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The story of Safran Aircraft Engines – from 1895 to 1944


Re-baptized Safran Aircraft Engines in 2016, SNECMA resulted from the grouping of several private aeronautical companies, whose shares were transferred to the State by governmental order in May 1945. But in fact, the story began much earlier, in 1895. Find out more in this first episode describing the great era of Safran Aircraft Engines.

Gnome Engine
Louis et Laurent Seguin, founders of la Société des moteurs Gnome

Louis Seguin and Société Anonyme des Moteurs Gnome

After graduation from Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris, Louis Seguin started building industrial and ship engines in 1895. In 1900, he participated in the founding of the Société Thévin Frères, Louis Seguin & Cie, whose workshops were on the banks of the Seine river in Argenteuil. Around fifty people worked there, producing Gnom engines under license from the German company Oberursel Motoren. These industrial single-cylinder engines were used to drive machine-tools for workshops.  Louis Seguin soon started his own business to make his own engine, whose name was inspired by his German predecessor: Gnome.

The Gnome engine immediately climbed to first place among stationary kerosene engines. Appreciated for its robustness and rusticity, it soon won over ministers, who imposed it for most of their contracts. The development of combustion engines had been booming since the launch of the car industry and Louis Seguin began researching engines for this sector in 1903.

On June 6, 1905, he and his brothers and cousin, René Luquet de Saint Germain, founded “Société Anonyme des Moteurs Gnome,” which initially targeted the engine market for ships, before moving into cars. Encouraged by his brother, Laurent Seguin, the company produced its first rotary aviation engine in 1908. It was unique in that it had a fixed crankshaft around which the engine cylinders rotated in a star formation. This arrangement offered two main advantages: constant air cooling, even when the plane was stationary, and operating regularity.

Gnome Oméga Engine

The first tests of the Omega engine, adapted to fit a hydroplane-type boat, were carried out in spring 1909. Pilots soon began to show interest in this powerful, lightweight engine. Frenchman Henri Farman, former cyclist and long-distance runner turned aviator, switched his 145kg 50hp Antoinette engine for an Omega weighing just 75kg for the same power, beating the world records for distance and flight time on August 27, 1909. What a great advertisement!

During the 1910s, aircraft equipped with Gnome engines and their pilots clocked up a number of firsts and set one record after another:

  • First hydroplane flight, piloted by Henri Fabre, March 28, 1910;
  • Longest flight duration and longest distance covered without stopping by Henri Farman, December 18, 1910;
  • 100kph attained by Léon Morane in a Blériot monoplane;
  • Several flight time and speed records with passengers by Busson, March 1911;
  • Highest altitude (3,910m) by Roland Garros, September 4, 1911;
  • First victory in air combat for Sergeant Frantz and his mechanic Quenault against a German aircraft in October 1914.

Other manufacturers also started producing rotary engines, including Louis Verdet, founder of Le Rhône engine company.

Morane 138 equipped with a Le Rhône 9C engine in 1938

Louis Verdet and Société des Moteurs Le Rhône

In the 1910s, Louis Verdet, an Arts et Métiers engineer, was studying a rotary engine comprising a star-shaped cylinder cooled by ambient air with an output of 60hp and a weight of 88kg. Based on this study, and after a very brief development period, in 1911 he started production of an engine of the same design but with a higher output of 80hp with nine cylinders: the 9C “Rototo.”

On September 29, 1912, Louis Verdet founded Société des Moteurs Le Rhône” and continued to manufacture the 9C engine that was used on the Morane Parasols of the first French flight squadron, created in 1914.

In the mid-1910s, competition between Gnome and Le Rhône was harsh as they fought to gain a share of the aeronautical engines market. By the end of 1913, Société des Moteurs Gnome had excess production capacity, while Société des Moteurs Le Rhône lacked capacity. This led to a collaboration in January 1914, ultimately leading to an acquisition: Société des Moteurs Le Rhône sold 2,750 shares to its competitor. In March, Le Rhône merged its factories with those of Gnome, which mastered the complexities of industrial manufacture of rotary engines. Two months later, the design offices were brought together. The merger was fully effective on January 12, 1915, in the middle of the First World War, when aviation was experiencing an unprecedented boom.

