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Humble beginnings: A typical design of a battlefield missile and its launching stand in the first half of the 19th century. Copyright © 2007 Anatoly Zak

Origins of Russian rocketry

The roots of rocketry lie so deep in the history of human civilization that it is believed to be impossible to mark the exact birth date of these ancient machines. Apparently, the first rockets owe their origin to the invention of gunpowder in China around the 10th Century AD. The earliest historical records testify that in 1232 AD, during the siege of Beijing (according to another source (102): town of Kai-fung-fu or Kai'feng) by the Mongols, the city's defenders fired missiles.

It is believed that around the 13th Century, knowledge of rocketry reached Italy and France.

The use of rockets near the Ukrainian city of Belgorod is recorded in 1516 and the first appearance of rockets in the Russian city of Ustuyg dates from around 1675. (2) Following the development and use of military missiles in Europe, the "Rocket Enterprise" (Raketnoe Zavedenie) was founded in Moscow around 1680.

A signaling rocket developed in Russia in 1717 could reportedly reach an altitude of several hundred meters. (120)

According to Russian archival records, in 1732, the St Petersburg-based Arsenal artillery enterprise originally founded by Peter the Great in 1711, produced 20 rocket-launching devices for the Russian border fortress of Brest. (79)

In 1814, I. Kartmazov, a member of the Military-Scientific Committee, reportedly tested battlefield missiles. (122)

In 1815, Russian artillery engineer Alexander Zasyadko (1779-1837) started the development of battlefield missiles for the Russian army. Zasyadko conducted numerous test firings of experimental missiles, developed techniques for mass production of rockets and led the formation of the first missile unit in the Russian army around 1827. Three types of battlefield missiles (2-, 2.5- and 4-inch caliber) developed by Zasayadko had a range of between 1,600 and 2,700 meters.

Zasyadko's written work, dated 1817, became the first Russian production and application manual for battlefield missiles.

The Russian army employed Zasyadko's missiles for the first time during the Russo-Turkish war of 1825. It is known that in 1828-29, Russian soldiers used missiles to bombard the Turkish stronghold in Varna, Bulgaria. (79)

Konstantinov's work

In 1849, another artillery engineer -- Konstantin Konstantinov -- took charge of the St. Petersburg-based "Rocket Enterprise" founded along with several similar European organizations in 1820s.

In 1847, Konstantinov built a "ballistic pendulum," which he used to determine the influence of a rocket's shape and design on its flying characteristics. After 1850, Konstantinov continuously tested battlefield missiles with the goal of improving their capabilities. Konstantinov studied different stabilization methods and detachable warheads. He also worked on improving production and assembly techniques used in rocketry. (2)

Rockets developed by Konstantinov had a range of 4-5 kilometers. Konstantinov also proposed to use rockets to shoot the harpoons used in whaling.

Konstantinov spent 1857 and 1858 in Europe, studying rocketry. During 1859-1861, back in Russia, Konstantinov delivered lectures on rocketry to military officers.

After 1861, Konstantinov led the foundation of the Nikolaev rocket-production plant, which became operational in 1867. (2)

In 1870, Russian artillery engineer Ivanin reportedly proposed a winged missile. (54)

However, advances in artillery, which took place in European armies by the 1860s, undermined the military applications of rocketry and led to the almost total extinction of battlefield missiles. Efforts to advance military rocketry revived after the invention of the smokeless gunpowder in 1884. (120)

A Russian artillery expert Mikhail Pomortsev actively experimented with rockets at the turn of the 20th century. Between 1902 and 1905, struggling to improve the accuracy of missiles, Pomortsev tested around 20 types of aerodynamic stabilizers on rockets. By 1908, Pomortsev's rockets reached a range of 8-9 kilometers.


In Russia, the idea of using rocket propulsion for atmospheric flight was reportedly expressed in the mid-1800s by I. Tretesky, N. Sokovnin and N. Teleshev.

However, the most famous proposal of this sort was made by Nikolai Kibalchich, an explosives technician from the radical antigovernment organization "Narodnaya Volya". In 1881, during his 17-day incarceration in the Petrapavloskaya Fortress, St. Petersburg, where he was awaiting execution for his part in the assassination of Emperor Alexander II, Kibalchich sketched and described a manned flight vehicle propelled by a solid-fuel engine.

