The Kirsten Wind Tunnel

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Professor Kirsten's foresight in obtaining the seemingly unobtainable created the right wind tunnel at the right place at the right time for the benefit of the University of Washington, and indeed the nation and the world.

--Walter Christiansen and Robert Joppafootnote 1

In 1934, UW aeronautics and astronautics professor Frederick K. Kirsten designed and obtained the funds to build a large wind tunnel on campus, a facility that bears his name and is still in use today. Over the years, through this facility and the UW's unique relationship with the Boeing company, the University has contributed greatly to the development of the nation's multiengine military and transport aircraft.

The wind tunnel project was funded through the joint effort of the Boeing company, the Washington State Legislature, and the federal government. Completed in 1938, the tunnel operated in the subsonic range of wind velocities. It featured a rectangular cross section measuring eight by twelve feet, and it generated an airflow of 250 miles per hour. It was put to immediate use by student crews testing new aircraft designs for Boeing and other companies.

All of the Boeing designs of the prewar and World War II years passed through the Kirsten Wind Tunnel for testing, in addition to other craft such as the North American AT-6, the B-25 and P-51, the Chance Vought XOS2U-1, the Consolidated Vultee B-24, and the Grumman F4F-3.

After World War II, Boeing constructed its own wind tunnel test facilities, but to this day continues to use the Kirsten Wind Tunnel for some of its low-speed test work. The UW carried out much of the low-speed testing on the B-47--the country's first swept-wing jet bomber--as well as the B-52, the Dash-80 Model 707 jet tanker/transport prototype, and Boeing's commercial transport craft.

Kirsten is known perhaps as much for his work outside of academic circles as he is for his wind tunnel. A prolific inventor, he designed the popular Kirsten Pipe, which is still in production and is considered "the Cadillac of smoking pipes."footnote 2 Ordered to quit smoking by his doctor in 1936, Kirsten turned to wooden pipes but didn't find one to his liking. He designed a model with several improvements: an aluminum stem that cooled the smoke, a tissue-paper filter to remove impurities, and a more efficient bowl to burn the tobacco.

Kirsten Wind Tunnel [Kirsten Wind Tunnel]

Directional air-raid sirens, special fire extinguishers, standard voltage neon lights, anti-bug lamps, and innovative boat propellers: these are but a few other examples of the nearly 100 patented inventions created over the years by Frederick Kirsten.footnote 3

  1. Walter H. Christiansen, Professor and Chair, and Robert Joppa, Professor Emeritus, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, 98195, personal communication. Assistance provided by Drs. Christiansen and Joppa is greatly appreciated.
  2. Legacy of Flight: The Guggenheim Contribution to American Aviation, Richard P. Hallion, University of Washington Press, 1977.
  3. Sexless Oysters and Self-Tipping Hats: 100 Years of Invention in the Pacific Northwest, Adam Woog, Sasquatch Books, Seattle, 1991.

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