The Jet Engine: No Invention of the Past 85 Years Had a Greater Impact on the World

From top, left to right: Adrienne Grunwald; Martin Lebetsamer; Katie Orlinsky; Alexander Künzle; Teru Kuwayama; Yaeko Noriki; Balazs Gardi; John Francis Peters; Simon Abud; Amanda C. Long; Eric Alexandre; Scott Mainwaring; Dan Bello; Jake Stangel; Onuralp Özdemir; Andrey Strelchuk; Lauren Kenney; Julia Riley; Derek Shank; Chris Roberson; Brian Finke; Jake Stangel; Dan Bello; Kenneth Lim

1958 Pan Am inaugurates daily Boeing 707 service across the Atlantic.

Something about the human spirit compels us to go faster and farther. That’s why Howard Hughes spent 1935 risking his life flying experimental planes to break speed barriers and why he took even graver risks in 1938 to fly around the world in record time. Hughes had everything to lose—fame, fortune, beautiful girlfriends, some might say his mind—and yet he needed to know what his machines could do.

In the decades that followed, crisscrossing the globe turned from a daredevil feat into a regular occurrence. The jet engine had made its way out of the labs and into daily life. These new engines were far more powerful than propellers and allowed airplanes to travel faster and farther and—crucially—to do so reliably. Hughes, Pan Am’s Juan Trippe, and others were quick to seize on the opportunity and built airline empires. The military began ordering fighter jets by the tens of thousands, and companies such as General Electric rushed to meet the demand.

By the 1960s this one invention had shrunk the world. For the first time the entire surface of the planet was reachable—or at least viewable—and its wonders opened up. Food, art, leisure, commerce, and relationships were redefined. Life became richer and more hectic. Jet travel created true global citizens while also making it easier to conduct war and spread disease.

And yet for all the changes the jet engine brought about, it’s remarkable how static the technology has become. Militaries have developed engines that can break the speed of sound, but the public has benefited little from such work. The Concorde came and went. Boeing spent more than $32 billion to build the 787, which is 20 percent more fuel-efficient than its predecessor but not much faster. GE is filling its engines with sensors and software in the hope of wringing another percentage point of performance here and there. Figures such as Hughes and Trippe have been replaced by low-cost airline execs like Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary, who test the limits of what humans will tolerate rather than what humans can achieve. Some of this is physics, but surely some of it is complacency, too.

The good news is that there are still people pushing boundaries. Some companies are looking at ways to revive Concorde-type jets and upgrade them with see-through cabins. Elon Musk, the SpaceX and Tesla Motors chief executive officer, wants to build an all-electric supersonic plane that can take off and land vertically. This would allow cities to locate their airports more centrally. Musk has shared his concept with Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and the trio has even talked about one-upping the idea to create passenger craft that could reach space, shaving hours off flight times. Here’s hoping there’s always a young Howard Hughes somewhere willing to give such madness a try.

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