National pride and the birth of the rocket

Who really invented the rocket? Was it Englishman military officer Robert Congreve, Peruvian chemist Pedro Paulet, Russian school-teacher Constantin Tsiolkovsky or American engineer Robert Goddard? It appears that the question of who should be crowned inventor of the modern rocket depends on your definition of "modern" rocketry as well as your national allegiance.

My Russian friend Dimitri, a real rocket scientist living and working in California, maintains that Constantin Tsiolkovsky deserves the credit since he worked out all the ideas behind modern space flight from the 1870s to the 1890s. Tsiolkovsky published his comprehensive mathematical findings on rocketry in 1903 although he lacked the funds to perform experimental research.

The British point to Col. William Congreve who developed iron-sided military rockets first used in combat against Napoleon's troops in Boulogne, France, on Nov. 21, 1805. "In about half an hour," Congreve said, "above 2,000 rockets were discharged. The dismay and astonishment of the enemy were complete-not a shot was returned-and in less than ten minutes after the discharge, the town was discovered to be on fire."

South Americans argue that Pedro Paulet deserves credit since he claimed he introduced the liquid-fueled rocket in 1897. Paulet made his claim in 1927, stating, "that 30 years ago when I was a student at the Institute of Applied Chemistry at the University of Paris, I tested the first liquid-fueled rocket motor." In the case of Paulet's claim, we only have his word since there's no direct evidence or eyewitnesses to his 1897 "first" claim.

In the United States, Robert Goddard is often heralded as the inventor of the modern rocket. While conducting research at Princeton University in 1912, Goddard worked on his theory of rocket propulsion using smokeless powder, hydrogen and oxygen. Later, he tested liquid-propellant rockets in Massachusetts and New Mexico.

While these gentleman deserve accolades for visionary work, whether on paper or in the field, the principle of the rocket was first demonstrated in the 4th century B.C. by Archytas of Tarentum. This ancient Greek engineer created a steam-powered toy pigeon that was really a rocket by all definitions. Archytas's toy bird, probably made of metal, was filled with water and hung by a copper wire over a concentrated flame. When the water inside the pigeon-rocket heated up, a jet of steam shot out of the bird's backside driving it in wild circles. Later, the famous Greek philosopher-inventor Hero adapted Archytas's concept to a device called an aeropile. Hero's aeropile was nothing more than a hollow, rotating copper ball suspended above a pot of water. Fire heated the pot water forcing steam into a small pipe that fed the aeropile. Steam escaped from the ball through small exhaust nozzles that caused the aeropile to spin rapidly.

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