A propeller is a device with a rotating hub and radiating blades that are set at a pitch to form a helical spiral, that, when rotated, exerts linear thrust upon a working fluid, such as water or air. Propellers are used to pump fluid through a pipe or duct, or to create thrust to propel a boat through water or an aircraft through air. The blades are specially shaped so that their rotational motion through the fluid causes a pressure difference between the two surfaces of the blade by Bernoulli's principle which exerts force on the fluid. Most marine propellers are screw propellers with helical blades rotating on a propeller shaft with an approximately horizontal axis.
The principle employed in using a screw propeller is derived from sculling. In sculling, a single blade is moved through an arc, from side to side taking care to keep presenting the blade to the water at the effective angle. The innovation introduced with the screw propeller was the extension of that arc through more than 360° by attaching the blade to a rotating shaft. Propellers can have a single blade, but in practice there are nearly always more than one so as to balance the forces involved.
The origin of the screw propeller starts at least as early as Archimedes (c. 287 - c. 212 BC), who used a screw to lift water for irrigation and bailing boats, so famously that it became known as Archimedes' screw. It was probably an application of spiral movement in space (spirals were a special study of Archimedes) to a hollow segmented water-wheel used for irrigation by Egyptians for centuries. A flying toy, the bamboo-copter, was enjoyed in China beginning around 320 AD. Later, Leonardo da Vinci adopted the screw principle to drive his theoretical helicopter, sketches of which involved a large canvas screw overhead.
In 1661, Toogood and Hays proposed using screws for waterjet propulsion, though not as a propeller. Robert Hooke in 1681 designed a horizontal watermill which was remarkably similar to the Kirsten-Boeing vertical axis propeller designed almost two and a half centuries later in 1928; two years later Hooke modified the design to provide motive power for ships through water. In 1693 a Frenchman by the name of Du Quet invented a screw propeller which was tried in 1693 but later abandoned. In 1752, the Academie des Sciences in Paris granted Burnelli a prize for a design of a propeller-wheel. At about the same time, the French mathematician Alexis-Jean-Pierre Paucton, suggested a water propulsion system based on the Archimedean screw. In 1771, steam-engine inventor James Watt in a private letter suggested using "spiral oars" to propel boats, although he did not use them with his steam engines, or ever implement the idea.
One of the first practical and applied uses of a propeller was on a submarine dubbed Turtle which was designed in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1775 by Yale student and inventor David Bushnell, with the help of the clock maker, engraver, and brass foundryman Isaac Doolittle, and with Bushnell's brother Ezra Bushnell and ship's carpenter and clock maker Phineas Pratt constructing the hull in Saybrook, Connecticut. On the night of September 6, 1776, Sergeant Ezra Lee piloted Turtle in an attack on HMS Eagle in New York Harbor. Turtle also has the distinction of being the first submarine used in battle. Bushnell later described the propeller in an October 1787 letter to Thomas Jefferson: "An oar formed upon the principle of the screw was fixed in the forepart of the vessel its axis entered the vessel and being turned one way rowed the vessel forward but being turned the other way rowed it backward. It was made to be turned by the hand or foot." The brass propeller, like all the brass and moving parts on Turtle, was crafted by the "ingenious mechanic" Issac Doolittle of New Haven.
In 1785, Joseph Bramah of England proposed a propeller solution of a rod going through the underwater aft of a boat attached to a bladed propeller, though he never built it.
In February 1800, Edward Shorter of London proposed using a similar propeller attached to a rod angled down temporarily deployed from the deck above the waterline and thus requiring no water seal, and intended only to assist becalmed sailing vessels. He tested it on the transport ship Doncaster in Gibraltar and at Malta, achieving a speed of 1.5 mph (2.4 km/h).
In 1802, the American lawyer and inventor John Stevens built a 25-foot (7.6 m) boat with a rotary steam engine coupled to a four-bladed propeller. The craft achieved a speed of 4 mph (6.4 km/h), but Stevens abandoned propellers due to the inherent danger in using the high-pressure steam engines. His subsequent vessels were paddle-wheeled boats.
By 1827, Czech-Austrian inventor Josef Ressel had invented a screw propeller which had multiple blades fastened around a conical base. He had tested his propeller in February 1826 on a small ship that was manually driven. He was successful in using his bronze screw propeller on an adapted steamboat (1829). His ship, Civetta of 48 gross register tons, reached a speed of about 6 knots (11 km/h). This was the first ship successfully driven by an Archimedes screw-type propeller. After a new steam engine had an accident (cracked pipe weld) his experiments were banned by the Austro-Hungarian police as dangerous. Josef Ressel was at the time a forestry inspector for the Austrian Empire. But before this he received an Austro-Hungarian patent (license) for his propeller (1827). He died in 1857. This new method of propulsion was an improvement over the paddlewheel as it was not so affected by either ship motions or changes in draft as the vessel burned coal.
