The First Scientific Concept of Rockets for Space Travel by Robert Godwin

From The Space Library

Jump to: navigation, search



In 1861 a Scottish-Canadian astronomer named William Leitch correctly suggested that rockets would be a viable engine for powering space flight. His proposal explicitly described how rockets, following Newtonian principles, would work more efficiently in space than in the atmosphere, and would outperform any other method of flight. His proposal considerably predates all of the previously similar ideas attributed to the Russian Tsiolkovsky and the American Goddard, and even predates the fictional lunar satire of Jules Verne. The purpose of this paper is to draw attention to the life of this long forgotten astronomer and academic, to show that despite his traditional monotheistic perspective, he was schooled in many sciences and accurately merged disciplines to reach sound scientific conclusions; and to demonstrate that the practical concept of rocket-propelled space travel should be pushed back in history by several decades. The following is an overview of the conventional history of the subject followed by an analysis of Leitch's work in the subsequent chapters.

Jules Verne

If history text books tell us anything, it is to question things and to never rest on our laurels and always be prepared for change. Indeed it is with the invention of history that we first became consciously aware of change.

The entire prevailing history of rocketry tells us that modern space travel was the invention of a few singular minds, most of whom were working in almost solitary conditions. Those names now ring down to us through history texts spanning more than a century of scholarly achievement. The usual cited source of inspiration for space travel seems to have almost always been a legendary French fiction writer.

On February 8th 1828, Pierre Verne and his wife Sophie Alotte de la Füye, announced the birth of their first child, a son named Jules. In 1841, when he was only thirteen years old, the daring young Verne decided to participate in the new era of adventure by signing on as a cabin boy aboard a passing merchant ship. Needless to say his father knew nothing of this until it was almost too late. Pierre quickly found out where his son had gone and intercepted him at the next port. Fortunately the future of space history was spared by Jules’ capture. As you will see in the pages ahead, Jules Verne was not the only young teen attracted by the romance of adventures at sea.

In 1848 France was in the throes of revolution and Jules Verne found himself spending much of his time in and around the Parisian artistic community. The revolution had spawned hundreds of new publications and good writers were in demand. He enjoyed writing and his artistic friends told him that he had potential. As Verne gradually delved further into this new occupation it became apparent to him that he had found his place.

Verne would spend many hours at a café on the Lycée Henry IV discussing ballistics with his cousin Henri Garcet, who was a mathematician and also an author of books on science and mechanics. The result of these conversations would be published by Verne as a serial, beginning on September 14th 1865 and then running for a month, in the magazine Journal des Débats. Verne’s story came in two parts known as From the Earth to the Moon and A Trip Round the Moon. The latter would not have its first publication until over four years later when it also appeared in the same magazine. After serialisation, both would be published as books.

Verne’s lunar story begins in Baltimore, Maryland and concerns the exploits of a group of American sportsmen who decide to alleviate their boredom by building the world’s biggest gun. The purpose of the enormous enterprise is to use the weapon to send a shell to the moon. Verne studied ballistics (and conversed extensively with his cousin) and then drew up the plans for a gun large enough to launch a projectile to the moon. Although Verne’s cousin Garcet had helped with the mathematics, it was Verne who did the calculations for the legendary spacecraft.

Undoubtedly one of the more remarkable elements of the story is Verne’s choice to construct the gun in Florida at a fictional location only a few miles from where the Kennedy Space Center would stand a hundred years later. It is very likely that Verne understood the dire implications of putting a human inside his projectile, but there is little doubt that From the Earth to the Moon was intended to be satirical.

The gun is dutifully fired and the daring crew of three, a Frenchman and two Americans, is sent on its way. What transpires next is in the second book entitled Round The Moon (more often than not, the two are thought of as one book). It is quite ironic since ultimately they do not reach the moon, but instead have to settle for circumnavigating the satellite and then returning back to Earth. Verne went to great lengths to spell out the details of the flight, even though most of the mathematics would have been entirely wasted on many of his readers, before he brought his valiant crew back to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

Tsiolkovsky, Goddard and Oberth


On September 17th 1857 in a small village called Izhevskoye in Russia, a boy named Konstantin was born to the Tsiolkovsky family. The young Tsiolkovsky loved to read and he remembered having a happy childhood. At the age of nine he contracted scarlet fever which led to deafness; consequently he was unable to attend school and so he was sequestered from the world at large. By the age of fourteen he had found some solace in reading and fortunately his father owned many books on mathematics and science. Tsiolkovsky would become a voracious reader, consuming anything he could find, especially the sciences. His father encouraged him and sent him off to further his education in Moscow, where he barely survived; living on a diet of brown bread and water for days at a time.

