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Mathematics and aviation: the Handley Page ‘Gugnunc’

Published: 6 December 2018

Without mathematics, the dream of flight for the masses would have come crashing down to Earth. 

In September 1929 a series of experimental aircraft took part in trials at a military air base 20 miles east of Manhattan. At stake was the future of the civil aviation industry, which would only get off the ground if passengers believed aircraft were safe to use. 

The birth of civil aviation

Postcard for The De Havilland Airco DH.4A with a black and white photo of the aircraft Science Museum Group Collection
Postcard for the De Havilland Airco DH.4A


Civil aviation in the UK dates from the end of the First World War (1914–18), when the first civil airlines were set up based on military aircraft.

For example, one of the UK’s first civil airliners, the De Havilland Airco DH.4A, was converted in 1919 from a First World War military bomber.

However, potential passengers could not shake off the image of aircraft as military weapons—vital in times of war, yet unsafe and unreliable in peacetime.

A decade later, in 1928, an American magazine commented:

'Now that the days of wonder at airplanes are past, now that we send an air-mail letter for a dime, purchase a pleasure ride for a dollar or two, and expect airplanes to hop off for foreign ports daily, the principal question about flying is: "Are airplanes safe?"'

Mathematics and the aviation industry

Aviation had been a popular employer for Britain’s top mathematicians since the First World War. They were trained in aerodynamics and structural stress at places such as Imperial College London and Cambridge University. 

One, Letitia Chitty, had read mathematics at Newnham College, Cambridge, before working for the Admiralty Air Department. After the war ended, she moved briefly to the Bristol Aeroplane Company before starting a career at Imperial College as a mathematician and civil engineer.

During the 1920s, aircraft manufacturers around the world realised they needed a better understanding of aerodynamics and stress in order to build aircraft that flew safely. Aviation had always been a highly pressured industry and in peacetime more lives than ever were at stake.

There were no programmes, no calculating machines … we relied upon our slide rules and arithmetic in the margins … 

Lives were at stake and we couldn't afford to let anything go through wrong. 

Letitia Chitty, recalling Admiralty Air Department work in the First World War

Are aircraft safe?

At the heart of aviation research was collaboration between engineers and mathematicians, as both professions worked to understand the complex airflow around aircraft and the forces acting on their structures.

This research needed financial investment.

In 1926, the American industrialist and philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim responded by founding his ‘Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics’ to promote education, develop commercial aircraft and contribute to aviation science.

His endowment totalled more than $2.5 million in 1920s money.

Frederick Handley Page

Postcard advertising Handley Page air service, 1920 Science Museum Group Collection Image source
Postcard advertising Handley Page Air Service from London to Paris, 1920

One aircraft manufacturer quick to take advantage of Daniel Guggenheim’s investment in aeronautical research was Frederick Handley Page.

By 1909, Handley Page had flown trial aircraft over marshland near Barking in the UK.

During the First World War, he remained a hands-on mathematician as his firm expanded rapidly, often working overnight to check the stress calculations for new components.

According to his biographer, Handley Page was 'an avid reader with a photographic memory and a strong sense of mathematical logic' who intuitively understood the mathematical basis for flight. 

After the war ended, his firm rapidly diversified into civil aviation.

The safe aircraft competition

In 1927, as part of his philanthropic investment project, Daniel Guggenheim mounted a first prize of $100,000.

It would be awarded to an aircraft that could fly safely, even at slow speeds and during steep takeoffs and landings when there was the greatest risk of stalling and crashing.

Footage courtesy of CriticalPast

Numerous aircraft took part in trials near Manhattan in September 1929, but only two aeroplanes made it to the competition final. One was by the American firm Curtiss, and the other was an entry by Handley Page known as the ‘Gugnunc’ after a popular Daily Mirror cartoon catchphrase of the time.

The Handley Page H.P. 39 'Gugnunc' aeroplane, 1929.
Science Museum Group Collection More information

A great advance in aeroplane design

At the heart of both finalists in the safe aircraft competition was the slotted wing. This development, designed by Frederick Handley Page, involved an adjustable mini-wing on the front edge of the main wings together with a flap on the rear edge.

Boeing 247 aeroplane on a tarmac airfield Science Museum Group Collection
A Boeing 247 pictured at the Science Museum's Wroughton airfield in Wiltshire

These slots and flaps controlled the potentially catastrophic breakdown of airflow that occurred in slow-speed stall conditions, the most dangerous situation in flying. Commentators at the time described the system as 'the greatest advance in airplane design since the Wright brothers flew'.

In the end, Handley Page’s competitor, Curtiss, won Guggenheim’s first prize of $100,000, with Handley Page coming a close second.

Crucially, the Guggenheim fund had stimulated a wave of engineering and mathematical innovation and research in the aviation industry as it struggled to convince a sceptical public that flying was safe.

With slotted wings and other technical developments, many of which underpin today’s aircraft design, flying became a viable option for the public and the seeds of a global industry had been sown.