The History of Early Fireworks and Fire Arrows

Today's rockets are remarkable collections of human ingenuity that have their roots in the science and technology of the past. They’re natural outgrowths of literally thousands of years of experimentation and research on rockets and rocket propulsion.

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The Wooden Bird

One of the first devices to successfully employ the principles of rocket flight was a wooden bird. A Greek named Archytas lived in the city of Tarentum, now a part of southern Italy, sometime around 400 B.C. Archytas mystified and amused the citizens of Tarentum by flying a pigeon made of wood. Escaping steam propelled the bird as it was suspended on wires. The pigeon used the action-reaction principle, which was not stated as a scientific law until the 17th century.

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The Aeolipile

Hero of Alexandria, another Greek, invented a similar rocket-like device called an aeolipile about three hundred years after Archytas’ pigeon. 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 gave a thrust to the sphere that caused it to rotate.

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Early Chinese Rockets

The Chinese reportedly had a simple form of gunpowder made from saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal dust in the first century A.D. They filled bamboo tubes with the mixture and tossed them into fires to create explosions during religious festivals.

Some of those tubes most likely failed to explode and instead skittered out of the flames, propelled by the gases and sparks produced by the burning gunpowder. The Chinese then began experimenting with the gunpowder-filled tubes. They attached bamboo tubes to arrows and launched them with bows at some point. Soon they discovered that these gunpowder tubes could launch themselves just by the power produced from the escaping gas. The first true rocket was born.

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The Battle of Kai-Keng

The first use of true rockets as weapons is reported as occurring in 1232. The Chinese and the Mongols were at war with each other, and the Chinese repelled the Mongol invaders with a barrage of "arrows of flying fire" during the battle of Kai-Keng.

These fire arrows were a simple form of 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, producing 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’s 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.

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The 14th and 15th Centuries

The Mongols produced rockets of their own following the Battle of Kai-Keng and may have been responsible for the spread of rockets to Europe. There were reports of many rocket experiments during the 13th through 15th centuries.

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.

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The 16th Century

Rockets fell into disfavor as weapons of war by the 16th century, although they were still used for fireworks displays. Johann Schmidlap, a German fireworks maker, invented the "step rocket," a multi-staged vehicle for lifting fireworks to higher altitudes. A large first-stage sky rocket carried a smaller second-stage sky rocket. 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 that go into outer space today. 

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The First Rocket Used for Transportation

A lesser-known Chinese official named Wan-Hu introduced rockets as a means of transportation. He assembled a rocket-powered flying chair with the help of many assistants, attaching two large kites to the chair and 47 fire-arrow rockets to the kites.

Wan-Hu sat on the chair on the day of the flight and gave the command to light the rockets. Forty-seven rocket assistants, each armed with his own torch, rushed forward to light the fuses. 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's probable that he and his chair were blown to pieces because fire-arrows were as apt to explode as to fly. 

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The Influence of Sir Isaac Newton

The scientific foundation for modern space travel was laid out by the great English scientist Sir Isaac Newton during the latter part of the 17th century. Newton organized his understanding of physical motion into three scientific laws that explained how rockets worked and why they are able to do so in the vacuum of outer space. Newton's laws soon began to have a practical impact on the design of rockets. 

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The 18th Century

Experimenters and scientists in Germany and Russia began working with rockets with masses of more than 45 kilograms in the 18th century. Some were so powerful, their escaping exhaust flames bored deep holes into the ground before lift-off.

Rockets experienced a brief revival as weapons of war during the end of the 18th century and early into the 19th century. The success of Indian rocket barrages against the British in 1792 and again in 1799 caught the interest of artillery expert Colonel William Congreve, who set out to design rockets for use by the British military.

The Congreve rockets were highly successful in battle. Used by British ships to pound Fort McHenry in the War of 1812, they inspired Francis Scott Key to write of "the rockets' red glare" in his poem that would later become the Star-Spangled Banner.

Even with Congreve's work, however, scientists had not improved the accuracy of rockets much from early days. The devastating nature of war rockets was not their accuracy or power but their numbers. During a typical siege, thousands might be fired at the enemy.

Researchers began experimenting with ways to improve accuracy. William Hale, an English scientist, developed a technique called spin stabilization. The escaping exhaust gases struck small vanes at the bottom of the rocket, causing it to spin much as a bullet does in flight. Variations of this principle are still used today.

