Comments By Frank H. Winter Upon The Article, “The First Scientific Concept Of Rockets For Space Travel by Robert Godwin”

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As the former Curator of Rocketry of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., but now retired, I want to briefly comment upon the article, “The First Scientific Concept of Rockets for Space Travel --- the Story of William Leitch,” by Robert Godwin.

It appears that this author has uncovered the remarkable story of the 19th century Scotch-Canadian astronomer, William Leitch (1814-1864) who, in 1861, suggested that the rocket was a viable means of propulsion for exploring space. This suggestion, along with several other very advanced ideas concerning space flight, appeared in his essay, “A Journey Through Space,” published in the journal Good Words (Edinburgh), Vol. II, for September 1861.

This is remarkable because, as Godwin very ably points out, Leitch's serious writings on this topic predate several historical milestones in the history of the rocket as applied to space flight, as well established in the literature of the history of astronautics (the science of or technology involved in travel beyond the earth's atmosphere, including interplanetary and interstellar flight.)


  1. The classic novel, A Trip to the Moon by Jules Verne was published in 1865, although was preceded by a serialized version of this story that ran in the magazine Journal des Débats (Paris) for a month, beginning on 14 September 1865. However, in this story, Verne's means of launching his fictional manned craft towards the Moon was a giant cannon, not a rocket, although the novel was still well worked out and correct in other technical details and greatly inspired all three of the later pioneers in the earliest history of the theory of space flight by rocket (also called the three founders of space flight theory), the Russian Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), the American Robert H. Goddard (1881-1945), and the Austro-Hungarian-born Hermann Oberth (1894-1989), of German parentage. But it also needs to be added that all of these founders worked independently of each other.
  2. The literature of the history of astronautics also credits Tsiolkovsky with being the first, in 1903, to arrive at his theory of the rocket as the ideal means of achieving space flight, that he also proved mathematically, especially through what is called the “Tsiolkovsky rocket equation,” or “Tsiolkovsky equation,” or “ideal rocket equation,” that describes the motion of vehicles that follow the basic principle of a rocket: a device that can apply acceleration to itself (a thrust) by expelling part of its mass with high speed and thereby move due to the conservation of momentum. However, Tsiolkovsky's thoughts on the use of the rocket principle in space were expressed by him, in his diary, as early as 1883 while a rigorous theory of reaction propulsion was more fully developed by him from 1896 and his first and more definitive treatment of this theory appeared in his article (as translated from the Russian), "The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices,” in the popular Russian science journal Nauchnoye Obozreniye (Scientific Review) (Saint Petersburg), fifth issue (May) 1903. Here, he also laid out and depicted designs for his concepts of liquid-propellant rockets (that he held would be the most efficient and controllable form of the rocket for space travel) and other details.
  3. In 1919 was published, by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the monograph A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes by Dr. Robert H. Goddard, although it was not released until January 1920. Here Goddard, a physics professor with Clark University at Worcester, Mass., not only provided details of his experiments, carried out from 1915 with solid-propellant rockets towards the development of an upper-atmospheric sounding, or research rocket, but he also included a descriptive and mathematical treatment of a hypothetical three-stage, unmanned solid-propellant rocket that might be capable of a flight to the Moon. (Goddard had merely wished to present, to fellow academics, mathematical proof of the utmost capability of the rocket if was developed further but instead, this part of his treatise, unexpectedly unleashed an enormous amount of popular attention in the press world-wide that virtually introduced the idea of the “space rocket” in the West since the works of Tsiolkovsky, who continued to write on space flight after his 1903 article, was almost unheard of outside of Russia due to language problems besides the Geo-political isolation of that country at the time. Nonetheless, Goddard, as is now well documented, became more secretive in his continued experiments and even his flight of the world's first liquid-propellant rocket by him on 16 March 1926 was not publicized until a full decade later with the appearance of his second Smithsonian treatise, Liquid-propellant Rocket Development, published in March 1936.
  4. In the meantime, in 1923, Oberth's landmark 87-page book, Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket into Planetary Space) appeared in which, for the first time, he presented not only his own ideas on liquid-propellant manned rockets, but pointed out that this technology was feasible within the then, current levels of technology, and he vigorously advocated its development. In addition, he provided details on applications of space flight, the possibilities of “hazards” during space flight (stray meteors, for example), the possible effects of extreme acceleration and weightlessness upon the human body but he also went into life-support systems and he even proposed an artificial satellite that might be orbited by rocket and a manned “observation station” (i.e. a space station) that might be built and launched and regularly encircle the Earth as a new tool for geographic and astronomical research and as an aid in weather observation, ship navigation, and so on. Hence, Oberth's little book, that was considerably expanded in 1929 with another work by Oberth, Wege zur Raumschiffahrt (Ways to Space Flight) virtually helped pave the way for both a renewed interest in the rocket as applied to space flight but also led to the creation of an international space flight and rocketry movement that set the stage for the later Space Age that opened on 4 October 1957 with the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, by the then, USSR.

