The origins of rocketry
Like the wheel or the bow and arrows, the first rockets originated too deep in history to mark their exact birth date or to name their creators. Indisputable is the invention of gun powder in China which paved the way to firearms and to the first known solid-propellant rockets, likely in the early 13th century.
A dart propelled from a cannon was probably invented in England or elsewhere in Western Europe around 1327. The emergence of firearms is dated around 1313. (Photo illustration)
Although in the 20th century rockets came to symbolize one of the most complex engineering systems, rocket technology is based on the simple principle of the reactive motion. From early childhood we know almost instinctively that jumping from a free-floating boat or a wheeled cart will push the vehicle in the opposite direction. The same way, the gas escaping from a bottle will cause it to recoil.
As many other basics of science and technology, the earliest recorded demonstration of reactive motion, using a pressurized substance and purposely built hardware, comes from Ancient Greece. Around 360 BCE, Aulus Gellius in his Noctes Atticae (Attic Nights) described a hollow model of a pigeon moving on a string with the help of water steam bursting through small openings (at the end of its wings?). (348) Another known description of a steam-powered reactive machine -- aeolopile -- is contained in Pneumatica by Hero, who lived in Alexandria either around the first century CE or in the first century BCE. (348, 148)
Despite their enormous potential, these inventions came far ahead of their time and apparently never had significant practical applications during the classical period. It appears that only the perfectioning of gun powder in China around a millennium later provided a usable propellant for the first primitive rockets.
Origins of rocketry in China
Sometimes between the 10th and 13th centuries, Chinese alchemists were tinkering with various chemicals in their endless quest for an elixir of life. Obviously, none of them succeeded with living forever, but instead, they apparently made a deadly discovery. (843)
Historians speculate that true rockets became possible after the Chinese discovered how to distill organic saltpeter -- an oxygen producing ingredient -- to sharply increase the intensity of burning of gunpowder. In parallel, various devices using black powder, such as firecrackers and fire-carrying arrows, were slowly evolving into rockets, which used the propulsive force of black powder to fly, rather than simply carrying the incendiary or explosive charge to the enemy after being launched by other means, such as catapults.
One of the earliest sources widely recognized in the 20th century as describing rocket-propelled weapons is transliterated from Chinese as T-hung-lian-kang-mu. It says that in 1232, during the siege of Beijing (Kai-fung-fu or Kai'feng, north of the Yellow River (102)) by the Mongols, the city's defenders fired missiles, described as "iron nozzles." (791) No doubt, these rocket weapons had appeared some years earlier.
Possibly with the Mongols, who are well known for adopting Chinese military techniques, the knowledge of rockets traveled to Japan, India, the Middle East and then to Europe. In the East, knowledge of rocketry travelled as far as Korea and Java. (348)
Around 1240, the Arab author Ibn Albaithar described a bright white substance (saltpeter -- the key ingredient of gunpowder), which he refered to as "Snow from China." Some forty years later, around 1280, a Syrian military historian, Al-Hasan al-Rammah, described rockets (Chinese arrows) and documented recipes for making gunpowder in "The Book of Fighting on Horseback and With War Engines". The same manuscript also contains a depiction of a strange flounder-like contraption apparently propelled by a gunpowder-like substance and sporting a pair of tails, resembling stabilizers. The caption under the drawing can be translated as "self-moving and combusting egg." (213) Apparently, no other known source described the mysterious weapon, which looked suspiciously as a rocket to the 20the century reader.
Around 1242, or just a decade after the Mongols came under rocket fire in China, Roger Bacon, an English Franciscan monk, rediscovered gunpowder, possibly with the help of Arab writings and/or Chinese sources. Known as a Doctor mirabilis among his contemporaries, Bacon also apparently described how to make a rocket in his book the Epistola.
Bacon recorded the formula of gunpowder as: saltpeter 41.2; charcoal 29.4; sulphur 29.4. To achieve a faster rate of burning, Bacon distilled saltpeter -- the oxygen producing ingredient.