Rockets continued to be used with success in battles all over the European continent. The Austrian rocket brigades met their match against newly designed artillery pieces in a war with Prussia, however. Breech-loading cannons with rifled barrels and exploding warheads were far more effective weapons of war than the best rockets. Once again, rockets were relegated to peacetime uses. 

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Modern Rocketry Begins

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian schoolteacher and scientist, first proposed the idea of space exploration in 1898. In 1903, Tsiolkovsky suggested the use of liquid propellants for rockets to achieve greater range. He stated that the speed and range of a rocket were limited only by the exhaust velocity of escaping gases. Tsiolkovsky has been called the father of modern astronautics for his ideas, careful research and great vision.

Robert H. Goddard, an American scientist, conducted practical experiments in rocketry early in the 20th century. He had become interested in achieving higher altitudes than were possible for lighter-than-air balloons and published a pamphlet in 1919, A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. It was a mathematical analysis of what is called the meteorological sounding rocket today. 

Goddard's earliest experiments were with solid-propellant rockets. He began to try various types of solid fuels and to measure the exhaust velocities of the burning gases in 1915. He became convinced that a rocket could be propelled better by liquid fuel. No one had ever built a successful liquid-propellant rocket before. It was a much more difficult undertaking than solid-propellant rockets, requiring fuel and oxygen tanks, turbines and combustion chambers.

Goddard achieved the first successful flight with a liquid-propellant rocket on March 16, 1926. Fueled by liquid oxygen and gasoline, his rocket flew for only two and a half seconds, but it climbed 12.5 meters and landed 56 meters away in a cabbage patch. The flight was unimpressive by today's standards, but Goddard's gasoline rocket was the forerunner of a whole new era in rocket flight. 

His experiments in liquid-propellant rockets continued for many years. His rockets became bigger and flew higher. He developed a gyroscope system for flight control and a payload compartment for scientific instruments. Parachute recovery systems were employed to return rockets and instruments safely. Goddard has been called the father of modern rocketry for his achievements.

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The V-2 Rocket

A third great space pioneer, Hermann Oberth of Germany, published a book in 1923 about travel into outer space. Many small rocket societies sprang up around the world because of his writings. The formation of one such society in Germany, the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt or Society for Space Travel, led to the development of the V-2 rocket used against London in World War II.

German engineers and scientists, including Oberth, gathered in Peenemunde on the shores of the Baltic Sea in 1937 where the most advanced rocket of its time was built and flown under the directorship of Wernher von Braun. The V-2 rocket, called the A-4 in Germany, was small in comparison to today's designs. It achieved its great thrust by burning a mixture of liquid oxygen and alcohol at a rate of about one ton every seven seconds. The V-2 was a formidable weapon that could devastate whole city blocks. 

Fortunately for London and the Allied forces, the V-2 came too late in the war to change its outcome. Nevertheless, Germany's rocket scientists and engineers had already laid plans for advanced missiles capable of spanning the Atlantic Ocean and landing in the U.S. These missiles would have had winged upper stages but very small payload capacities.

Many unused V-2s and components were captured by the Allies with the fall of Germany, and many German rocket scientists came to the U.S. while others went to the Soviet Union. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union realized the potential of rocketry as a military weapon and began a variety of experimental programs. 

The U.S. began a program with high-altitude atmospheric sounding rockets, one of Goddard's early ideas. A variety of medium- and long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles were developed later. These became the starting point of the U.S. space program. Missiles such as the Redstone, Atlas and Titan would eventually launch astronauts into space. 

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The Race for Space

The world was stunned by the news of an earth-orbiting artificial satellite launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957. Called Sputnik 1, the satellite was the first successful entry in a race for space between two superpower nations, the Soviet Union and the U.S. The Soviets followed with the launch of a satellite carrying a dog named Laika on board less than a month later. Laika survived in space for seven days before being put to sleep before her oxygen supply ran out.

The U.S. followed the Soviet Union with a satellite of its own a few months after the first Sputnik. Explorer I was launched by the U.S. Army on January 31, 1958. In October of that year, the U.S. formally organized its space program by creating NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA became a civilian agency with the goal of peaceful exploration of space for the benefit of all humankind.

Suddenly, many people and machines were being launched into space. Astronauts orbited earth and landed on the moon. Robot spacecraft traveled to planets. Space was suddenly opened up to exploration and commercial exploitation. Satellites enabled scientists to investigate our world, forecast the weather and communicate instantaneously around the globe. A wide array of powerful and versatile rockets had to be built as the demand for more and larger payloads increased.