Wallace Rupert Turnbull - Aeronautical Pioneer and Inventor

Wallace Rupert Turnbull (1870 - 1954) is best known as the inventor of the first reliable variable pitch propeller which revolutionized air travel by allowing greater flight control, especially for take off and landing, and increased engine and fuel efficiency. Less recognized are his findings on the stability of aircraft, important research into propeller behaviour and the science of aerodynamics.

Any one of these would have assured Turnbull of a permanent place in the history of aviation. Yet, outside of his home community of Rothsay, N.B. or, perhaps, neighbouring Saint John, he is not a household name - except to many aviation historians around the world. Turnbull did not make a pioneering flight nor was he a test pilot or a war ace. In fact, he never flew a plane!

His was a world of pure and applied research, countless experiments, many publications and several attempts to achieve a satisfactory performance from his variable pitch propellor. When this was accomplished in 1927 during flight tests at Camp Borden, Ontario, the Canadian government promptly declined to have anything to do with its marketing. Undeterred, Turnbull contracted with the Curtiss Wright Corporation of the United States for its commercial manufacture.

Later, he refined the propellor further, taking out his last patent in 1932.ln 1940, the U.S. government ordered a large quantity of fighter aircraft from Curtiss Wright equipped with Turnbull’s electrically controlled propellers and the inventor received a royalty for every one of them. Certainly, this was a welcome reward for years of work but Turnbull’s entrepreneurship was based more on altruism than financial gain - better performance and safety in the skies, especially for commercial aviation.

His accomplishments are more remarkable in view of the resources available to him. He worked alone, depending upon his library in addition to correspondence and visits with other aviation pioneers for information and interchange. The experimental equipment, including Canada’s first wind tunnel in 1905-06 was made and tested in a series of workshops on his property. These were not university settings with research assistants and state of the art devices.

Rather, it was the tradition of the lone scientist and inventor, the Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, making important things happen by their ingenuity, work ethic and perseverance.

New Brunswick Museum, Saint John, N.B.
1870 - 1954
Rothesay, New Brunswick, CANADA
© 2008, New Brunswick Museum, Saint John, N.B. All Rights Reserved.

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