Paul-Louis Weiller in front of a plane bearing the name "Gnome-Rhone"

Société des Moteurs Gnome et Rhône

The creation of “Société des Moteurs Gnome et Rhône” (SMGR) was finally validated during the extraordinary general meeting on March 20, 1915. Louis Seguin would manage sales, Louis Verdet the factories, and Laurent Seguin the design offices.

This new company continued to manufacture 80hp Lambda, Le Rhône 9J and Gnome Monosoupape engines. These machines demonstrated their excellent performance on a number of airplanes: Potez, Morane, Adolphe Pégoud’s Blériot monoplane (making the first loop-the-loop in 1913) equipped with a Lambda engine, Caudron G3 equipped with the Le Rhône 9C.

During this profitable period for Gnome et Rhône, various licenses were granted throughout the world. The 80hp Le Rhône 9C and the 50hp Gnome Omega were thus produced in Australia, the USA, Russia, Germany and Italy. The Imperial factory in Russia produced the Gnome “Mono” and the 100hp and 110hp Le Rhône 9J as well as the Omega. In Great Britain, the Bristol company also produced the Omega and the Le Rhône 9G, 9J, and 9R.

In 1917, a “forge and foundry” subsidiary was created in Gennevilliers and mechanical manufacturing operations were transferred to the Kellermann plant near Paris. The following year, this intensive engine production phase came to an end, giving way to a much quieter period for the aeronautical industry as a whole. This was also the year of Louis Seguin’s death.

After the First World War, the decline in military orders forced SMGR to diversify its activities. In the early 1920s, it had 29 subsidiaries with 37 different productions, ranging from tractors to textile machines, refrigeration cabinets, sewing machines, typewriters, engines, car chassis and motorcycles... Operating losses began to accumulate, and profits plummeted.

Paul-Louis Weiller was appointed executive director of the company in 1923 and launched a major restructuring operation. He restored the company’s focus to its core business, aviation, also maintaining the motorcycle manufacturing activity. Paul-Louis Weiller was a technological and social pioneer and his innovations succeeded in turning around the company, which went on to become one of the most powerful operators in the global aeronautical industry.

Charles et Gabriel Voisin, founders of La Société anonyme des Aéroplanes Voisin

Louis Blériot, Gabriel Voisin and Aéroplanes Voisin

The world’s first aviation company, “Aéroplanes Voisin,” was founded in 1905 by Louis Blériot and Gabriel Voisin.

Located in Billancourt, the company was already producing several machines by 1906. Its products included the “Florencie,” a device with flapping wings, a helicopter, the “Bolotoff,” and bi-plane gliders derived from the “Chanute,” stabilized by a cellular tailplane. The same year, the company created a motorcycle activated by a tractor propeller driven by Anzani, it reached the speed of 80kph.

In 1907, Gabriel Voisin bought Louis Blériot’s share of the company capital. Charles Voisin joined his brother and the firm became “Les Frères Voisin, Appareils d'Aviation” (flying machines of the Voisin brothers). That year, the company recorded a number of prestigious orders:

  • An aircraft for Léon Delagrange;
  • The nacelle, transmission systems, propeller, rudders and balancers of the “Ville-de-Paris” airship;
  • An aircraft for Henry Farman, used to make the first city-to-city flight (Moumelon-Reims).

Construction developed quickly in the 1910s. The wooden structures of the first aircraft were soon replaced with metal tube frames. This was also the birth of military aviation.

