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Robert Goddard: The Father of Modern Rocketry

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December 31, 2001


Robert Hutchings Goddard was a futurist. He was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on October 5, 1882. He was the son of a machinist and his father was known for his brilliance with machinery and tools. The Goddard's moved from Worcester to Boston while Robert was just an infant, because his father went in half and half on a local machine tools shop. In Boston, is where the young Robert Goddard spent his youth as an only child, and most of his younger years were spent alone at home due to his mother's illness with tuberculosis.

Robert would not see his family's hometown of Worcester again until he was seventeen in 1899. Much of his life was spent as an ill child (Spangenburg, 10), and he was an average student with an aversion to mathematics. Illness kept him out of school entirely in that autumn of 1899, and by this time Robert had only completed his freshman year of high school. Although he was unable to spend a lot of time within institutional walls, the young Goddard was not without a strong yearning to learn--at least to learn science. Much of the time he spent sick at home sick was consumed reading the Scientific American, or books from the library both science and science fiction novels---especially H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, a novel he would re-examine often in later years (Burrows, 32).

Robert Goddard found happiness while doing his chores and often used found this time for relaxing. Like many young seventeen year olds, the time was spent daydreaming and this was the case on the 19th day of October 1899. Little did the young man know that this entry in his diary would change his entire life:

"As I looked toward the fields in the east I imagined

how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale if sent up from the meadow at my feet. . .It seemed to me that a weight whirling around a horizontal shaft, moving more rapidly above than below, could furnish lift by virtue of the greater centrifugal force at the top of the path. I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended, for existence at last seemed very purposive." (Yost, 145)

This new idea was known as the linear-force-from-eccentric-rotation, and although it was only a daydream of the young man, it was the spark that would ignite Goddard's unending dream of space travel. The only thing that stood in his way was his lack of education, and in order to make his dream a reality he would have to return to high school and finish his education facing his dreaded mathematics courses. When Robert finally got over his sickness, two years had gone by but, he now was ready to enroll in his sophomore year at South High School in Worcester. With the help of his physics instructor, Calvin C. Andrews, and his mathematics instructor, Miss Hill, the aspiring scientist graduated in 1904 with honors. He remains the oldest student to receive a diploma from South High.

The next step of education for Robert Goddard was attending the local school, Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Although a lot of his time was spent caring after his still sickly mother, he continued to excel in his studies under the direction of his physics professor, A. Wilmer Duff. During his secondary education the now scholarly student used his previous troubling experiences with mathematics to help others in need of tutoring. He also worked on the college yearbook staff and was elected to the student body president in his senior year. Upon completion of his degree, he immediately started working on his doctorate studies at another hometown school, Clark University.

It was during his time at Clark University that Robert Goddard started working on his life-long dream of rocketry. He started to develop his idea around a multi-stage hydrogen and oxygen rocket. He received his Ph.D. from Clark University in 1911, and stayed there for about a year to continue his work on his multi-stage rocket until he received a fellowship to work at Princeton University on a project involving measurement of forces and currents. During his time at Princeton, he worked after hours to prefect his mathematics on his multi-stage rocket, and much of this time was spent from dusk to dawn after his assigned research with forces and currents was finished.

It was this all hours of the night research that finally caught up with him in the spring of 1913 when he was diagnosed with the final stages of tuberculosis. Although he was put on bed rest, Goddard continued to work on his dream of rocketry and in October of 1913 he applied for his first patent and then another application was followed, filed in May of 1914.

As his health improved, Goddard went back to work part-time for Clark University in the fall of 1914. By the time of his return to Clark University, his two patents; one was for a rocket nozzle and the other was for the multi-stage rocket (Spangenburg, 25), had been approved; these would be the first of some 214 that the scientist would receive for his life's work, the last one received eleven years after his death. This time while working at Clark University, Goddard was working with solid-fuel rockets, but his hopes of using liquid-fuel compelled him to write "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes," in order to attract funding (Stockton 83-84). Today this writing is recognized as the foundation of astronautics, but in 1916 it was not paid much attention to, except for the Smithsonian's Assistant Secretary Dr. Charles Abbot, an astrophysicist, and an expert at the National Bureau of Standards both recommending approval. Soon, Goddard received a check from the Smithsonian for $1,000 to begin the development of his liquid-fueled rocket.

The Smithsonian also contributed in Goddard's work by other means as well. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, they advised the Army Signal Corps to enlist Dr. Goddard's help in producing rockets useful in battle. The Army requested Goddard to build some weapons; Goddard did, and a demonstration in 1918 was a huge success, but a truce was signed a few days later, and no production was started. Goddard would not be doing any work for the military for some time, but his work would be remembered as the forerunner of the bazooka (Levine, 2). After the military demonstration and the end of World War I, Goddard returned to Clark University as full professor in the physics department continuing work on the solid-fueled rocket.

The only type of solid fuel that could be used for rocketry at the time of Goddard's research was a type of smokeless



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