At the age of 19 Tsiolkovsky moved back home from Moscow and by the time he was 21 he took up a teaching position at the local school in Kaluga where he taught mathematics and geometry.

While he lived on his meager teacher’s salary he established himself with something of a reputation as the archetypal “mad scientist.” Experiments abounded in his apartment. By 1883, Tsiolkovsky wrote Free Space, a book in which he had turned his attention to Newtonian physics. He was interested in how objects were affected by outside forces in a neutral environment; such as space.

Most significantly he realized that Newton’s law of conservation of energy would be more important in space. Newton’s first law stated, every particle continues in a state of rest or motion with constant speed in a straight line unless compelled by a force to change that state. The second law stated, the net unbalanced force producing a change of motion is equal to the product of the mass and the acceleration of the particle; and finally the third law stated that all forces arise from the mutual interaction of particles and in every such interaction the force exerted on the one particle by the second is equal and opposite to the force exerted by the second on the first.

What the final law actually meant in plain English is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Perhaps the single most important fact that Tsiolkovsky established in his long and industrious career was the realization that a rocket would work in the vacuum of space.

On March 28th 1883 he wrote, “Consider a cask filled with a highly compressed gas. If we open one of its taps the gas will escape through it in a continuous flow, the elasticity of the gas pushing its particles into space will also continuously push the cask itself. The result will be a continuous motion of the cask.” He also postulated that if the cask was to have multiple taps they could be regulated in such a way to make it possible to actually steer the cask.

Now this may not seem particularly startling today, but it is worth noting that as much as 50 years later some people still couldn’t accept the fact that a rocket didn’t need something to push against. The absolutely crucial element here is that Tsiolkovsky knew immediately that a rocket would work in space in exactly the same way as a child’s balloon splutters its way around a room when released.

Tsiolkovsky spent much of his time working on all aspects of aerodynamics but on August 25th 1898 he would put pen to paper with his design for a rocket. He claimed he was inspired by a book published just two years earlier called New Principle of Aeronautics, written by A.P. Fyodorov, in which a jet-propelled vehicle is described. Or perhaps he heard something of a work by I.V. Meshchersky published in 1897, called The Dynamics of a Variable Mass Point. In this book the author presented an equation that described the motion of an object with variable or changing mass; even citing a rocket as an example. However, Tsiolkovsky would later write,“For a long time I thought of the rocket as everybody else did – just as a means of diversion and of petty everyday uses. I do not remember exactly what prompted me to make calculations of its motion. Probably the first seeds of the idea were sown by that great fantastic author Jules Verne: he directed my thoughts along certain channels, then came a desire, and after that, the theory. The old sheet of paper with the final formulae of a rocket device bears the date August 25th 1898. I have never claimed to have solved the problem in full.”

Alexander Petrovich Fyodorov (b. 1872) would get some credit in his later years. Tsiolkovsky referred to the obscure booklet written by Fyodorov as being like Newton’s apple and the factor which had crystallized the idea in his mind to use a reaction engine in spaceflight. Fyodorov postulated that such an engine could be powered by liquid fuels (carbon disulphide and nitric acid) and he requested that anyone who agreed with his idea should contact him if they wanted to finance the construction of his rocket. Fyodorov would go on to become a populariser of science in magazines such as Science and Life and would even create his own magazine called Polytechnica.

The first publication of Tsiolkovsky’s ideas for rockets would not come until 1903, the same year as the Wright brothers’ legendary first flight of a manned, heavier-than-air, powered device. His article appeared in the May issue of the magazine Science Review and was called Investigating Space with Rocket Devices. Tsiolkovsky noted that in a rocket motor Newton’s third law would apply. However, what he also realized was that the Newtonian laws of mechanics were based around a system where the mass of the object was fixed. Tsiolkovsky asked, “What happens if the mass changes?” His answer to this basic question was what made space travel theoretically possible.

But someone had to build the hardware.


Robert Hutchings Goddard was born on October 5th 1882 into a respectable middle class family in Worcester Massachusetts. From a very early age he showed a keen intellect and an intensely inquisitive mind. He used these talents to investigate different aspects of the burgeoning new technology spawned by the Industrial Revolution. On October 19th 1899 Goddard braced a small wooden ladder against the cherry tree in his yard and climbed into the branches. He had just passed his 17th birthday and he was daydreaming when, he later recollected, that he had a vision. Not a hallucination or numinous visitation from God, but a vision of the future, a future which he was convinced could exist. Goddard dreamed that he went to Mars and he arrived there using a machine of his own design. He later climbed down the tree and went inside, whereupon he made a notation in his journal. Almost every year for the rest of his life he would remember and celebrate the anniversary of that day.