At the start of the First World War, the company was at the peak of its development. With premises of 45,000m², it employed 1,250 people. The first two weeks of the global war involved exceptionally difficult service conditions for the aircraft: take-offs and landings on all kinds of terrain, no indoor storage to protect the aircraft. The wooden constructions suffered from this situation. However, the Voisin brothers resisted these difficulties and the French government soon imposed their products on most aircraft manufacturers.

The period between the wars was difficult for Voisin due to American competition. Gabriel Voisin decided to move away from aviation and adapted his workshops to produce cars. Although they were successful to a certain degree, Voisin cars were high-priced luxury machines and the company soon came into difficulty once again.

In 1937, Paul-Louis Weiller expressed a strong interest in Voisin’s workshops and qualified personnel. An association with Gnome et Rhône enabled the company to bounce back, repairing engines such as the “Jupiter,” the “14 N” and the “14 Mars.”

Advertising poster for Renault aircraft engines

Louis, Marcel, Fernand Renault and Société des Moteurs Renault-Aviation

Louis, Marcel and Fernand Renault officially founded Société Renault Frères on February 25, 1899, in Boulogne-Billancourt. Known for its car manufacturing activity, the company also started to study aircraft engines in 1907.

Between 1908 and 1914, 17 manufacturers chose Renault to equip 49 different types of aircraft. In 1914, when the war broke out, several pioneers of the car industry also turned to aviation. Rolls-Royce is one example, manufacturing French engines under license before creating its own models. Hispano-Suiza did the same.

Caudron, a French aircraft manufacturer founded in 1909, was in difficulty. Its acquisition in 1933 offered Renault an opportunity to extend its activities into the aeronautical sector and thus open a new market for its engines. Société Anonyme des Avions Caudron (or Caudron-Renault) was created to develop lightweight aircraft.

However, its industrial organization was inefficient, with manufacturing activities dispersed between the Renault factories in Boulogne and the Caudron factories in Issy-les-Moulineaux. The situation was clarified in 1937: structural elements and engines were produced by Renault (Société des Moteurs Renault-Aviation, SMRA) and Caudron was responsible for assembly.

Advertising poster for Lorraine aircraft engines

Eugène de Dietrich and the Lorraine-Dietrich company

The French company Lorraine-Dietrich resulted from the consequences of the 1871 Treaty of Frankfurt, under which the German empire annexed the Alsace-Moselle region. It was initially specialized in manufacturing cars, trains, heavy industrial equipment and aircraft engines.

In 1879, in order to continue to supply French railroad companies, Eugène de Dietrich opened a factory to the west of the new border, in Lunéville, Lorraine. In 1897, it was decided to create a separate company under French law: it was called “Société de Dietrich et Compagnie de Lunéville.”


In 1905, the Dietrich pulled out of the business and the company became a corporation. It was named “Société Lorraine des Anciens Etablissements de Dietrich et Compagnie de Lunéville,” better known as Lorraine-Dietrich.

A second factory opened in 1907, this time in Argenteuil near Paris. This plant specialized in passenger car manufacture, with a car that became known as the “Lorraine.” The Lunéville factory was specialized in the production of trains, heavy utility vehicles and racing cars.

The First World War forced Lorraine-Dietrich to turn to heavy military equipment (trucks, wagons, armored vehicles and tanks), while the Argenteuil factories manufactured aircraft engines designed by engineer Marius Barbarou.

Nationalization and creation of SNECMA

Suffering financial problems in the mid-1930s, Lorraine-Dietrich was nationalized in 1937, taking the name “Société Nationale de Construction de Moteurs” (SNCM), before being taken over by Gnome et Rhône in 1941. Gnome et Rhône also took over Voisin, creating a subsidiary in 1938. The nationalization of Gnome et Rhône in August 1945 resulted in the creation of “Société Nationale d'Études et de Construction de Moteur d'Aviation” (SNECMA). SMRA, having become “Atelier Aéronautique de Billancourt,” was nationalized in 1944. Its integration into SNECMA meant the demise of Renault aircraft engines.