by Chris Woodford. Last updated: July 5, 2014.
If you want to move forward, you need to push backward; that fundamental law of physics was first described in the 18th century by Sir Isaac Newton and still holds true today. Newton's third law of motion (sometimes called "action and reaction") is not always obvious, but it's the essence of anything that moves us through the world. When you're walking down the street, your feet push back against the sidewalk to move you forward. In a car, it's the wheels that do something similar as their tires kick back against the road. But what about ships and planes powered by propellers? They too use Newton's third law, because a propeller pulls or pushes you forward by hurling a mass of air or water behind you. How exactly does it work? Why is it such a funny shape? Let's take a closer look!
Photo: Most propellers have two, three, or four blades; this one on a US Navy E-2C Hawkeye has eight. They're made of tough composite materials mounted on a single-piece steel hub. Photo by Daniel J. McLain courtesy of US Navy.
How does a propeller work?
Propellers, often shortened to "props," are sometimes called screws—and it's easy to see why. To push a screw into the wall, you apply a clockwise turning force to the head with your screwdriver. The spiral groove (sometimes called a helical thread) on the screw's surface converts the turning force into a pushing force that drives the screw into the wall and holds it there. But suppose, for a moment, that you wanted to keep on going...
If you were a beetle and you wanted to move through an infinitely long wooden wall, you could use a screw thread on the outside of your body to do it. You wouldn't need a screw running along the whole length of your body: you could manage with just a little thread on your head—a kind of screw cap—to bite into the wood in front of you. Now suppose you were a fly, not a beetle, and you wanted to go through air rather than wood. There's no reason why you couldn't use a screw thread in exactly the same way to pull you through the sky. In effect, you'd be a fly with a propeller—and that's pretty much what the first airplanes were. Planes took to the sky when the Wright brothers figured out how to combine engine-powered propellers and wings so they could go forward and upward at the same time.
A propeller is a machine that moves you forward through a fluid (a liquid or gas) when you turn it. Though it works the same way as a screw, it looks a bit different: usually it has two, three, or four twisted blades (sometimes more) poking out at angles from a central hub spun around by an engine or motor. The twists and the angles are really important.
Photo: A propeller is like a cut-off screw and works much the same way.
Why a propeller has angled and twisted blades
Propeller blades are fixed to their hub at an angle, just as the thread on a screw makes an angle to the shaft. This angle is called the pitch of a propeller and it determines how quickly it moves you forward when you turn it. A propeller with a steep pitch moves you further forward with each turn than one with a shallow pitch, just as screws with steep pitches bite into wood faster than ones with shallow pitches. Like gears, screws are examples of machines—devices that multiply and transform forces. A propeller (or screw) with a steep pitch is like a gear on a bicycle that helps you go faster: one turn of the screw moves you forward more than a propeller with a shallow pitch would do, much like one turn of the pedals does when your bicycle is in high gear and you want to go fast.
However, it's slightly more complex than that because propeller blades are twisted as well as angled: in other words, the pitch of a propeller blade changes along its length. It's steepest at the hub (in the center) and shallowest at the tip (outer edge). Here's why. Look closely at an airplane propeller and you'll see it resembles an airfoil (aerofoil), a wing that has a curved top and flat bottom. An airfoil wing produces lift mainly by accelerating air downward and it works most efficiently when it's tilted slightly backward to make what's called an angle of attack with the horizontal. (Read more about this in our main article on airplanes.) Now suppose you take two airfoil wings, mount them either side of a wheel and spin it around. Turn fast enough, with the wings at just the right angle, and instead of generating lift you'll produce a screwing effect and a backward force that pushes you forward. This is effectively how a propeller works. To make it really efficient, the angle of attack needs to be different at different points along the blade—greater near the hub and shallower toward the edges—and that's why propeller blades are twisted.
Photo: The blades of a propeller are shaped like airfoil wings, make an angle to the hub, and are twisted so they work with maximum efficiency right along their length. Photo by Eduardo Zaragoza courtesy of US Navy.
And there's a further complication! Simple propellers on small aircraft have their blades fixed at a certain angle to the hub, which usually never changes (it can be altered by tinkering with the plane when it's on the ground, though not during flight). But the optimum pitch of a propeller varies according to how fast the plane is going, so fixed-pitch propellers are really only effective when a plane flies at the same speed all the time.
Bigger and more sophisticated planes have variable-pitch propellers (ones whose pitch can be altered by the pilot). Some propellers have automatic mechanisms so they adjust their own pitch to match the plane's flying speed. Constant-speed propellers are a variation on this idea. They're designed so they change pitch automatically, allowing the engine always to turn over at the same (constant) speed. Planes with variable-pitch propellers (including World-War fighter planes) have another useful feature: the ability to feather the propellers if an engine fails. Feathering means turning the propeller blades so they're edge on, making a very shallow angle to the oncoming air, minimizing air resistance and allowing the plane either to keep on flying on its remaining engines or glide to a crash landing. On some planes, the pitch of the blades can be reversed so a propeller makes a forward draft of air instead of one moving backward—handy for extra braking (especially if the main brakes on the wheels suddenly fail).
Photo: Bigger planes can change the pitch of their propeller blades during flight using gear mechanisms like this. This is one of the four propeller hubs from a large C-130H Hercules plane undergoing maintenance on the ground. Photo by Robert Barney courtesy of US Air Force.
