Today’s rockets are remarkable collections of human ingenuity that have their roots in the science and technology of the past. They are natural outgrowths of literally thousands of years of experimentation and research on rockets and rocket propulsion.
One of the first devices to successfully employ the principles essential to rocket flight was a wooden bird. The writings of Aulus Gellius, a Roman, tell a story of a Greek named Archytas who lived in the city of Tarentum, now a part of southern Italy. Somewhere around the year 400 B.C., Archytas mystified and amused the citizens of Tarentum by flying a pigeon made of wood. Escaping steam propelled the bird suspended on wires. The pigeon used the action-reaction principle, which was not stated as a scientific law until the 17th century.
About three hundred years after the pigeon, another Greek, Hero of Alexandria, invented a similar rocket-like device called an aeolipile. It, too, used steam as a propulsive gas.
Hero mounted a sphere on top of a water kettle. A fire below the kettle turned the water into steam, and the gas traveled through pipes to the sphere. Two L-shaped tubes on opposite sides of the sphere allowed the gas to escape, and in doing so gave a thrust to the sphere that caused it to rotate.
Just when the first true rockets appeared is unclear. Stories of early rocket-like devices appear sporadically through the historical records of various cultures. Perhaps the first true rockets were accidents. In the first century A.D., the Chinese reportedly had a simple form of gunpowder made from saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal dust. To create explosions during religious festivals, they filled bamboo tubes with a mixture and tossed them into fires. Perhaps some of those tubes failed to explode and instead skittered out of the fires, propelled by the gases and sparks produced by the burning gunpowder.
The Chinese began experimenting with the gunpowder filled tubes. At some point, they attached bamboo tubes to arrows and launched them with bows. Soon they discovered that these gunpowder tubes could launch themselves just by the power produced from the escaping gas. The true rocket was born.
The date reporting the first use of true rockets was in 1232. At this time, the Chinese and the Mongols were at war with each other. During the battle of Kai-Keng, the Chinese repelled the Mongol invaders by a barrage of “arrows of flying fire.” These fire-arrows were a simple form of a solid-propellant rocket. A tube, capped at one end, contained gunpowder. The other end was left open and the tube was attached to a long stick. When the powder was ignited, the rapid burning of the powder produced fire, smoke, and gas that escaped out the open end and produced a thrust. The stick acted as a simple guidance system that kept the rocket headed in one general direction as it flew through the air. It is not clear how effective these arrows of flying fire were as weapons of destruction, but their psychological effects on the Mongols must have been formidable.
Following the battle of Kai-Keng, the Mongols produced rockets of their own and may have been responsible for the spread of rockets to Europe. All through the 13th to the 15th centuries there were reports of many rocket experiments. In England, a monk named Roger Bacon worked on improved forms of gunpowder that greatly increased the range of rockets. In France, Jean Froissart found that more accurate flights could be achieved by launching rockets through tubes. Froissart’s idea was the forerunner of the modern bazooka. Joanes de Fontana of Italy designed a surface-running rocket-powered torpedo for setting enemy ships on fire.
By the 16th century rockets fell into a time of disuse as weapons of war, though they were still used for fireworks displays, and a German fireworks maker, Johann Schmidlap, invented the “step rocket,” a multi-staged vehicle for lifting fireworks to higher altitudes. A large sky rocket (first stage) carried a smaller sky rocket (second stage). When the large rocket burned out, the smaller one continued to a higher altitude before showering the sky with glowing cinders. Schmidlap’s idea is basic to all rockets today that go into outer space.
Nearly all uses up to this time were for warfare or fireworks, but there is an interesting old Chinese legend that reported the use of rockets as a means of transportation. With the help of many assistants, a lesser-known Chinese official named Wan-Hu assembled a rocket- powered flying chair. Attached to the chair were two large kites, and fixed to the kites were forty- seven fire-arrow rockets.
On the day of the flight, Wan-Hu sat himself on the chair and gave the command to light the rockets. Forty-seven rocket assistants, each armed with torches, rushed forward to light the fuses. In a moment, there was a tremendous roar accompanied by billowing clouds of smoke. When the smoke cleared, Wan-Hu and his flying chair were gone. No one knows for sure what happened to Wan-Hu, but it is probable that if the event really did take place, Wan-Hu and his chair were blown to pieces. Fire-arrows were as apt to explode as to fly.