What is a Propeller?

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  • Written By: Harriette Halepis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2019
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A propeller is a type of fan that rotates by transforming rotation motion into thrust. When a propeller rotates, the force created by that rotation is then converted into pressure that is eventually used to propel the fan-shaped apparatus. While propellers may seem like a modern invention, the theoretical origins of the propeller can be traced back to the mid-20th century with the creation of the Venetian gondola.

The idea behind the modern propeller came from a specific movement that 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, and then turning the canoe at the last moment; the movement of the paddle resembles the letter "J." The J-stroke movement allows a gondolier to prevent a gondola from veering to the side. By using the pressure created from a J-stroke, gondolas are able to move swiftly and securely down any canal.

The Greek physicist, mathematician, inventor, and astronomer, Archimedes, is credited with inventing the first type of propeller known as a screw propeller. Reportedly, Archimedes used a large screw in order to lift water while inside of a boat. He used this method of bailing and irrigating so often that the people who surrounded him termed the device the "Archimedes' Screw."


Many years later, Leonardo da Vinci created a sketch of a helicopter that included a propeller. Even though da Vinci never built his helicopter, his sketches provided an outline for the first screw propeller that was powered by gasoline. 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. Shortly thereafter, navies around the globe adopted motor boat propellers in lieu of paddles.

Aviation-wise, the Wright brothers are frequently credited with invention of the first airplane propellers, though Alberto Santos Dumont had attempted to fly an airplane using propellers prior to the Wright brothers. Dumont's attempt was a failed one, though the Wright brothers were able to take cues from his aviation experiments.

Standard airplane and boat propellers are often taken for granted today, though propellers have come a long way from the original Achimedes' Screw. Engineers around the globe are continuously looking for ways to perfect propellers in the hopes that these devices can become smoother, more accurate, and faster. Without propellers, most airplanes and boats would not be able to move at the speeds that they move at today.


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