Inventor of the Week Archive
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GERHARD NEUMANN (1917-1997)
Jet aircraft engine innovations
Gerhard Neumann was an international adventurer and American war hero, as well as one of the most renowned engineers in the history of aviation.
Neumann was born in 1917 in Frankfurt an der Oder, Germany. His childhood included studies in languages and science at school, and a more free-form education at play, revolving around kayaks, gliders, motorcycles and cars. After completing a mandatory 3-year apprenticeship with a Master engine mechanic, Neumann entered Germany's oldest technical college, Mittweida: here, Neumann learned that a hands-on technique is essential to every engineer.
Neumann's status as an engineering student saved him from compulsory service during Hitler's military buildup. Moreover, his mechanical talents earned him a ticket out of Germany: in May of 1939, he accepted a position with a Chinese company, as an advisor and instructor in the use of German military equipment.
Neumann arrived in Hong Kong to find that his employer contact had disappeared
without a trace. Worse yet, on September 1, Hitler invaded
Poland, touching off World War II---and making Neumann an
"enemy alien" in (then British) Hong Kong. But with some help
from a Pan Am vice president, Neumann avoided being shipped
to an internment camp. Instead, he flew to mainland China,
where he joined the Flying Tigers, an American volunteer contingent
of the Chinese Air Force. After the Japanese attacked Pearl
Harbor (December 7th, 1941, in the US), Neumann joined the
14th Air Force at the request of then Captain (later General)
Claire Lee Chennault.
Neumann's greatest engineering feat for the Flying Tigers was to assemble a functional Japanese Zero warplane from the parts of several damaged planes. This he did over three months, near enemy lines, without any power tools or even electric lights, and despite a combined attack of typhus and malaria. With the information gained by flying Neumann's Zero, US pilots improved their strategy and success rate in air combat.
By the end of the war in Europe (May 8, 1945) and the Pacific (August 15, 1945), Gerhard Neumann was a hero, with countless air raids and top-secret missions to his credit. He had even been sent to Washington, DC (1944), to report on classified material to General "Wild Bill" Donovan. There Neumann also met his future wife, Clarice, an attorney with the Justice Department.
In 1946, Neumann won his citizenship, thanks to a Naturalization Bill sponsored by General Donovan. He also married Clarice, and the next year they moved to China. But soon, the threatened Communist takeover of mainland China persuaded Neumann and his wife had to leave. Clarice suggested that they drive to Europe! True to form, Neumann built a working jeep from two broken ones, and the young couple made an adventure-filled, three-month, 10,000-mile journey overland to Palestine, then sailed to Europe and flew to America.
In 1948, Neumann began a 32-year career with General Electric, where he rose
to the rank of Vice President and Group Executive of the Aircraft
Engine Group. Among his milestone achievements for GE was
his development of the variable-stator jet engine. The stator
is the fixed axis of a jet engine, around which the rotors
spin to draw in air: by building adjustable vanes onto the
stator, Neumann allowed the jet to increase air pressure in
its compressor, for a great improvement in power and performance.
Neumann won the first of his eight patents and in time saw
his design adopted universally.
Neumann's engineering and leadership skills resulted in GE
teams' breaking several world records for flight speed and,
by the 1960s, capturing 85% of the world's jet engine business.
In the course of his career, Neumann was awarded the National
Aeronautic Association's Collier Trophy (1958) and Wright
Brothers Award (1993), NASA's Goddard Award (1970), and the
American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics'
Guggenheim Medal (1979); among his other honors, Neumann was
made a Chevalier (Knight) of the French National Legion of
Some years before his death last November due to leukemia, Neumann wrote his autobiography, entitled "Herman the German" (1984). There, he cited the discipline of his early training as his greatest asset. But Gerhard Neumann has also shown by his life how the spirit of adventure and the spirit of invention can combine for sensational success.