Robert Godwin has been researching the life of Canadian William Leitch (1814-1864) and found that Leitch wrote a book published in 1862 that described many of the principles of rocketry and spaceflight decades before the space pioneers Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Robert H. Goddard wrote about rockets and space travel: Rocket Spaceflight Accurately Described by Scottish-Canadian Scientist in 1861 – the Commercial Space Blog.
Here is a press release from Godwin:
Burlington, Canada – October 4, 2015 – In a paper published today entitled The First Scientific Concept of Rockets for Space Travel* author and space historian Robert Godwin has proven that a Scottish-Canadian teacher applied scientific principles to accurately describe the rocket as the best device for travelling in space in 1861. More than three decades earlier than previously believed.
Robert Godwin who is an author and editor of dozens of books on spaceflight released his findings about a Presbyterian minister named William Leitch, born in Scotland in 1814. Godwin asserts that Leitch was the first trained scientist to have correctly applied modern scientific principles to space flight in an essay which he wrote in the summer of 1861 called A Journey Through Space. It was published in a journal in Edinburgh that year before being included in Leitch’s 1862 book God’s Glory in the Heavens.
William Leitch (ca. 1861). (Credit: The Space Library)
Previous histories of spaceflight have maintained that the first scientific concept for rocket-powered space travel was envisioned at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century by such men as the Russian, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and the American, Robert Goddard. Both men claimed Jules Verne as their inspiration. But Godwin says William Leitch made his suggestion to use rockets four years before even Jules Verne’s famous “space gun”.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Leitch deserves a place of honour in the history of spaceflight,” said Godwin. “The fact that he was a scientist is the key to this story. He wasn’t just making a wild guess. Not only did he understand Newton’s law of action and reaction, he almost dismissively understood that a rocket would work more efficiently in the vacuum of space; a fact that still caused Goddard and others to be subjected to ridicule almost six decades later.
“Whereas Goddard and Tsiolkovsky got their first inspiration from the science fiction of Wells and Verne, Leitch seems to have been inspired by the advances in powerful telescopes, the newly spin-stabilised military projectiles being manufactured in London, and Isaac Newton,” Godwin claimed.
Leitch’s proposals seem to have fallen through the cracks of history because he died at a young age and the copyright to his writings would fall victim to the bankruptcy of his publisher in 1878.
“His suggestion to use rockets in space remained in print for over forty years, but his name had been stripped away from the work. The problem was compounded by the title of his book being changed at the last minute to remove all references to astronomy, which led to it languishing for 150 years in the theology section of libraries,”Godwin said. “But it was still in print when Goddard and Tsiolkovsky made their mark on the field.”
“Leitch comprehended everything from the catastrophic implications of cometary impacts to the special relationship between light and time. He was a genius. Long since forgotten,” Godwin said.
In Godwin’s paper he reveals that Leitch studied at the University of Glasgow in the same classroom as William Thomson, the legendary Lord Kelvin, and even assisted Kelvin in an experiment on electricity. In 1859 Leitch was appointed to the post of Principal of Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario. He died in Canada in 1864 and is buried near to Canada’s first Prime Minister, who he evidently knew.
“He was buried on October 4th of that year: a date which has a certain resonance for space historians,” Godwin said, in a reference to the launching of Sputnik in 1957, 93 years after Leitch’s death.
“I also wonder what he would have thought of Elon Musk being a graduate of Queens,” Godwin continued, referring to the CEO of SpaceX, the United States’ leading space company.
Having preached in a parish near St Andrews in Scotland, Leitch’s children became early golf enthusiasts. Leitch’s granddaughter was the legendary golfing champion Cecilia Leitch.
“William Leitch was an expert on ballistics and the effect of gravity on trajectories. It must have been in the DNA,” Godwin joked.
“We can no longer take it for granted that the consistently cited trio of founders of space flight theory—Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, and Oberth—were the only individuals who seriously thought and wrote about the rocket as the most viable means of achieving space flight… William Leitch is less well known than the first three, but he should now be included in the overall picture, especially since he pre-dated them.”
On studying Godwin’s findings David Baker, editor of the British Interplanetary Society’s Spaceflight Magazine in London England stated:
“Rob Godwin has conducted a valuable piece of outstanding research, revealing for the first time how an intellectual mind from the 19th century anticipated the Space Age and explained how rockets could lift mankind to the stars, long before anyone else had defined it, in simple, lucid and scientifically accurate terms. This work is a landmark addition to the history of rocketry and Godwin is to be complimented for having himself made another important contribution to the genre.”
In Houston Texas, Mr. Michael L. Ciancone, Chair of the American Astronautical Society History Committee, commented:
“This paper by Robert Godwin puts flesh to the bone of William Leitch, a 19th century scientist and theologian who published some thoughts on rocketry that represent one of the earliest known references to the use of rockets for spaceflight. These perspectives are valuable because the history of spaceflight is a tapestry of experiences that contains more than the threads representing the big names in rocketry.”
And in Toronto, Canada, Dr. Dafydd “Dave” Williams, retired Canadian astronaut (STS-90 and STS-118) and Former Director of the Space and Life Sciences Directorate, Johnson Space Centre commented:
“A very impressive piece of research…& very exciting to learn that these principles of spaceflight were postulated & articulated so far before aerodynamic flight, let alone spaceflight.”
* Godwin’s paper is to be published this week as part of the Space Week celebrations. It will be available on TheSpaceLibrary.com.