"While in prison, a few days before my death, I write this project," Kibalchich wrote, "I believe in the reality of my idea and this belief supports me in my terrible situation... If my idea ... is recognized as emplementable, I will be happy with the fact that I have made a huge favor to my native land and to humanity."

In his work, Kibalchich asked a rhetorical question: "What kind of force is applicable to aeronautics. Such force, I believe, is slowly burning explosives."

Kibalchich sketched a hollow metal cylinder with a hole at the bottom. "If the cylinder faces upward with its closed end, then with a certain pressure of the exhaust ... the cylinder should take off."

Kibalchich envisioned a rocket engine attached to a platform via a gymbal-like suspension, which would allow steering the craft by adjusting the direction of thrust of the engine. "I think that in practice, such a task is achievable ... and can be accomplished with modern technology," he wrote. (71)

Two days, before his execution, on March 31, 1881, Kibalchich made an official request to the minister of internal affairs to evaluate his proposal. The request asked for "issuance of a command on permitting an interview with a member of the committee in regard to this project ... or obtaining a written answer from a commission of experts."

On March 26, 1882, almost a year after tragic events of 1881, General Komarov, head of the gendarmes, sent a report to the State Police Department, stating "... I have the honor, in satisfying the appeal of Nikolai Kibalchich, accused of crimes against the State, to present his plan for an aeronautical device." (122)

However, Kibalchich's project fell victim to political stigma, tarnishing its author's name. "To give this to scientists for examination will hardly be timely, and may evoke only inappropriate comments," read the note on the package containing the project. The work was put in archives, where it remained untouched until August 1917 -- the year of two Russian revolutions, which toppled the centuries-old Tsarist rule and brought the Bolsheviks to power.

In March 1918, Nikolai Rynin, a restless propagandist of astronautics, got hold of Kibalchich's manuscript. With Rynin's review, Kibalchich's description of a manned rocket ship appeared in the April 1918 issue of the Byloye ("The Past") magazine.

During the Soviet era, the long-forgotten manuscript written by Kibalchich metamorphosed into another shot of official propaganda. In the typical extreme of the time, Soviet historians even "documented" how Kibalchich's writings had influenced young Sergei Korolev. Since then, the myth has effectively been debunked by independent researchers. (18)

Turn of the 20th century: Russia approaches rocket age

Russia entered the 20th century with many hopes. Despite its archaic agricultural economy and its autocratic political system, the country's arts and sciences had flourished. Known as the Silver Age of Russian culture, this was the time of Tolstoi and Chaikovski, Nezhinski and Repin. During the same period, Russian scientists succeeded in expanding the horizons of the most sophisticated fields of science, including physics, chemistry and aeronautics. Economic development in Russia also boomed. From 1900 to 1913, the output of the nation's heavy industry increased by 74.1 percent. (124)

In the meantime, advances in artillery which had made their way into European armies by 1860s undermined military applications of rocketry and after a relatively short reign during the 19th century battlefield missiles became all but extinct. However, efforts to advance military rocketry were renewed after the invention of smokeless gunpowder in 1884. (120) A Russian artillery expert, Mikhail Pomortsev (1851-1916), actively experimented with rockets at the turn of the 20th century.


Milestones of pre-20th century rocketry:


540: Pythagoras conceives of a counterearth that duplicates the Earth in every respect and moves with it.

384: Aristotle rejects the plurality of planets, negatively impacting later thinkers. (148)

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)

360: Heraclides, of Pontus, conceives of a semigeocentric universe where Mercury and Mars orbit the Sun, while all of them orbit Earth.

280: Aristarchus of Samos conceives of a heliocentric universe.


Circa 62: Hero (or Heron), a Greek resident of Alexandria, invents the "Aeolipile," 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 siege of the town of Kai-fung-fu by the Mongols with the help of "arrows of flaming fire." (Historians speculate that these true rockets became possible after the Chinese discovered how to distill organic saltpetre -- an oxygen producing ingredient -- to increase the rate of burning.)

1242: Roger Bacon, an English Franciscan monk, records a secret formula for "gunpowder": saltpetre 41.2; charcoal 29.4; sulphur 29.4. To achieve a faster rate of burning, Bacon distills saltpeter -- the oxygen producing ingredient. The original formula apparently came from China.