(It should be borne in mind that there were other pioneers in astronautics during this early pre- and post World War I period, such as the Frenchman Robert Esnault-Pelterie---and perhaps yet others that may later be discovered---and this is why, for convenience sake, why Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, and Oberth are generally accepted and referred to here as the three “principal” founders.”)

Leitch's Place

Now, where does William Leitch's 1861 “A Journey Through Space” article fit into the overall picture?

Unfortunately, unlike the three founders of the theory of space flight, Leitch does not expound at length upon the rocket for space flight, nor describes how its technology might be further developed towards this goal; nor does he venture into the mathematics of rocket flight in a vacuum, as in space. Nonetheless, he intellectually reasoned his clear belief that the rocket moves by what he called “internal reaction.” That is, he recognized that the principle of Sir Isaac Newton's Third of Law of Motion (“For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction”), as originally stated in Newton's Principia (Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica), or Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, of 1687 correctly explains rocket motion and that this action can also take place within a vacuum. “The velocity,” Leitch continued, “would, indeed, be greater in a vacuum than in the atmosphere...(and) we might with such a machine transcend boundaries of our globe (Earth), and visit other orbs.”

Yet, Leitch wrote boldly those words at a time when the rocket was strictly a gunpowder Guy Fawkes or other firework, or crude military or signal rocket---not much else---and when even professional military men and the vast majority of scientists and lay people of the day maintained that the rocket “moved” simply because its exhaust “pushed” against the air. (In my own extensive researches into this key issue, I have found and included in my historical writings that there were two main schools of thought on rocket motion---those who believed that the rocket “needed” air to “push against (or what I call the “air pushers”) and those who did not, and thought the rocket moved by some other principle, and potentially could work in a vacuum. I also found that, by far, the “air pusher” school predominated, and even existed up to and way beyond Goddard's day and that, at the very least, Goddard sought to correct this false notion in one of more of his popular articles and responses to reporters at the time, following the unwanted splash of his “Moon rocket” publicity in the press and despite the fact that he proved the rocket can work in a vacuum in laboratory tests that also appear in his A Method. (I have even found backward and forward “debates” on this question of rocket motion in 19th century issues of The Scientific American and other learned publications of the period.)

Leitch was thus an incredibly forward thinker and his brief, 1861 discussion of the rocket for space flight should somewhat alter our conventional understanding of mankind's development of the idea that the rocket is indeed, the most viable means of achieving space flight. Moreover, it should not matter that Leitch's article appeared in Good Words, an essentially religious periodical where we would hardly expect to find the then, “unconventional” and what some may consider secular topic of space flight itself, much less the rocket towards its accomplishment. Leitch, who was also a clergyman, was indeed, an independent (“quite atypical,” as Godwin phrases it) and a wide-ranging thinker who had been very well educated for his day.

