Prandtl—The Early Development of Finite-Wing Theory

On June 27, 1866, in a paper entitled “Aerial Locomotion” given to the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, the Englishman Francis Wenham expressed for the first time in history the effect of aspect ratio on finite-wing aerodynamics. He theorized (correctly) that most of the lift of a wing occurs from the portion near the leading edge, and hence a long, narrow wing would be most efficient. He suggested stacking a number of long thin wings above each other to generate the required lift, and he built two full-size gliders in 1858, both with five wings each, to demonstrate (successfully) his ideas. (Wenham is also known for designing and building the first wind tunnel in history, at Greenwich, England, in 1871.)

However, the true understanding of finite-wing aerodynamics, as well as ideas for the theoretical analysis of finite wings, did not come until 1907. In that year, Frederick W. Lanchester published his now famous book entitled Aerodynamics. We have met Lanchester before—in Section 4.14 concerning his role in the development of the circulation theory of lift. Here, we examine his contributions to finite-wing theory.

In Lanchester’s Aerodynamics, we find the first mention of vortices that trail downstream of the wing tips. Figure 5.46 is one of Lanchester’s own drawings from his 1907 book, showing the “vortex trunk” which forms at the wing tip. Moreover, he knew that a vortex filament could not end in space (see Section 5.2), and he theorized that the vortex filaments that constituted the two wing-tip vortices must cross the wing along its span—the first concept of bound vortices in the spanwise direction. Hence, the essence of the horseshoe vortex concept originated with Lanchester. In his own words:

Thus the author regards the two trailed vortices as a definite proof of the existence

of a cyclic component of equal strength in the motion surrounding the airfoil itself.

Considering the foresight and originality of Lanchester’s thinking, let us pause for a moment and look at the man himself. Lanchester was bom on October 23,1868,


Figure 5.46 A figure from Lanchester’s Aerodynamics, 1 907; this is his own drawing of the wing-tip vortex on a finite wing.

in Lewisham, England. The son of an architect, Lanchester became interested in engineering at an early age. (He was told by his family that his mind was made up at the age of 4.) He studied engineering and mining during the years 1886-1889 at the Royal College of Science in South Kensington, London, but never officially graduated. He was a quick-minded and innovative thinker and became a designer at the Forward Gas Engine Company in 1889, specializing in internal combustion engines. He rose to the post of assistant works manager. In the early 1890s, Lanchester became very interested in aeronautics, and along with his development of high-speed engines, he also carried out numerous aerodynamics experiments. It was during this period that he formulated his ideas on both the circulation theory of lift and the finite-wing vortex concepts. A serious paper written by Lanchester first for the Royal Society, and then for the Physical Society, was turned down for publication—something Lanchester never forgot. Finally, his aeronautical concepts were published in his two books Aerodynamics and Aerodonelics in 1907 and 1908, respectively. To his detriment, Lanchester had a style of writing and a means of explanation that were not easy to follow and his works were not immediately seized upon by other researchers. Lanchester’s bitter feelings about the public’s receipt of his papers and books are graphically seen in his letter to the Daniel Guggenheim Medal Fund decades later. In a letter dated June 6, 1931, Lanchester writes:

So far as aeronautical science is concerned, I cannot say that I experienced any­thing but discouragement; in the early days my theoretical work (backed by a certain amount of experimental verification), mainly concerning the vortex theory of sus – tentation and the screw propeller, was refused by the two leading scientific societies in this country, and I was seriously warned that my profession as an engineer would suffer if I dabbled in a subject that was merely a dream of madmen! When I pub­lished my two volumes in 1907 and 1908 they were well received on the whole, but this was mainly due to the success of the brothers Wright, and the general interest aroused on the subject.

In 1899, he formed the Lanchester Motor Company, Limited, and sold automobiles of his own design. He married in 1919, but had no children. Lanchester maintained

his interest in automobiles and related mechanical devices until his death on March 8, 1946, at the age of 77.

In 1908, Lanchester visited Gottingen, Germany, and fully discussed his wing theory with Ludwig Prandtl and his student Theodore von Karman. Prandtl spoke no English, Lanchester spoke no German, and in light of Lanchester’s unclear way of explaining his ideas, there appeared to be little chance of understanding between the two parties. However, shortly after, Prandtl began to develop his own wing theory, using a bound vortex along the span and assuming that the vortex trails downstream from both wing tips. The first mention of Prandtl’s work on finite-wing theory was made in a paper by O. Foppl in 1911, discussing some of Foppl’s experimental work on finite wings. Commenting on his results, Foppl says:

They agree very closely with the theoretical investigation by Professor Prandtl on the current around an airplane with a finite span wing. Already Lanchester in his work, “Aerodynamics” (translated into German by C. and A. Runge), indicated that to the two extremities of an airplane wing are attached two vortex ropes (Wirbelzopfe) which make possible the transition from the flow around the airplane, which occurs nearly according to Kutta’s theory, to the flow of the undisturbed fluid at both sides. These two vortex ropes continue the vortex which, according to Kutta’s theory, takes place on the lamina.

