Born in Coventry, the son of a factory foreman, at 16 Frank Whittle joined the RAF as an aircraft apprentice. His developing talents were recognised, and three years later he was selected for officer and pilot training. While training at Cranwell, he had the first germ of the idea of jet propulsion. He developed the concept sufficiently over the next few years to obtain a patent in 1932, but the Air Ministry was not interested in taking up the idea. Nevertheless, the RAF did think it worthwhile to send Flight Lieutenant Whittle to study Engineering at Cambridge as a mature student.

In 1934 he entered Peterhouse, but as he had married in 1930, lived with his family in Harston Road, Trumpington. He completed a three year Mechanical Science Tripos degree in only two years, gaining a first. In the Engineering Department he found more encouragement for the development of a jet engine, from his tutor and from Melvill Jones the Head of Aeronautical Engineering. He also met two former RAF officers, R.D. Williams and J.C.B. Tinling who were enthusiastic and with their cooperation formed a company called Power Jets, with the aim of taking his idea for the development of jet engines further. The RAF agreed to let Frank remain at Cambridge for a further post graduate year, to continue working on his idea.

Power Jets Ltd was set up in 1936 by Whittle and his colleagues in a factory in Rugby. There were many difficulties, including turbine blade failure, which was overcome by the development of a high nickel alloy by Mond Nickel, called Nimonic 60. Testing of the prototype engines (1937-41) was dominated by problems with combustion. Sir William Hawthorne, who was later to become the Head of the Engineering Department at Cambridge, helped to solve these. In 1939 the Air Ministry's Director of Scientific Research finally acknowledged that Whittle's ideas were feasible. Power Jets was awarded a contract to develop a flight engine, the W1. The first of Whittle's test jet engines took to the skies on 15 May 1941, powering an aircraft that had been specifically designed for the purpose: the Gloster E28/39.

This aircraft was conceived and built in only 15 months. Take-off for the test flight, with pilot Gerry Sayer at the controls, took place at RAF Cranwell at 7.45pm, and lasted 17 min, having achieved speeds of over 500mph. The plane used can now be seen at the Science Museum, where it has been on display since 1946. A second aircraft powered using the same type of engine was demonstrated to Winston Churchill on 17 April, 1943.

After the war Power Jets was nationalised and responsibility for development of the jet engine was passed to Rolls Royce, Armstrong Siddeley and American manufacturers.
Frank Whittle was invalided out of the RAF in 1948 and in the same year knighted for his achievements.

He thought of his time at Cambridge with great affection and donated all of his papers to the Churchill Archives Centre shortly before he died in 1996.

The jet engine has gone on, not only to revolutionise air travel, but also to play an important part in gas turbines for the propulsion of ships. The principles of the jet engine are also used in the electricity generation industry. The Whittle Laboratory, on the West Cambridge site, was named after Sir Frank in 1972 and is dedicated to the study of the aerodynamics of turbines.

The Engineering Department has grown and flourished, and now has around 1100 undergraduates and 600 post-graduate students and researchers. In 2001 the Sir Arthur Marshall Institute for Aeronautics (SAMIA) was formed, as a result of a close collaboration between the University of Cambridge Engineering Department and Marshall Aerospace. Its aim is to maintain the University Department at the forefront of aerospace engineering, including safety, noise minimisation, the economy, the environment and technological advance. SAMIA is a virtual institute within the Engineering Department at Cambridge, headed by the Francis Mond Professor of Aeronautical Engineering.
Ian Whittle said: "My father said inventing the jet engine was easy. Making it work was the difficult bit!"