Space Programs

Rocket History

How have rockets developed before the twentieth century?

Around 160 C.E., the ancient Greek mathematician Hero of Alexandria (10–70 C.E.) created a spinning, spherical, steam-powered device that first demonstrated the idea of rocket-like propulsion using hot gas exhaust. Real rockets, though, were first used by the Chinese, who invented the first solid propellant—gunpowder—in the ninth century. In thirteenth-century China, simple hand-held rockets (called “fire arrows”) were set off during religious ceremonies and celebrations. These inaccurate, short-range devices were fueled by a mixture of potassium nitrate (saltpeter), charcoal, and sulfur. Their use eventually spread throughout Asia and Europe.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, rockets began to become effective weapons of war. The French military were the leading rocketeers of the time, though mostly for fireworks. Then, in the 1790s, Indian soldiers used rockets to defeat the British army in a number of battles. These rockets weighed about ten pounds, were attached to sharp bamboo sticks, and could travel about a mile. Although individually these early rockets were very inaccurate, they were intimidating weapons when fired in large barrages at large targets. In 1804, British army officer William Congreve (1772–1828) developed rockets that could travel almost two miles. It was these rockets, and the red glare they produced over the city of Baltimore, Maryland, and Fort McHenry, that helped inspire the American poet Francis Scott Key (1777–1843) to write The Star-Spangled Banner, which a century later became the national anthem of the United States.


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