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."

1288: Arabs use rockets during the seige of Valencia, Spain. (293)

1379: Gunpowder rockets are used in the siege of Chioggia, near Venice, Italy.

1516: The use of rockets near the Ukrainian city of Belgorod is recorded. (2)

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.

1657: Cyrano de Bergerac publishes Histoire Comiquie Contenant les Etats et Empires de la Lune.

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 St. Petersburg, which produced rocket devices as early as 1732. (79)

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.

1785: First balloon crosses the English Channel.

19th century

1804: Colonel William Congreve provides specifications for the manufacturing of large rockets at Woolwich, England. Within a year, he produces a 10.9-kilogram rocket with a 1,830-meter range. Later, he develops a 14.5-kilogram iron-cased rockets (107 centimeters long and 10-centimeters in diameter). To increase the range, Congreve creates a faster-burning powder.

1806 Oct. 8: 18 British rocket-carrying boats bombard Boulogne (France) with Congreve missiles during the Napoleonic War. Most missiles overshoot the French battleships, instead starting fires in the coastal town.

1807 Sept. 2-7: British rocket boats attack Copenhagen, Denmark, initiating big fires in the city.

1813: The British Royal Military Academy in Woolwich publishes "A Treatise on the Motion of Rockets" by William Moore. The work includes a mathematical description of rocket trajectories, including their movement in air and in vacuum.

1814 Sept. 13-14: The British navy fires Congreve rockets against besieged Fort McHenry, Baltimore, during the War of 1812. The events inspire Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner, which became the American national anthem. The song mentions "the rockets' red glare."

1828-29: The Russian Army uses Zasyadko rockets during the Russo-Turkish War.

1840: In England, William Hale, develops spin stabilized rockets, by placing three curved metal vanes in the rocket exhaust. The devices were employed during the Mexican War (1846-48), during the Crimean War (1853-56), in Hungary, Italy, Prussia, and during the American Civil War (1861-65).

1853 May 2: Konstantin Konstantinov completes the development of a "ballistic pendulum" for rocket testing.

1853-56: Russian ships are equipped with rockets during the Crimean War.

1865: Jules Verne's science fiction novel De la Terre à la Lune ("From the Earth to the Moon") is published, predicting many aspects of space flight.

1866: In Russia, Nikolai Sokovnin proposes an airship propelled by a jet engine, which uses compressed air.

1881: While waiting to be executed for his part in the plot to assassinate Czar Alexander II, Nikolai Kibalchich sketches and describes a manned flight vehicle propelled by a solid-fuel engine.

1890: In Germany, Hermann Ganswindt proposes a reaction-powered spacecraft propelled by dynamite charges. (102)

1895: Percival Lowell publishes book entitled Mars.

Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: April 10, 2012

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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

The rockets designed by A. Zasyadko. Credit: KB Arsenal

A 19th century rendering of a submarine armed with missiles and developed by Karl Shilder. According to Russian sources, Shilder tested a submarine equipped with six missiles in 1834 on the Neva River! Credit: GDL

A "ballistic pendulum" developed by Konstantin Konstantinov between 1847 and 1853 for rocket testing. Credit: GDL

Augustin rocket

Sytem Augustin's battlefield rocket used by the Austrian army in the first half of the 19th century. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2007 Anatoly Zak

A missile-launching system developed by K. I. Konstantinov was in the armaments of the Russian army. Credit: GDL

A book by K. I. Konstantinov, describing battlefield missiles, was published in Paris in 1861 and in Moscow in 1864. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

A rocket developed by M. M. Pomortsev had a range of 9,000 meters. Credit: GDL

A rocket-shell developed by Ivan Grave (1874-1960). Credit: GDL

Nikolai Kibalchich dreamed about rocket-propelled rocketship during his final days behind the walls of the Petropavlovskaya Fortress in St. Petersburg. Ironically, several decades later, the fortress also became a site of the early Soviet research in the field of rocketry. Copyright © 2001 by Anatoly Zak

A 1964 Soviet post stamp, dedicated to Nikolai Kibalchich, featured his sketch of a rocket ship (top right). Reproduced from a copy in Anatoly Zak's collection.

A rendering of a rocketship based on Kibalchich's proposal. Credit: UNESCO