Why airplane and ship propellers work differently
Airplane propellers (sometimes referred to as "airscrews," especially historically and in Britain) have thick and narrow blades that turn at high speed, whereas ship propellers have thinner, broader blades that spin more slowly. Although the basic theory is the same, plane and ship propellers are optimized for very different speeds in very different fluids—faster in air, slower in water—and a propeller that works well in one isn't necessarily going to work as well (or at all) in the other.
Photo: Ship propellers are typically bigger and chunkier than plane propellers. Here workers are installing giant new propellers on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. You can get a sense of how big this is from the people underneath it. Photo by Matthew Dewitt courtesy of US Navy.
It's easy to see why there's a difference if we go back to Newton's third law. The simplest way to think of a propeller is as a device that moves a vehicle forward by pushing air or water backward. The force on the backward-moving fluid is equal to the force on the forward-moving vehicle. Now force is also the rate at which something's momentum changes, so we can also see a propeller as a device that gives a ship or a plane forward momentum by giving air or water an equal amount of backward momentum. Sea water is about 1000 times more dense than air (at sea level), so you need to move much more air than water to produce a similar change in momentum.
That's one reason why airplane propellers turn much faster than ship propellers. Another reason is that airplanes generally need to go fast to fly (lift produced by the movement of fast air over the wings is what balances the force of gravity and holds them in the sky), whereas ships don't: buoyancy lets them float whether they move or not. While planes travel entirely through air, remember that ships operate at the tricky interface between the oceans and the atmosphere where waves make life complicated; submarines, which operate mostly underwater, have an easier time in calmer water. Ships have powerful diesel engines that rotate at high speed, so their propellers could easily turn as fast as airplane propellers if that were what we wanted. In practice, propellers work most efficiently in water at slower speeds, so a ship has a gearbox that transforms power from the fast-turning engine down to much lower speeds in the propeller.
Once laboriously carved from wood, propellers are now more likely to be made from more predictable materials. Airplane propellers are typically made from lightweight aluminum or magnesium alloys, hollow steel, wooden laminates or composites. Ship propellers have to withstand the corrosive effects of saltwater, so they're typically made from copper alloys such as brass. They range in diameter from about 15cm (6in) on smaller outboard motors to as much as 9m (30ft) on the world's biggest container ships.
Ship propellers are also designed to minimize a problem called cavitation, which happens when a propeller working under heavy load (turning too quickly, for example, or operating too near the surface) creates a region of low pressure. Bubbles of water vapor form suddenly and then burst next to the propeller blades, blasting little pits into the surface and wearing it away.
Photo: Ship propellers are made from alloys such as brass, but don't stay this color for long! This new propeller was fitted to the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in 2005. It's 6.7m (22ft) in diameter and weighs about 30 tonnes (33 tons). Photo by Glen M. Dennis courtesy of US Navy.
Who invented propellers?
Here's a quick summary of a few key moments in propeller history:
- 3rd century BC: The idea of using screws to move things dates back to Greek scientist Archimedes, who figured out how to enclose a long spiral screw inside a cylinder so it could lift water. Archimedes screws, as these are known, are still widely used in factories today for moving things like powders and pellets. They're also a key feature of agricultural machines such as combine harvesters.
- 16th century CE: Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) sketched an upward-facing screw propeller on his design for a helicopter, which he never built.
- 1796: American inventor John Fitch made the first basic propeller, shaped like a screw, for a steamboat.
- 1836: Englishman Francis Petit-Smith and Swedish-American John Ericsson independently developed modern-style propellers with blades for ships.
- 1903: The brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright used twisted propellers shaped like airfoils to make the first powered flight, ushering in the modern age of air travel.
Photo: Developing effective propellers was a major part of the Wright Brothers' success in taking to the air in 1903. By 1908, their plane was advanced enough to offer to the US military for use in war. Left: Here's the Wright Flyer pictured at a military test that fall. Catastrophically, one of the propellers split during flight, causing a crash that injured Orville seriously and killed his passenger. Right: Here's a closeup of one of the propellers and the mechanism that powered it. Note how the propeller twists along its length. You can also see how it's driven from the engine at the center by a chain drive similar to that used on a bicycle. No wonder, really: the Wright brothers were originally bicycle makers! Photo by courtesy of Great Images in NASA.
Find out more
On this website
On other websites
- Propeller propulsion on the 1903 Wright Flyer: A basic introduction to how the Wright brothers deployed propellers on their original plane. This is from NASA's excellent Beginner's Guide to Aeronautics.
- Marine Propellers and Propulsion by John Carlton. Butterworth-Heinemann, 2007. Covers propeller materials and design, fluid-flow, and the mechanics of propulsion through water in detail.
- The Propeller Handbook by Dave Gerr. McGraw-Hill Professional, 2001. Less theoretical, this is a much simpler and more practical guide for everyday boat owners.
- Aircraft Design by Ajoy Kumar Kundu. Cambridge University Press, 2010. A complete guide to the process of plane design, from aerodynamics and materials to safety and cost estimation.
- A Treatise on the Screw Propeller: With Various Suggestions of Improvement by John Bourne. Longman, 1855. An interesting historical book about propeller design from the mid-19th century. The first 80 pages or is a detailed history of propellers, traced back to ancient windmills.