John Patch, a mariner in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia developed a two-bladed, fan-shaped propeller in 1832 and publicly demonstrated it in 1833, propelling a row boat across Yarmouth Harbour and a small coastal schooner at Saint John, New Brunswick, but his patent application in the United States was rejected until 1849 because he was not an American citizen. His efficient design drew praise in American scientific circles but by this time there were multiple competing versions of the marine propeller.
Although there was much experimentation with screw propulsion before the 1830s, few of these inventions were pursued to the testing stage, and those that were proved unsatisfactory for one reason or another.
In 1835, two inventors in Britain, John Ericsson and Francis Pettit Smith, began working separately on the problem. Smith was first to take out a screw propeller patent on 31 May, while Ericsson, a gifted Swedish engineer then working in Britain, filed his patent six weeks later. Smith quickly built a small model boat to test his invention, which was demonstrated first on a pond at his Hendon farm, and later at the Royal Adelaide Gallery of Practical Science in London, where it was seen by the Secretary of the Navy, Sir William Barrow. Having secured the patronage of a London banker named Wright, Smith then built a 30-foot (9.1 m), 6-horsepower (4.5 kW) canal boat of six tons burthen called Francis Smith, which was fitted with a wooden propeller of his own design and demonstrated on the Paddington Canal from November 1836 to September 1837. By a fortuitous accident, the wooden propeller of two turns was damaged during a voyage in February 1837, and to Smith's surprise the broken propeller, which now consisted of only a single turn, doubled the boat's previous speed, from about four miles an hour to eight. Smith would subsequently file a revised patent in keeping with this accidental discovery.
In the meantime, Ericsson built a 45-foot (14 m) screw-propelled steamboat, Francis B. Ogden in 1837, and demonstrated his boat on the River Thames to senior members of the British Admiralty, including Surveyor of the Navy Sir William Symonds. In spite of the boat achieving a speed of 10 miles an hour, comparable with that of existing paddle steamers, Symonds and his entourage were unimpressed. The Admiralty maintained the view that screw propulsion would be ineffective in ocean-going service, while Symonds himself believed that screw propelled ships could not be steered efficiently. Following this rejection, Ericsson built a second, larger screw-propelled boat, Robert F. Stockton, and had her sailed in 1839 to the United States, where he was soon to gain fame as the designer of the U.S. Navy's first screw-propelled warship, USS Princeton.
Apparently aware of the Royal Navy's view that screw propellers would prove unsuitable for seagoing service, Smith determined to prove this assumption wrong. In September 1837, he took his small vessel (now fitted with an iron propeller of a single turn) to sea, steaming from Blackwall, London to Hythe, Kent, with stops at Ramsgate, Dover and Folkestone. On the way back to London on the 25th, Smith's craft was observed making headway in stormy seas by officers of the Royal Navy. The Admiralty's interest in the technology was revived, and Smith was encouraged to build a full size ship to more conclusively demonstrate the technology's effectiveness.
The Archimedes had considerable influence on ship development, encouraging the adoption of screw propulsion by the Royal Navy, in addition to her influence on commercial vessels. Trials with Smith's Archimedes led to the tug-of-war competition in 1845 between HMS Rattler and HMS Alecto with the screw-driven Rattler pulling the paddle steamer Alecto backward at 2.5 knots (4.6 km/h).
The Archimedes also influenced the design of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's SS Great Britain in 1843, then the world's largest ship and the first screw-propelled steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean in August 1845.
HMS Terror and HMS Erebus were both heavily modified to become the first Royal Navy ships to have steam-powered engines and screw propellers. Both participated in Franklin's lost expedition, last seen by Europeans in July 1845 near Baffin Bay.
Screw propeller design stabilized in the 1880s.
Propellers without a central shaft consist of propeller blades attached to a ring which is part of a circle-shaped electric motor. This design is known as a Rim-driven thruster and is used by some self-guided robotic ships. Rim Driven propulsion systems are increasingly being considered for use.
