What’s a propeller?

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The propeller’s origins date back to the Venetian gondola’s J-stroke movement, with Archimedes inventing the screw propeller. Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches provided the first gasoline-powered screw propeller, and the Wright brothers invented the first airplane propellers. Today, engineers are continually improving propellers for faster and smoother movement.

A propeller is a type of fan that rotates by transforming the movement of rotation into thrust. When a propeller spins, the force created by that rotation is converted to pressure that is ultimately used to propel the fan-shaped apparatus. While propellers may seem like a modern invention, the theoretical origins of the propeller date back to the mid-20th century with the creation of the Venetian gondola.

The idea behind the modern propeller came from a specific move Venetian gondoliers make called the J-stroke. Gondoliers in Venice have been using a J-stroke paddle movement for centuries. This stroke involves paddling a canoe with a regular stroke, then turning the canoe at the last moment; the stroke of the paddle resembles the letter “J” The J-stroke motion allows a gondolier to prevent a gondola from turning to the side. By utilizing the pressure created from a J-stroke, gondolas can be moved quickly and safely down any channel.

The Greek physicist, mathematician, inventor, and astronomer, Archimedes, is credited with inventing the first type of propeller known as a screw propeller. Archimedes reportedly used a large screw to lift water while inside a boat. He used this method of rescue and watering so often that the people around him called the device the “Archimedes Screw.”

Many years later, Leonardo da Vinci created a sketch of a helicopter that included a propeller. Although da Vinci never built his helicopter, his sketches provided a schematic for the first gasoline-powered screw propeller. Motor boat propellers can be attributed to Frederick Lanchester, who was the first person to attach a propeller to a boat. Later, in 1776, David Bushnell used Lanchester’s model to power his submarine. Soon after, navies around the world adopted motorboat propellers instead of oars.

In aviation, the Wright brothers are credited with inventing the first airplane propellers, although Alberto Santos Dumont had tried to fly an airplane using propellers before the Wright brothers. Dumont’s attempt was a failure, although the Wright brothers were able to follow the signals from their aviation experiments.

Standard aircraft and ship propellers are often taken for granted today, although propellers have come a long way since the original Achimedes screw. Engineers around the world are continually looking for ways to improve propellers in the hope that these devices will become smoother, more precise, and faster. Without propellers, most planes and boats couldn’t move at the speeds they do today.

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