A Brief Account of the Origins of Rocketry in Less than 1,000 Words


Although it is unclear who first invented rockets, many investigators link the first crude rockets with the discovery of gunpowder. The Chinese, moreover, had been using gunpowder for some 1,800 years. The first firecrackers seemed to have appeared about the first two centuries after the beginning of the Common Era, and the Chinese were using rockets in warfare at least by the time of Genghis Khan (ca. 1155-1227). Not long thereafter the use of rockets in warfare began to spread to the West, and was in use by at least by the time of Konrad Kyser von Eichstadt, who wrote Bellfortis in 1405, the use of rockets in military operations was reasonably well known in Europe.

The use of gunpowder rockets was refined through the first part of the nineteenth century. Essentially, the military application for rocketry—and there was little other at the time—was as a type of artillery. Sir William Congreve (1772-1828) carried rocket technology as far as it was to go for another century, developing incendiary barrage missiles for the British military that could be fired from either land or sea. They were used with effect against the United States in the War of 1812; it was probably Congreve’s weapons that Francis Scott Key wrote about in the “Star Spangled Banner” while imprisoned on a British warship during the bombardment of Fort McHenry at Baltimore. The military use of the rocket was soon outmoded in the nineteenth century by developments, making artillery both more accurate and more destructive, but new uses for rockets were found in other industries such as whaling and for sea-going shipping where rocket-powered harpoons and rescue lines began to be employed.

William Congreve had served in the Royal Artillery briefly in 1791 but worked as a technician at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, England, when he began experimenting with rockets. By 1806 he was producing 32 pound rockets with a range of more than 3,000 yards. Congreve’s invention enabled artillery without the movement of heavy guns; wherever a packhorse or an infantryman could go, the rocket could provide support.

William Congreve had served in the Royal Artillery briefly in 1791 but worked as a technician at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, England, when he began experimenting with rockets. By 1806 he was producing 32 pound rockets with a range of more than 3,000 yards. Congreve’s invention enabled artillery without the movement of heavy guns; wherever a packhorse or an infantryman could go, the rocket could provide support.

This illustration shows the manner in which the Congreve rocket could be deployed by soldiers on the battlefield.

This illustration shows the manner in which the Congreve rocket could be deployed by soldiers on the battlefield.

Here rescuers are using a rocket to fire a line over to a ship in distress. A strong line is then hauled to the ship which can be used to either guide a rescue boat or establish tackle to bring ashore individuals.

Here rescuers are using a rocket to fire a line over to a ship in distress. A strong line is then hauled to the ship which can be used to either guide a rescue boat or establish tackle to bring ashore individuals.

While the technology of rocketry was moving forward on other fronts, some individuals began to advocate their use for space travel. One of the earliest pioneering figures was the Russian theoretician Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), who had been inspired by the science fiction of Verne and Wells. An obscure schoolteacher in a remote part of Tsarist Russia in 1898, he submitted for publication to the Russian journal, Nauchnoye Obozreniye (Science Review), a work based upon years of calculations that laid out many of the principles of modern space flight. His article was not published until 1903, but it opened the door to future writings on the subject.

A second rocket pioneer was Hermann Oberth (1894-1989), a German who published the classic study, Die Rakete zu den Planetenraumen (Rockets in Planetary Space) in 1923. It represented a thorough discussion of almost every phase of rocket spaceflight and inspired many to follow his lead. Among his proteges was Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), the senior member of the rocket team that built NASA’s Saturn launch vehicle for the actual trip to the Moon in the 1960s.

The American Rocket Society (ARS) began life on April 4, 1930, under the name American Interplanetary Society but it soon began rocket experiments and changes its name to more effectively reflect its experimental work. Here is a plan for the ARS-2, an improvement on a German design. It used liquid oxygen and gasoline propellants, and was successfully launched on May 14, 1933, although the rocket veered after takeoff and reached only a 75 mile high altitude. Successive rockets refined the design.

The American Rocket Society (ARS) began life on April 4, 1930, under the name American Interplanetary Society but it soon began rocket experiments and changes its name to more effectively reflect its experimental work. Here is a plan for the ARS-2, an improvement on a German design. It used liquid oxygen and gasoline propellants, and was successfully launched on May 14, 1933, although the rocket veered after takeoff and reached only a 75 mile high altitude. Successive rockets refined the design.

Although the work of rocketeers was path-breaking, only World War II truly altered the course of rocket development. Many combatants were involved in developing some type of rocket technology. As an example, the Soviet Union fielded the “Katusha,” a solid fueled rocket six feet in length and carrying almost fifty pounds of explosives that could be fired from either a ground- or truck-mounted launcher.

The United States began in earnest in 1943 to develop a rocket capability, and several efforts were aimed in that direction. One of the most significant was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where a team under the brilliant Hungarian scientist, Dr. Theodore von Karman (1881-1963), began developing a rocket for use in launching aircraft on short runways and then graduated to the development of the WAC Corporal, which became a significant launch vehicle in postwar rocket research. Others built various types of hand-held anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets as well as the JATO rockets.

Of course, research and development efforts in Germany led to the V-2 ballistic missile, the first truly effective missile of the modern era.

This image from 1941 shows the Ercoupe, a “rocket-assisted” airplane, taking off using a shorter runway than the plane still on the ground. Both planes started at the same position and time.

This image from 1941 shows the Ercoupe, a “rocket-assisted” airplane, taking off using a shorter runway than the plane still on the ground. Both planes started at the same position and time.

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