He had received a B.A. in 1837 from the University of Glasgow with the highest honours in mathematics and science while in 1838 obtained an M.A. from the same university, and the university conferred a D.D. (Doctor of Divinity) on him in 1860. As a student at Glasgow he lectured on astronomy and was observatory assistant to Professor John Pringle Nichol. He retained his interest in science all his life and became known as “a distinguished astronomer, naturalist and mathematician.” (To his great credit, Godwin also goes more into Leitch's overall biography and other scholastic attainments, particularly in the field of astronomy, as well as the overall history of the appearances---plural---of “A Journey Through Space.”)

Another important and related point here is that Leitch's idea of the space rocket was a serious one and was not merely a literary device as Jules Verne had proposed in the 1870 sequel to his A Trip to the Moon , titled Around the Moon, in which his fictional space voyagers finally resort to firing on-board firework rockets to avoid crashing on the surface of the Moon and then head safely back to Earth without having landed on our natural satellite. An even earlier strictly literary “use” of fireworks” for space flight, as also noted by Godwin, was the novel Voyage dans la Lune (Voyage in the Moon) by the famous swashbuckling French author Cyrano de Bergerac published in 1656 after de Bergerac's death, but written about 1649. Yet, Cyrano's box of firework rockets for lifting off to the Moon was not only a literary device; it was to be taken humorously as were his several other suggested launch modes---like vials of dew strapped to a would-be space traveler since it is known that dew rises in the air with the passage of the morning sun.

Other Observations by Leitch

But also in assessing the contribution of William Leitch, we must include his other, then, quite advanced ideas in regard to the possibilities of space flight as well as on planetary and other bodies in space. In fact, in my view, we should keep everything in its proper context and accept Leitch's writings on space flight as a kind of “package deal,” in modern parlance. (His writings on the space rocket should not be treated as a separate entity, but included with his other ideas in order for us to gain a fuller and more accurate appreciation of his work and thinking.)

Notably, for instance, as Godwin also explains, Leitch also chose another possible mode of space flight---the use of a comet and in his initial writings on space, appearing in monthly installments from January to October 1860 in Vol. I of Good Words, under the general title of “God's Glory in the Heavens,” he even tackled (in the opening part of his series) the question, in a serious vein, of the possibilities of habitable life on the Moon and elsewhere in the solar system besides the possibilities of communications with extraterrestrials if they did exist. (In addressing extraterrestrial life, Leitch rightly stressed---as did Drs. Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, and many other 20th-21st century proponents of the search for extra-terrestrial life—that this was a question of “probability, not of possibility.” Godwin also goes into Leitch's remarkably accurate and even prescient descriptions of the lunar landscape and environment including that of the far side of the Moon, based upon his considerable knowledge of astronomy.

Similar attention is given by Leitch to the nature of comets, the Sun, and some of the planets. For instance, he maintained that it was “not improbable that Neptune has rings like Saturn”---as was discovered in 1984 by astronomers and as marvelously photographed by the Voyager 2 spacecraft when it flew past Neptune in 1989. Leitch also judged that Neptune might have more moons that its single satellite then known, whereas Voyager found a total of eight while today the count has been increased to fourteen.

Still other incredibly far-sighted ideas include the possibilities of the tunneling of an asteroid for human use as a far more advanced method of deep space flight. He even postulated on the possibilities of stellar flight, to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star (excluding our own Sun). But he astutely recognized the enormity of distances in space---and seemed to comprehend the notion of the speed of light and how (as much later revealed to us in Einstein's Theory of Relativity) past events could be observed when the light of those events reaches us after passages of thousands of years.


In sum, we can no longer take it for granted that the consistently cited trio of the principal founders of space flight theory---Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, and Oberth---were the only individuals who seriously thought and wrote about the rocket as the most viable means of achieving space flight, besides more advanced aspects of space flight and the natures of bodies in space. William Leitch is less well known than the first three, but he should now be included in the overall picture, especially since he pre-dated them.

Frank H. Winter © Copyright October 2015