644 engines, more than doubling the prior year's production.

Meanwhile, Wright and Curtiss had been considering a merger for some time. During the spring of 1929, Hoyt and Clement Keys, president of Curtiss, became more serious in their discussions. On June 27, 1929, the directors of both companies announced that a new company, the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, would soon be formed. Hoyt and Keys would share top management roles.

The creation of Curtiss-Wright in August 1929 created the largest aviation holding company in the country, with assets of more than $75 million. The new corporation would offer a full line of aircraft and engines for both the military and commercial markets. Going into the "Golden Age of Aviation," the future looked bright.

—Judy Rumerman


Eltscher, Louis R. and Young, Edward M. Curtiss-Wright – Greatness and Decline. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.

Heron, S.C. History of the Aircraft Piston Engine: A Brief Outline. Detroit, Mich.: Ethyl Corporation, 1961.

Pattillo, Donald M. Pushing the Envelope: The American Aircraft Industry. Ann Arbor, Mich.: The University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Wraga, William. "Curtiss-Wright Corporation: A Brief History." Curtiss-Wright Corporation. http://www.curtisswright.com/history/1941-1945.asp.

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International Technology Education Association

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Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.

International Technology Education Association

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Students will develop an understanding of the role of experimentation and research and development in problem solving.