We are led to admit this owing to the Helmholtz theorem that vortices cannot end in the fluid. At any rate these two vortex ropes have been made visible in the Gottingen Institute by emitting an ammonia cloud into the air. Prandtl’s theory is constructed on the consideration of this current in reality existing.

In the same year, Prandtl expressed his own first published words on the subject. In a paper given at a meeting of the Representatives of Aeronautical Science in Gottingen in November 1911, entitled “Results and Purposes of the Model Experimental Institute of Gottingen,” Prandtl states:

Another theoretical research relates to the conditions of the current which is formed by the air behind an airplane. The lift generated by the airplane is, on account of the principle of action and reaction, necessarily connected with a descending current behind the airplane. Now it seemed very useful to investigate this descending current in all its details. It appears that the descending current is formed by a pair of vortices, the vortex filaments of which start from the airplane wing tips. The distance of the two vortices is equal to the span of the airplane, their strength is equal to the circulation of the current around the airplane and the current in the vicinity of the airplane is fully given by the superposition of the uniform current with that of a vortex consisting of three rectilinear sections.

In discussing the results of his theory, Prandtl goes on to state in the same paper:

The same theory supplies, taking into account the variations of the current on the airplane which came from the lateral vortices, a relationship showing the depen­dence of the airplane lift on the aspect ratio; in particular it gives the possibility of extrapolating the results thus obtained experimentally to the airplane of infinite span wing. From the maximum aspect ratios measured by us (1:9 to that of 1 :oo) the lifts increase further in marked degree—by some 30 or 40 percent. I would add here a

remarkable result of this extrapolation, which is, that the results of Kutta’s theory of the infinite wing, at least so far as we are dealing with small cambers and small angles of incidence, have been confirmed by these experimental results.

Starting from this line of thought we can attack the problem of calculating the surface of an airplane so that lift is distributed along its span in a determined manner, previously fixed. The experimental trial of these calculations has not yet been made, but it will be in the near future.

It is clear from the above comments that Prandtl was definitely following the model proposed earlier by Lanchester. Moreover, the major concern of the finite-wing theory was first in the calculation of lift—no mention is made of induced drag. It is interesting to note that Prandtl’s theory first began with a single horseshoe vortex, such as sketched in Figure 5.11. The results were not entirely satisfactory. During the period 1911­1918, Prandtl and his colleagues expanded and refined his finite-wing theory, which evolved to the concept of a lifting line consisting of an infinite number of horseshoe vortices, as sketched in Figure 5.13. In 1918, the term “induced drag’’ was coined by Max Munk, a colleague of Prandtl at Gottingen. Much of Prandtl’s development of finite-wing theory was classified secret by the German government during World War I. Finally, his lifting-line theory was released to the outside world, and his ideas were published in English in a special NACA report written by Prandtl and published in 1922, entitled “Applications of Modern Hydrodynamics to Aeronautics” (NACA TR 116). Hence, the theory we have outlined in Section 5.3 was well-established more than 80 years ago.

One of Prandtl’s strengths was the ability to base his thinking on sound ideas, and to apply intuition that resulted in relatively straightforward theories that most engineers could understand and appreciate. This is in contrast to the difficult writ­ings of Lanchester. As a result, the lifting theory for finite wings has come down through the years identified as Prandtl’s lifting-line theory, although we have seen that Lanchester was the first to propose the basic model on which lifting-line theory is built.

In light of Lanchester’s 1908 visit with Prandtl and Prandtl’s subsequent de­velopment of the lifting-line theory, there has been some discussion over the years that Prandtl basically stole Lanchester’s ideas. However, this is clearly not the case. We have seen in the above quotes that Prandtl’s group at Gottingen was giving full credit to Lanchester as early as 1911. Moreover, Lanchester never gave the world a clear and practical theory with which results could be readily obtained—Prandtl did. Therefore, in this book we have continued the tradition of identifying the lifting-line theory with Prandtl’s name. On the other hand, for very good reasons, in England and various places in western Europe, the theory is labeled the Lanchester-Prandtl theory.

To help put the propriety in perspective, Lanchester was awarded the Daniel Guggenheim Medal in 1936 (Prandtl had received this award some years earlier). In the medal citation, we find the following words:

Lanchester was the foremost person to propound the now famous theory of flight based on the Vortex theory, so brilliantly followed up by Prandtl and others. He first

put forward his theory in a paper read before the Birmingham Natural History and Philosophical Society on 19th June, 1894. In a second paper in 1897, in his two books published in 1907 and 1908, and in his paper read before the Institution of Automobile Engineers in 1916, he further developed this doctrine.

Perhaps the best final words on Lanchester are contained in this excerpt from his obituary found in the British periodical Flight in March 1946:

And now Lanchester has passed from our ken but not from our thoughts. It is to be hoped that the nation which neglected him during much of his lifetime will at any rate perpetuate his work by a memorial worthy of the “Grand Old Man” of aerodynamics.

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