Bacon worked hard to hide his "secret weapon" -- recording the formula in a complex code. It would only be correctly deciphered eight centuries later by Lt. Col. Henry W. L. Hime, an artillerist and a military historian.
Despite Bacon's efforts, it is believed that around the 13th Century, knowledge of rocketry reached Germany, Italy and France.
In 1258, the chronicle of Cologne mentions rockets. An Italian historian Muratori mentions a victory achieved thanks to rockets during the battle for the Island of Chiozza in 1379. A rocket is credited with setting fire on a previously impregnable tower of the fortress.
Once the simplest rockets had proved their capabilities, various classes of rocket weapons emerged. A manuscript called Bellifortis, by a German military engineer Konrad Kyeser von Eichstadt, published around 1405, mentions three types of rockets, including what sounds like a traditional free-flying missile, but also water-surface and, possibly, string-guided projectiles!
A book by Joanes de Fontana published in Italy in 1420 carried drawings of fantastic rocket-propelled weapons camouflaged as pigeons, fish and horses. Among these seemingly theoretical machines is a rocket-powered battering ram and a navy torpedo! By 1410, tube launchers for rockets were also suggested. (213)
During the first half of the 1500s, one manuscript described an attempt to develop a winged missile! (721) Around the same time, Count Reinhart von Solms documented rockets equipped with a crude parachute, and Count of Nassau, detailed an underwater-exploding rocket in a huge manuscript finished in 1610. Historians doubt that any of these exotic weapons were ever built.
In 1575, Leonhart Fronsperger, Chief Armorer of Frankfort-on-the-Main, introduced the word "roget," while describing rockets for fireworks. Historians interpret the fact that Fronsperger's very comprehensive artillery book only mentions fireworks rockets as evidence that rocketry no longer played any role in warfare.
In 1591, Johann Schmidlap published in Nuremberg the first detailed book dedicated to rockets for fireworks, including multi-stage rockets. The author hinted that the edition revealed the secrets of fireworks making, sowing consternation within the "industry."
Yet, rockets were still apparently finding some limited military applications at least in the first half of 17th century. Around 1630, a German architect Joseph Furttenbach of Ulm described signaling and incendiary rockets in use by pirates in a book on naval warfare.
However, overall, rockets apparently saw little military application or development during the second half of 17th and most of the 18th century. A few exceptions were experiments with rockets conducted in Berlin in 1668 and the 1730s, which apparently left no technological legacy. (213)
Milestones in pre-19th century rocketry:
360: A hollow model of a pigeon suspended by a string over a flame is made to move by steam issuing from small exhaust ports (described by Aulus Gellius in "Noctes Atticaes" (Attic Nights) (102)
Circa 62: Hero (or Heron), a Greek resident of Alexandria, invents the "aeolopile," a hollow sphere with canted nozzles which spins on pivots by the reaction of steam jets. One of the supports on which the sphere rotates is hollow to admit steam generated in a "boiler" supported over fire. (102)
Circa 850: The Chinese use some form of gunpowder in making fireworks to celebrate religious festivals.
1232: The Chinese successfully withstand the Mongol siege of the town of Kai-fung-fu with the help of "arrows of flaming fire."
1242: Roger Bacon, an English Franciscan monk, records a secret formula for "gunpowder."
