Sunday, July 20, 2008
Higby's jet engine was way ahead of his time
As early as 1928, William Eugene Higby had formalized his idea to move a plane along the ground or in the air by means of a blast of air projected from the plane. His early model for jet propulsion took the form of a patent at the United States Patent Office filed on Jan. 24, of that year.
Higby, a prominent cattleman in the Monument area, and later the Lieutenant Governor of Colorado, was granted the patent March 12, 1929.
“But because of the cost of developing the idea, for one thing, nothing was done about suiting the theory to practice,” according to article appearing in the Palmer Lake – Monument News in April, 1965.
“It would have cost millions to develop,” Higby was quoted then.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II, Higby was approached by the government, seeking permission to use his idea.
“Higby gave his permission but, heard no more from the government,” the 1965 article said.
His patent also outlined a method of guiding a plane both vertically or laterally by means of air blasts, which would be adjustable for both direction and intensity.
“His invention was aimed at being simple, economical and efficient. It provide for an engine ahead of the cockpit, as used in propeller planes, but the engine would propel a centrifugal fan, whose intake would project from the nose of the fuselage. The air would be discharged thru a pair of pipes, one of each extending rearwardly from each of the wings.”
A British jet flight-tested in 1964, used similar designs to those patented by Higby, according to Walt Shaw, a preliminary design engineer for Hamilton Standard Division of United Aircraft Corp., of Windsor Locks, Conn.
“… the British have tested an airplane making use of the same principles that are covered in the patent which you hold on the use of controllable jet blast for the purpose of maneuvering the air craft. Perhaps you were you were just too far ahead of the times,” read a 1965 letter to Higby from Shaw.
His considerable prowess as an inventor was extended to other endeavors. Higby also seemed to have a knack for politics. In addition to his service as Lt. Governor for Colorado from 1943 to 1947, he also managed stints in Colorado state house of representatives from 1933 to 1940, Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives from 1939 to 1940, and in the Colorado state senate from 1941 to 1943.
An obituary in the Palmer Lake – Monument News penned by Jean Evans upon his death in March of 1967 waxed poetic.
“As we walked with Mr. Higby daily we did not comprehend the full meaning of his greatness… He took kindly the counsel of years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. He nurtured the strength and spirit that shielded him in sudden misfortune. With all the sham, drudgery and broken dreams, he knew the world was beautiful. He will go down in history as part of our American way of life.”
Higby’s memory and legacy is carried on in the modern world. Mike Higby, a descendent contacted me a while back.
“William Eugene Higby was my great grandfather. I never knew him, I was born in 1969. William David Higby was my grandfather and his son William F. Higby my father. We used a simple version of his jet to heat branding irons on the ranch in Monument. I lived on the ranch in Monument until shortly after the death of my grandfather around 1984. We moved to the upper Elk river valley at the foot of Elk Mountain (the other side is called Sleeping Giant Mountain) near Steamboat Springs. My great-grandmother was from Craig, and I did know her.”
Eugene Higby, another great grandson of William Eugene Higby, contacted me in 2010.
“My grandfather, James Eugene Higby, trained RAF pilots for the Battle of Britian in 1940-1944. He also test flew B-17's before they were shipped over to the European Theater. Following the war, W.E. Higby's son, flew turbo props, and later as the 1960's approached, flew 707's and later 747's nationally and internationally. One of the defining moments in the Higby jet engine legacy is W.E.'s son being the first airline captain to fly a 747-121 for Continental Airlines into Stapleton Airport in Denver. Thus closing the full circle of W.E.'s jet engine invention.”
1928 patent diagram for W.E. Higby’s jet engine and 1929 patent paperwork.