The twisted aerofoil shape of modern aircraft propellers was pioneered by the Wright brothers. While some earlier engineers had attempted to model air propellers on marine propellers, the Wrights realized that an air propeller (also known as an airscrew) is essentially the same as a wing, and were able to use data from their earlier wind tunnel experiments on wings. They also introduced a twist along the length of the blades. This was necessary to ensure the angle of attack of the blades was kept relatively constant along their length. Their original propeller blades were only about 5% less efficient than the modern equivalent, some 100 years later. The understanding of low speed propeller aerodynamics was fairly complete by the 1920s, but later requirements to handle more power in smaller diameter have made the problem more complex.
Alberto Santos Dumont, another early pioneer, applied the knowledge he gained from experiences with airships to make a propeller with a steel shaft and aluminium blades for his 14 bis biplane. Some of his designs used a bent aluminium sheet for blades, thus creating an airfoil shape. They were heavily undercambered, and this plus the absence of lengthwise twist made them less efficient than the Wright propellers. Even so, this was perhaps the first use of aluminium in the construction of an airscrew.
In the nineteenth century, several theories concerning propellers were proposed. The momentum theory or disk actuator theory - a theory describing a mathematical model of an ideal propeller - was developed by W.J.M. Rankine (1865), A.G. Greenhill (1888) and R.E. Froude (1889). The propeller is modelled as an infinitely thin disc, inducing a constant velocity along the axis of rotation. and creating a flow around the propeller.
A screw turning through a solid will have zero "slip"; but as a propeller screw operates in a fluid (either air or water), there will be some losses. The most efficient propellers are large-diameter slow-turning screws, such as on big ships; the least efficient props are small diameter fast-turning (such as on an outboard motor). Using Newton's laws of motion, one may usefully think of a propeller's forward thrust as being a proportionate reaction to the volume of fluid sent backward; thus a large propeller will eject a bigger and heavier cylinder of fluid than will a small prop. (One could consider the efficiency of a modern aircraft's huge turbofan engine, compared to an early jetliner's small-diameter turbojet).
The geometry of a marine screw propeller is based on a helicoidal surface. This may form the face of the blade, or the blades face may be described by offsets from this surface. The back of the blade is described by offsets from the helicoid surface in the same way that an aerofoil may be described by offsets from the chord line. The pitch surface may be a true helicoid or one having a warp to provide a better match of angle of attack to the wake velocity over the blades. A warped helicoid is described by specifying the shape of the radial reference line and the pitch angle in terms of radial distance. The traditional propeller drawing includes four parts, A side elevation, which defines the rake, the variation of blade thickness from root to tip, a longitudinal section through the hub, and a projected outline of a blade onto a longitudinal centreline plane. The expanded blade view shows the section shapes at their various radii, with their pitch faces drawn parallel to the base line, and thickness parallel to the axis. The outline indicated by a line connecting the leading and trailing tips of the sections depicts the expanded blade outline. The pitch diagram shows variation of pitch with radius from root to tip. The transverse view shows the transverse projection of a blade and the developed outline of the blade.
The blades are the foil section plates that develop thrust when the propeller is rotated The hub is the central part of the propeller, which connects the blades together and fixes the propeller to the shaft. Rake is the angle of the blade to a radius perpendicular to the shaft. Skew is the tangential offset of the line of maximum thickness to a radius
The propeller characteristics are commonly expressed as dimensionless ratios:
Cavitation is the formation of vapor bubbles in water near a moving propeller blade in regions of low pressure due to Bernoulli's principle. It can occur if an attempt is made to transmit too much power through the screw, or if the propeller is operating at a very high speed. Cavitation can waste power, create vibration and wear, and cause damage to the propeller. It can occur in many ways on a propeller. The two most common types of propeller cavitation are suction side surface cavitation and tip vortex cavitation.
Suction side surface cavitation forms when the propeller is operating at high rotational speeds or under heavy load (high blade lift coefficient). The pressure on the upstream surface of the blade (the "suction side") can drop below the vapor pressure of the water, resulting in the formation of a vapor pocket. Under such conditions, the change in pressure between the downstream surface of the blade (the "pressure side") and the suction side is limited, and eventually reduced as the extent of cavitation is increased. When most of the blade surface is covered by cavitation, the pressure difference between the pressure side and suction side of the blade drops considerably, as does the thrust produced by the propeller. This condition is called "thrust breakdown". Operating the propeller under these conditions wastes energy, generates considerable noise, and as the vapor bubbles collapse it rapidly erodes the screw's surface due to localized shock waves against the blade surface.
