On the morning of December 17, 1903, the world’s first successful aeronautical propulsion system—a gas engine, propellers, and the equipment needed to make them operate—took to the air on the Wright Flyer. The aeronautical community continued to refine that system until the introduction in the 1940s of gas turbine engines, which revolutionized the design and use of aircraft. The Smithsonian Institution took an early interest in preserving the history of aircraft propulsion. The first aircraft propulsion artifacts accessioned by the Smithsonian in 1889 was a model aircraft steam engine and two wood-and-fabric propellers designed by John Stringfellow. Since then, the collection has evolved into the premier collection of its type in the world.
The propulsion collection includes reciprocating and rotary internal combustion and gas turbine engines, propellers, and the components and support technologies, or accessories, that deliver the needed air, water, fuel, and oil to an engine. All of these artifacts reveal the multiple approaches used to improve the performance of the airplane during the 20th century.