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 to be 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 so doing 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. They used the gunpowder mostly for fireworks in religious
and other festive celebrations. To create explosions during religious
festivals, they filled bamboo tubes with the 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 from 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.
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