Tip vortex cavitation is caused by the extremely low pressures formed at the core of the tip vortex. The tip vortex is caused by fluid wrapping around the tip of the propeller; from the pressure side to the suction side. This video demonstrates tip vortex cavitation. Tip vortex cavitation typically occurs before suction side surface cavitation and is less damaging to the blade, since this type of cavitation doesn't collapse on the blade, but some distance downstream.
Variable-pitch propellers (also known as controllable-pitch propellers) have significant advantages over the fixed-pitch variety. Advantages include:
An advanced type of propeller used on German Type 212 submarines is called a skewback propeller. As in the scimitar blades used on some aircraft, the blade tips of a skewback propeller are swept back against the direction of rotation. In addition, the blades are tilted rearward along the longitudinal axis, giving the propeller an overall cup-shaped appearance. This design preserves thrust efficiency while reducing cavitation, and thus makes for a quiet, stealthy design.
A modular propeller provides more control over the boat's performance. There is no need to change an entire prop, when there is an opportunity to only change the pitch or the damaged blades. Being able to adjust pitch will allow for boaters to have better performance while in different altitudes, water sports, and/or cruising.
Voith Schneider propellers use four untwisted straight blades turning around a vertical axis instead of helical blades and can provide thrust in any direction at any time, at the cost of higher mechanical complexity.
For smaller engines, such as outboards, where the propeller is exposed to the risk of collision with heavy objects, the propeller often includes a device that is designed to fail when overloaded; the device or the whole propeller is sacrificed so that the more expensive transmission and engine are not damaged.
Typically in smaller (less than 10 hp or 7.5 kW) and older engines, a narrow shear pin through the drive shaft and propeller hub transmits the power of the engine at normal loads. The pin is designed to shear when the propeller is put under a load that could damage the engine. After the pin is sheared the engine is unable to provide propulsive power to the boat until a new shear pin is fitted.
In larger and more modern engines, a rubber bushing transmits the torque of the drive shaft to the propeller's hub. Under a damaging load the friction of the bushing in the hub is overcome and the rotating propeller slips on the shaft, preventing overloading of the engine's components. After such an event the rubber bushing may be damaged. If so, it may continue to transmit reduced power at low revolutions, but may provide no power, due to reduced friction, at high revolutions. Also, the rubber bushing may perish over time leading to its failure under loads below its designed failure load.
Whether a rubber bushing can be replaced or repaired depends upon the propeller; some cannot. Some can, but need special equipment to insert the oversized bushing for an interference fit. Others can be replaced easily. The "special equipment" usually consists of a funnel, a press and rubber lubricant (soap). If one does not have access to a lathe, an improvised funnel can be made from steel tube and car body filler; as the filler is only subject to compressive forces it is able to do a good job. Often, the bushing can be drawn into place with nothing more complex than a couple of nuts, washers and a threaded rod. A more serious problem with this type of propeller is a "frozen-on" spline bushing, which makes propeller removal impossible. In such cases the propeller must be heated in order to deliberately destroy the rubber insert. Once the propeller is removed, the splined tube can be cut away with a grinder and a new spline bushing is then required. To prevent a recurrence of the problem, the splines can be coated with anti-seize anti-corrosion compound.
In some modern propellers, a hard polymer insert called a drive sleeve replaces the rubber bushing. The splined or other non-circular cross section of the sleeve inserted between the shaft and propeller hub transmits the engine torque to the propeller, rather than friction. The polymer is weaker than the components of the propeller and engine so it fails before they do when the propeller is overloaded. This fails completely under excessive load, but can easily be replaced.
Weed hatches and rope cutters
Whereas the propeller on a large ship will be immersed in deep water and free of obstacles and flotsam, yachts, barges and river boats often suffer propeller fouling by debris such as weed, ropes, cables, nets and plastics. British narrowboats invariably have a weed hatch over the propeller, and once the narrowboat is stationary, the hatch may be opened to give access to the propeller, enabling debris to be cleared. Yachts and river boats rarely have weed hatches; instead they may fit a rope cutter that fits around the prop shaft and rotates with the propeller. These cutters clear the debris and obviate the need for divers to attend manually to the fouling. Rope cutters take four forms:
A cleaver is a type of propeller design especially used for boat racing. Its leading edge is formed round, while the trailing edge is cut straight. It provides little bow lift, so that it can be used on boats that do not need much bow lift, for instance hydroplanes, that naturally have enough hydrodynamic bow lift. To compensate for the lack of bow lift, a hydrofoil may be installed on the lower unit. Hydrofoils reduce bow lift and help to get a boat out of the hole and onto plane.