Wallace Rupert Turnbull, an aeronautical engineer, was born in 1870 in Saint John. Hailing from a wealthy family, he pursued science studies at Cornell and in Germany until the age of 25. Following his education, Turnbull worked at the Edison Lamp Works in Harrison, New Jersey, for six years.
In 1902, Turnbull constructed Canada’s first wind tunnel at his private laboratory in Rothesay, where he spent the remainder of his life working. Although geographically isolated, he collaborated with aviation pioneers like Alexander Graham Bell and J.H. Parkin.
Turnbull’s research gained early recognition, winning a Royal Aeronautical Society medal in 1909. His most significant achievement, however, was the development of the variable-pitch propeller, which underwent successful flight testing in 1927.
The variable-pitch propeller, which adjusts the angle of propeller blades as they slice through the air, became as crucial to aviation as the gearbox is to automobiles. It ensures safety and efficiency across all engine speeds, delivering maximum power during takeoffs and landings and economical cruising over long distances. The invention was independently refined in multiple countries, which may be why Turnbull’s work has been overlooked by many historians. Another contributing factor could be that he licensed the propeller’s production and continued pursuing other inventions. Nevertheless, Turnbull’s variable-pitch propeller, now housed at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, seems to have been the first to achieve successful flight.
The Saint John Airport was briefly named after him.
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