“Paul Rever’s hose”: Charlie Lawrance and his engine that changed aviation

It is probable that you’ve never heard of Charles Lanier Lawrance, and that’s a shame.

You know a lot about Wilbur and Orville Wright, of course, and you’re beginning to know about Charles Taylor, who was their mechanic and engine builder, and thus the world’s first A&P. You know somewhat less about Glenn Curtiss than about the Wrights, which is another shame, but you probably are aware that Curtiss designed and built the famous Liberty and OX-5 engines.

That said, I have two questions for you: Who invented the radial engine; and why should you care?

Advanced aircraft engines faced a discouraging future after the World War I Armistice, which turned loose thousands of liquid-cooled Liberty and OX-5 engines at prices ever lower. Curtiss developed larger liquid-cooled engines, as did Packard, whose high-horsepower behemoths achieved more success in boats than airplanes, eventually becoming the great PT Boat engine of World War II, but the new engines found little market.

The Liberty was difficult to install without blocking the pilot’s vision. Curtiss and his engineers started out designing automobile engines so, used to the need for road clearance, they put the crankshaft as low as possible. In an airplane, engine parts above the shaft line impair the forward view and, to accommodate the Liberty, the whole airplane had to be raised just to provide propeller clearance. Turning such engines upside down, with the crankshaft on top, was the obvious answer and the best-known example is the Fairchild Ranger series.

Still, liquid cooling made for heavy engines and frequent failures. Radiators came apart; porous engine castings, lines, hoses and gaskets leaked. Failure rates were of great concern, particularly to the Navy, doing a lot of overwater flying.

Charlie Lawrance designed and perfected one of the most important developments in aviation history, in answer to the many problems of liquid cooling. His was the engine that conquered the world, and its first successful iteration was the great Wright Whirlwind nine-cylinder, 200 horsepower radial. Lawrance has received very little credit for his creation, although a subsequent Whirlwind pounded away faithfully for 33 hours without a miss, mounted on Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis,” for 3,600 miles across the cold, uninviting Atlantic Ocean.

At a Lindbergh celebration years later, someone commented on Lawrance’s lack of recognition. His answer is a classic of modesty: “Who remembers the name of Paul Revere’s horse?”

Nevertheless, in 1927 the Collier Trophy was awarded not to Lindbergh or to Ryan, but to Lawrance, who made the feat possible. Long-distance flights by Admiral Byrd, Amelia Earhart and Clarence Chamberlain all were made with his J-5 Whirlwind.

As a student at Groton, Lawrance neglected his language classes in favor of mathematics and started building an automobile. As a Yale freshman in 1901, he and a classmate completed the car and drove it to visit a friend at Harvard. It was only the second automobile ever seen in sophisticated Cambridge, Massachusetts.

After graduating from Yale, Lawrance immersed himself in engine research and experimentation, studying for a year in France. There he met Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, better known for his tower than for his significant contributions to aviation. Lawrance presented to Eiffel a design for a high-lift wing section which later was used on many Allied and German aircraft during World War I. It is known to this day as Eiffel No. 32. He also designed the Lawrance-Moulton V-8 racecar engine while there.

During the First World War, Lawrance joined the Navy and attacked the problem of reducing aircraft engine weight. There, he began the design of two small, air-cooled aircraft engines: his two-cylinder, single ignition, 28-hp A-3 was built in 1916; the two-cylinder, 40-hp N-2 with dual ignition was started in 1917 but was dropped in favor of the three-cylinder radial that led to the J-1 nine-cylinder radial in 1921. The J-1 produced as much horsepower as the heavier, liquid-cooled Wright Model E and was to be the basic pattern for all radial engines to come.

After the war he formed the Lawrance Aero Engine Corp., where he continued working on the nine-cylinder radial. By that time, the Wright Aeronautical Corp. – later Curtiss-Wright – foresaw the collapse of the water-cooled engine market and, in 1923, bought out the Lawrance firm, acquiring the founder with it. Soon afterward, the Whirlwind series was born, starting what would be Wright’s principal business for the next 40 years.

Lawrance had his mechanical design right but not his cylinder head cooling. Fortuitously, Samuel D. Heron, the world’s leading expert in the design of air-cooled cylinders, was consulting at Wright Field. Lawrance hired him. Heron redesigned Lawrance’s cylinder head, producing the J-5, better known as the Whirlwind. Heron’s fin configuration made the engine a jewel and Wright made a fortune on the Whirlwind. It was used to power several single-engine passenger planes and new airliners entering production, such as the Ford Trimotor and Fokker F.VIIa. Wright also won big contracts from the Navy and the Army Air Service.

As vice president of Curtiss-Wright, Lawrance was happiest when he could work with engineering drawings, fuss with engines and get his hands dirty. Eventually he gave himself an excuse for just such indulgence by forming the Lawrance Engineering & Research Corp. with himself as president and chief engineer. The company was, he said, “undertaken in order to provide a laboratory in which scientific research may go forward in that leisurely atmosphere so necessary to sound progress. The company will be unlimited in its scope in aeronautics…interested both in engines for aircraft and in aircraft themselves.”

What engineer wouldn’t envy him!

Lawrance died in 1950 at the untimely age of 68.

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