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Unknown to each other, and as their nations remained deadlocked in the grip of World War II, two enterprising engineers (Whittle in England, von Ohain in Germany) secretly raced to develop the technology that could tip the balance of the struggle. Their work, the turbojet engine, was completed too late to affect the outcome of the war, but it arrived in time to revolutionize the postwar world of transportation, medicine, and defense.
Whittle and von Ohain, whose almost simultaneous development of the jet engine, stands as one of history's most uncanny examples of independent invention, became good friends who freely credited each other for the breakthroughs that led to the jet engine.
"To imagine today's world without the jet engine is almost impossible, and to imagine the jet engine without Whittle and von Ohain certainly is," said Robert M. White, former president of the NAE. "Few engineering achievements in history can compare to the work of these two men," White added.
Whittle's and von Ohain's work has helped to shrink the world and bring its inhabitants closer together. Today jet cargo transport makes fresh food available around the world and prevents spoilage, and makes rapid delivery of mail a reality. The jet engine has made possible emergency airlifts of relief workers, food, and medicine to victims of natural disasters and other calamities. Jet aircraft allow doctors to reach critically ill patients and make possible the rapid shipment of human organs for transplant operations. High-flying jet aircraft monitor potentially dangerous weather patterns and obtain advance warning of military buildups -- and jet aircraft are the backbone of the Air Force. Jet engines also have applications in marine propulsion and electric power generation.
In addition, Whittle's and von Ohain's breakthrough laid the foundation for a global industry. Commercial jet aircraft connect thousands of points on every continent. In 1989, the world's commercial airlines carried more than one billion passengers -- 416 million in the U.S. alone. Worldwide, the jet aircraft industry employs hundreds of thousands of people (700,000 in the United States) and accounts for billions of dollars in trade.
Von Ohain expressed hope that the Draper Prize will inspire future generations of engineers. "It is wonderful that the National Academy of Engineering has established this great prize in memory of Charles Stark Draper," he said. "It does for engineering what the Nobel Prizes do for outstanding scientific achievements. I am pleased that my early achievements in jet propulsion have enabled me to participate in later advances in the field -- and especially to help young engineers to understand jet propulsion and its future possibilities."
"I owe much to two things," said Whittle. "Firstly, the first class engineering training I received in the Royal Air Force -- three years as an aircraft apprentice, two years as a flight cadet, and then, after four years of flying duties, two years at what is now the Officers' School of Engineering and two years taking the Mechanical Sciences Tripos at Cambridge University. Secondly, the success of my work owes much to the excellent team I was able to recruit."