On June 15th 1911 he graduated cum laude from his class at Clark University and the next day was introduced for the first time as Dr. Goddard. Later that summer he read an article in the Boston American entitled “When May We Go to the Moon?” He continued to be encouraged by his peers who urged him to direct his obvious talents toward a suitable research project. On the anniversary of his life-changing dream he wrote in his diary that he was looking at various different means of propulsion.

On June 2nd 1913 he started writing the specifications for his first rocket patent. On October 1st the patent was filed at the US Patent office and then was subsequently issued on July 7th of the following year. The accompanying diagrams showed a two stage rocket system using cylindrical discs of solid fuel, an elongated tapered exhaust nozzle, a gyroscope for stabilization and small solid fuel axial thrusters that would be used to spin the rocket. The text of the patent stated, “This invention relates to a rocket apparatus and particularly to a form of such apparatus adapted to transport photographic or other recording instruments to extreme heights.”

Between February 28th and March 11th of 1914, frail and bed ridden with a debilitating disease, Goddard drew up his second rocket patent. After mailing it to the patent office he spent two weeks rethinking the problem. On March 26th he made some modifications, this time the patent would include not only the design for a shotgun-like multiple cartridge launcher but also for a liquid fuel rocket. This was a monumentally important step forward for Goddard and would ultimately assure his immortality in the ranks of space scientists. In late 1919, the Smithsonian published Goddard’s small booklet entitled, A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes in which he outlined all of his principals for building an efficient rocket—although a solid-propellant, unmanned type— for launching into space.

On January 12th 1920 the New York Times published a front-page editorial chastising Goddard for not understanding that a rocket couldn’t work in space because it had no air to push against. This ill-informed article embarrassed the notoriously retiring Goddard into working in ever tightened secrecy. After another six years of quiet research he finally built and launched the first liquid-propelled rocket from a field in Massachusetts. It was March 16th 1926. He also spent some considerable effort in proving experimentally that a rocket would work in a vacuum, and would do so more efficiently than in the atmosphere. He built an ingenious tube-shaped vacuum chamber for this purpose. Decades later the Times would publish an apology to Goddard as men flew to the moon aboard Apollo 11.


In 1914, while Goddard was haggling with the US military over money to build rockets, a young man named Hermann Oberth was being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army. Oberth was 20 years old and he had spent most of the previous few years convalescing from a serious bout of scarlet fever. Oberth was born in Transylvania on June 25th 1894, his father was a popular family doctor. When the First World War began Hermann was forced to fight as an infantryman.

Oberth had been pondering the problem of space travel since reading Verne’s From The Earth to the Moon in the winter of 1905-6. The great fiction writer had inspired the eleven-year-old Oberth to consider the notion that leaving the Earth was actually possible. Hermann Oberth maintained that at a very early age he had independently calculated the acceleration necessary for a successful launch into space. He apparently realized that there would be no feasible way to use a gun, such as Jules Verne’s, for the launch, and so he turned to rockets. The problem with rockets was that it seemed impossible to create an exhaust velocity sufficient to lift the weight of the rocket into space. In 1909 Oberth drew up his first plans for a rocket. It was a solid fuel rocket but it was, nonetheless, a radical departure from the Vernian cannon. It would not be long before Oberth had evolved his theory away from solid fuels and turned to the much higher energy potential of liquid propellants. He claims that he first designed a rocket using hydrogen and oxygen in 1912. It would not be until the summer of 1930 before Oberth would finally build his first primitive liquid fuelled rocket. His disciple was the young son of a German baron named Von Braun.

Wernher von Braun, born in 1912, and destined to become the most famous rocket maker in history also knew, thanks to Oberth, that the rocket was the best solution for space travel. It would be his efforts and those of his Soviet counterpart Sergei Korolev that would finally send humans into space. Both acknowledged Jules Verne as their inspiration.

And so we complete our brief précis of the history of the invention of the rocket for space flight. We have the whole neat and tidy story of how a French science fiction writer proposed using a gun for a manned scientific trip to the moon. How his intellectual heirs, beginning in the late 19th century turned to the gradual and more viable proposal of using the rocket, of how they realized that it would work better in the vacuum of space; how they were subjected to ridicule for making that suggestion, and how they went about proving that this was true.

The fundamental discovery which led to spaceflight was the notion that a rocket, a device driven by Newton’s law of reaction, would be the only thing suitable to push a vehicle through space and that it would in fact work better in space than in the atmosphere.

The men credited with this fundamental truth were first ridiculed, then honored, and finally acclaimed for their work. But the play is missing a player. There was another man who was aware of this basic truth long before Oberth, before Goddard, before Tsiolkovsky, and yes, even before Jules Verne.

His name was William Leitch...Click here for Part 2