1258: The chronicle of Cologne mentions rockets. (213)
1280: Al-Hasan al-Rammah, a Syrian military historian, describes rockets (Chinese arrows) and recipes for making gunpowder in "The Book of Fighting on Horseback and With War Engines." (213)
1288: Arabs use rockets during the siege of Valencia, Spain. (293)
1313: The approximate date for the invention of firearms. (213)
1379: Gunpowder rockets are used in the siege of Chioggia (Island of Chiozza), near Venice, Italy. (213)
1405: A book by the German military engineer Konrad Kyeser von Eichstadt mentions three types of rockets. (213)
Before 1410: Messire Iehan Froissart proposes to launch rockets from tubes to ensure accuracy. (213)
1420: A book by Joanes de Fontana, Italy, contains drawings of several rockets. (213)
1540: Vanoccio Biringuccio in Italy describes the basic principle of rocket propellant action. (213)
1557: Chief armorer of Frankfort-on-the-Main Leonhart Fronsperger introduces the word "roget," while describing rockets for fireworks. (213)
1591: Johann Schmidlap publishes a book in Nuremberg dedicated to rockets for fireworks.
1610: The Count of Nassau describes a rocket exploding underwater.
1621: In Russia, Anisim Mikhailov, a monk of the Ambassador Directorate, completes "The instruction of battle, artillery and other affairs dealing with military science," which describes rockets.
Around 1630: A German architect Joseph Furttenbach of Ulm in a book on naval warfare describes signaling and incendiary rockets in use by pirates.
1657: Cyrano de Bergerac publishes Histoire Comique Contenant les Etats et Empires de la Lune.
1668: Rocket experiments near Berlin as described by Colonel Christoph Friedrich von Geissler.
1675: The first appearance of rockets in the Russian city of Ustuyg. (2)
1687: Isaac Newton postulates the Laws of Motion, including his third law which states that "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." It becomes the main theoretical principle of jet propulsion.
1685: The "Rocket Enterprise" (Raketnoe Zavedenie) is founded in Moscow.
1711: Peter the Great founds the Arsenal artillery enterprise in Saint Petersburg, which produces rocket devices as early as 1732. (79)
1718: Colonel Christoph Friedrich von Geissler publishes a book on rockets. (213)
1724 Feb. 8: The government senate issues a decree creating the Russian Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg.
1730 June: Rocket experiments in Berlin.
1770: Capt. Thomas Desaguliers examines rockets brought from India in the Royal Laboratory, Woolwich, England, but fails to reproduce reported range or accuracy. (Some would not even lift from their stands.)
1780s: Indian ruler Hyder Ali, Prince of Mysore, uses iron-cased rockets with 8-10-feet (2.4 - 3-meters) balancing sticks against troops of the East India Company. The rockets with a weight of 2.7 - 5.4 kilograms have a range of 2.4 kilometers.
1783 September 19: The Montgolfier brothers' launch the world's first balloon carrying live creatures: a duck, a rooster, and a sheep.
1785: The first balloon crosses the English Channel.
1789: A Narrative of the Military Operations on the Coromandel Coast, by Innes Munroe, is published in London, describing the use of rockets by Indian troops.
1792 and 1799: Indian soldiers use rockets against British troops near the city of Seringapat.
Heron's steam-powered reactive machine.
Ingridients of black powder (left to right): charcoal, saltpeter, sulphur. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak
A possible medieval Chinese rocket. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak
Probably for hundreds of years, gunpowder rockets have illuminated Dragon Rocket Festival, a.k.a. Ryusei, in agricultural regions of Japan, thanking gods for good harvest. Similar rituals are held in Thailand and Laos. The rocket of this type believed to be originated in China around 1100 A. D. (The rocket on the photo is missing a long stabilizing bamboo stick). Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak
A possible depiction of the Chinese vase gun. Credit: Woolwich Arsenal.
The English monk Roger Bacon rediscovered gunpowder between 1240 and 1242. Credit: Woolwich Arsenal
Medieval depiction of English soldiers possibly armed with fire arrows or rocket propelled projectiles. Credit: Woolwich Arsenal
Fireworks display in Stuttgart in 1616. Credit: Deutsches Museum
Click to enlarge. Anatoly Zak's collection.
This 1620 French engravings illustrate the apparent use of rockets as fireworks or/and in naval warfare and signaling! Click to enlarge. Anatoly Zak's collection.
The 21st-century version of fireworks rockets. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak