Due largely to the persistent advocacy of United Technologies Corporation Aerospace Systems Project Engineer Marty Ross, a 1986 alumnus of our Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) has designated Pratt & Whitney's R-1340 Wasp A engine as an historic engineering landmark, recognizing its technical significance in engineering and aviation.
According to the Pratt & Whitney YouTube video, Ross was fascinated with the development of the Wasp air-cooled engine. “So much so that Marty has been working on getting the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, or ASME, to designate the R1340 as an engineering landmark,” the video said. Now he has succeeded.
The Pratt & Whitney press release related that the Wasp engine joins only 260 engineering innovations from around the world selected by ASME as historic landmarks. The Wasp engine was the first engine designed and built by Pratt & Whitney after its founding in 1925. The 1340 cubic-inch, radial, air-cooled engine achieved levels of performance unheard of in its day. The original Wasp engine spawned a family of engines: Twin Wasp, Wasp Junior, Double Wasp, and Wasp Major, powering dozens of aircraft. In World War II alone Pratt & Whitney and its licensees built more than 363,000 engines providing nearly 609,000,000 horsepower, about half the power required by the American air forces.
“When we look at this as engineers,” Ross said about the Wasp, “they raised the bar, they reset the bar.”
While lobbying ASME to make the historic designation of the Wasp, Ross worked with colleague Craig McBurney on researching the finer points of the company’s first dependable engine.
As Ross noted, “George Mead designed the crank cases so that they were identical halves, a great thought because they were thinking about manufacurability early on, and a more manufactuable part is a more reliable part.”
The Pratt & Whitney press release explained that the original Wasp engine was designed to meet a Navy requirement for a powerful, light weight, 400-horsepower engine for planes that would equip its then recently-launched aircraft carriers, U.S.S. Lexington and U.S.S. Saratoga.
The Pratt & Whitney team of about 20 people set to work, and by Christmas Eve of 1925 the first Wasp engine was completed. At the time it was thought that the red line for a radial engine was about 1800 rpm. The Wasp engine could reach 1900 rpm in normal operation and 2400 rpm in a dive.
According to Pratt & Whitney, its founder Frederick Rentschler was not a man given to hyperbole, but his pride was evident as years later in his memoir he recalled that day. "It ran as clean as a hound's tooth and was just the thoroughbred that it looked. Those characteristics had never been previously achieved in an aviation engine." Rentschler said that at the time there were "dozens and dozens of suggestions" for naming the engine. "Finally we began gravitating toward 'Bees' as a general designation for our engine types and, according to my best recollection, my wife (Faye) suggested Wasp for the name of our first product."
Ross concluded that “I think what I really like about this story is the Wasp really made civil aviation possible. Because of the reliability of the engine, Boeing designed the model 247 around the Wasp. People really need to know that story.”
Pratt & Whitney and ASME will celebrate the historical landmark designation later this spring at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. A plaque will be placed next to one of the first Wasp A development engines, on display at the museum. (February 2016)