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A brief history of rocketry. Part 1: How ancient dreams took to the sky

Ben Gilliland
Feb 8, 2012, 8:00 UTC, Updated Dec 12, 2014, 19:32 UTC

Sen—Prehistoric man had a lot to worry about. There was the mammoth hunt, fish spearing, nut gathering, shelter finding, avoiding becoming sabre-tooth cat food or becoming a dirty smear on a wild boar’s tusks. Then (if you made it to your thirties) there was old age to worry about.

Hunter-gathering was a full-time occupation that left very little time for flights of fancy.

Then (about 13,000 years ago) man came up with a new way of life: they would settle in one place, cultivate crops and bend the landscape to their will. Man had invented farming.

Along with farming, came another invention: free time. Almost overnight, survival wasn’t the only thing on man’s mind and his imagination was set free. All of a sudden he could indulge in flights of fancy—and his fancy settled on flight.

Humans have always envied the freedom enjoyed by the creatures of the air and it didn’t take us long to weave these dreams into our mythology. The Persians had King Kai Kawus who was tempted by evil spirits to invade heaven with the help of a flying chariot. The Greeks had the father and son team of Daedalus and Icarus who, born aloft on wings of wax and feathers, escaped imprisonment and the confines of the Earth.

While the dreamers wove myths, more practical men were laying the foundations upon which mankind would eventually build the machines that would carry us into the heavens for real.

Early experiments 
Humanty's first faltering steps toward flight were taken by the Chinese.

As far back as 2,800 years ago, the Chinese figured out that if they attached sheets of silk to a bamboo frame, it would catch the wind and be carried into the sky. That most basic of flying machines, the kite, had been born.

Ancient Chinese sources suggest that kites were used for measuring distances and communications. There are even records that kites were used to lift men—but you might have wanted to give the experience a miss because these earliest “flights” seem to have been used as an inventive form of execution (presumably involving a fairly rough landing).

In about 100BC, a Greek inventor known as Hero of Alexandria invented a machine that used principles that would one-day be harnessed by steam engines and rockets.

Designed as nothing more than a novelty, Hero’s Aeolipile was a small water-filled sphere that, when heated above a flame, would spin at great speed. The heat turned the water inside to steam, which was allowed to escape through a narrow tube. The escaping steam provided the thrust needed to caused the device to spin.

Unfortunately, not even Hero saw the potential of his ‘toy’ – if he had, we might have gone to the Moon a thousand years ago. But he didn’t and his device was forgotten for almost 2,000 years.

The first record we have of a rocket as we would recognise it comes from China in the first century AD.

The Chinese had invented a simple form of gunpowder made from saltpeter, sulphur and charcoal, which they used to create crowd-pleasing explosions at religious festivals. Their firecrackers were made by filling a bamboo tube with gunpowder, sealing the ends and tossing them into a fire. How the progression was made to rocketry is unclear (perhaps the seal came off one end of the firecracker one day and, instead of exploding, it burst out of the fire).

The rocket is born 
Skip forward 1,300 years or so and we find the Chinese in a spot of bother. The year is 1232 and the all-conquering Mongol hordes are giving them a bit of a thrashing and have laid siege to the city of Kai-fung-fu. Since those early days of gunpowder firecrackers, the Chinese had been working on their rocket technology and during the siege they unleashed a barrage of ‘fire arrows’ on the (almost certainly) surprised Mongols.

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The Chinese "fire arrow" – a firework with a sting in its tail

The design was simple but in many respects was no different to the solid rocket boosters used 850 years later to lift the Space Shuttle into orbit.

A tube was filled with gunpowder and capped at one end. The other end was left open and the tube was attached to a long stick. When the powder was ignited, it burned so quickly that a great deal of gas was produced. Confined within the tube, the gas was forced out of the open end in a powerful jet—providing thrust (the stick was a sort of crude guidance system that helped to stabilise the rocket and keep it flying straight and true).

It is unclear how effective these early rockets were as a weapon of destruction, but they must have made an impression on the Mongols, because it didn’t take long for them to start using them too.

There is a wonderful Chinese legend that is (literally) attached to the rocket. It recounts the tale of an official, called Wan-Hu (imaged below) who decided he wanted to fly to Moon.

He sat in a wicker chair to which he had attached 47 “large” rockets. When the fuses were ignited by 47 torch-wielding assistants, there was a mighty roar and the area was engulfed in a cloud of smoke. When the smoke cleared, the chair and Wan-Hu had vanished. He either beat Neil Armstrong to the Moon by almost 500 years or was vapourised on his wicker chair—either way, he does have the consolation of having a crater on the far side of Moon named after him.


The rocket and the art of war
Fantastical tales aside, over the next few centuries, the rocket remained as little more than an object of curiousity.

Throughout the 13th to 15th century people experimented with ways to make the rocket an effective military technology – including an Italian inventor who designed a rocket-powered torpedo that would skip across the water and set enemy ships alight – but they were rarely used outside of fireworks displays.

But a Polish artillery expert called Kazimierz Siemienowicz was convinced that the power of rockets could be harnessed for war.

In 1650, he published a book, Artis Magnae Artilleriae (Great Art of Artillery), in which he described designs for multistage stage rockets and delta wing stabilisers (to replace the wooden rod).

The work became the rocket-makers Bible for more than two centuries and laid the foundations for the multi-stage rocketry that would one day allow mankind to leave the Earth.

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Above: In the 1650s, Kazimierz Siemienowicz designed multi-stage rockets and came up with delta-wing stabilisers

It was during the European conflicts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that rockets really started to come of age. In 1780, a barrage of Indian rockets gave British troops cause to change their britches (and flee for their lives) at the Battle of Guntur.

The British used iron-cased rockets to attack Napoleon’s headquarters in 1806 and again the following year when they fired some 25,000 rockets against Copenhagen. Incredibly, despite Kazimierz’s invention of the delta wing some 150 years earlier, all these rockets still used a stick to provide stability.

By the mid-19th century weapons manufacturers had figured out that a spinning projectile would fly further and stay on course for longer. This led to development of the rifled barrel gun, or rifle.

The first person to think of applying this principle to rocketry was a British inventor called William Hale. In 1844, he removed the guide stick and instead constructed a rocket with a combination of tail fins and small nozzles, which vented (or vectored) part of the rocket’s thrust to create spin. In the 20th century, vectored thrust would provide essential stability to the large finless rockets that would carry men into space.

But, by the end of the 19th century rockets were being literally outgunned by a new generation of artillery pieces. Breech-loading cannon with rifled barrels and exploding warheads had rendered rockets obsolete and they wouldn’t play a significant part in war again until WWII.

But developments in rocketry hadn’t been restricted to the field of battle. All over the world, enthusiasts, inventors and (not a few) crackpots were experimenting with rockets.

Fun with rockets
In Paris in 1806, Claude Ruggieri, an Italian inventor used rockets to send sheep into “space”. They were blasted to an altitude of 600ft before returning to Earth by parachute. He had intended to send a child up in one of his rockets but unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) the local police put a stop to the escapade.

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Above: After sending sheep up in his rockets, Claude Ruggieri was foiled by the local police when he attempted the same trick with a child

Postal services in both America and Europe experimented with using rockets to deliver the mail. Meanwhile, at sea, sailors were using shoulder-launched, rocket-propelled harpoons to kill whales and rocket-propelled safety lines were being used to rescue sailors from floundering vessels.

Dreaming of space
Theorists were also starting to take an interest in rocketry and even beginning to consider them as a means to achieve space travel. One unlikely pioneer was a self-taught Russian school teacher called Konstantian Tsiolkovsky.

In 1898 he proposed the idea of using rockets to explore outer space – an idea that he expanded upon five years later.

He suggested that, in place of traditional solid fuel rockets, liquid propellants could greatly increase a rocket’s range. He also figured out that the range and speed of a rocket is only limited by the exhaust velocity of the escaping gases and calculated that a rocket would need to reach a speed of about eight kilometres per second to escape the pull of Earth’s gravity.

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Above: Konstantian Tsiolkovsky and a mock-up of one of his designs for a multi-stage, manned spacecraft

In 1926, he proposed that artificial Earth satellites combined with manned platforms (space stations) could be used as way stations for interplanetary flight, and in 1929, designed a multistage rocket that he described as a “rocket train.

This incredible, visionary thinker also designed rockets with steering thrusters, airlocks and systems for providing food and oxygen for space colonies. He even suggested that a “celestial castle” could be built in geosynchronous orbit, attached to the Earth by a cable and used to carry materials into space. In essence he had invented a “space elevator”.

All of Tsiolkovsky’s ideas became a reality (although engineers are still working on the space elevator idea – but they are working on it) and it is for this reason that he has been called the father of modern astronautics.

At about the same time that Tsiolkovsky was publishing his ideas about rocket flight, on the other side of the Atlantic, two brothers were finally making heavier-than-air flight a reality.

Despite more than two millennia of ideas and experimentations, at the dawn of the 20th century mankind had yet to gain dominion over the sky. Flight technology had moved on very little since the Montgolfier brothers’ historic first balloon flight in 1783. As a reliable method of transportation, balloon left a lot to be desired because, although balloons had the capacity to carry men through the air, they were very much at the mercy of the winds – where you ended up was very much down to luck.

Then in 1903, above the sandy dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Wilbur and Orville Wright took to the air in a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft that was (perhaps most importantly) steerable. The flight of the “Wright Flyer” only lasted 12 seconds and Orville only travelled 120ft, but the stage was set for mankind to conquer the skies and, before long, he would conquer the heavens too.

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Above: The Wright Flyer didn't travel very far, but it marked man's first step towards conquering the heavens