SOME ten years ago, I worked as a research engineer for a company in the instrument business. The bread and butter of the firm was radiosondes for the Weather Bureau, those little instrument packages containing a kind of thermometer, a device for measuring air pressure and a third one for measuring humidity, all three being hitched up with a radio transmitter so that the readings taken by the instruments aloft can be received and recorded on the ground.
The company also published a weekly or biweekly company newspaper. One day, the lady in charge cornered me at lunch, wondering aloud—and in the presence of four witnesses— whether I might not be persuaded to write something for the company paper. I said yes without having any idea what I might write for them, but talks with some of the assembly line inspectors and one or two junior engineers taught me that nobody in the whole plant and only one man in the laboratory (its director) had any idea of the history of the radio-sondes they were making busily every day.
So I dug into both company records and meteorological literature and came up with a three-part article of how the radiosonde had come into being. And while I was busily noting down events and dates, I found, to my own surprise, that the radio-sondes they began making in 1929 or thereabouts could have been manufactured as far back as 1914. Not all the component parts which were actually used had been available in 1914, but other components, which could have done the same job, had been at hand.
I am not trying to change the theme—quite the contrary—but I now have to mention that the first liquid-fuel rocket to lift itself off the ground did so in Massachusetts in 1926. And the first really large liquid-fuel rocket to work successfully was one of the early V-2- rockets; the date was October 3rd, 1942. But when you look at a liquid-fuel rocket, you also find that most components (or materials) had been around many years prior to those dates. It would actually have been possible to send a liquid-fuel rocket to an altitude of at least 30 miles half a century ago, in 1906.
The diagram shows a simplified cross section through a large liquid-fuel rocket of the type of V-2 or Viking. Let us begin at the top and see what the parts are and how they work.
The very nose of the rocket is conical, usually made of sheet steel, and it houses the instruments which constitute the "pay- load." As for the sheet steel, it became available in 1880 and the same year may be held to apply for recording meteorological instruments. Of course there would be no great difference if the skin were sheet iron instead of sheet steel and that is almost three centuries older.
NATURALLY, since the year we have in mind is 1906, these instruments could not have broadcast their findings; radio was in existence, but it had a long way to progress until it could be used for this purpose. However, it would have been possible to eject the instrument package with the aid of a timing device and parachute it to the ground. The first recorded use of a parachute took place in 1785, when Monsieur Blanchard dropped a dog from the gondola of his balloon. (He tried it on himself in 1793, but Leonardo da Vinci had sketched this about 1510.) Of course there were timing devices and "infernal machines" around at the same time.
The next section below the nose cone holding the payload is usually the section containing the rocket instruments. What we use now did not exist in 1906, but an engineer could have rigged up a gyro, driven, say, by compressed nitrogen.
But if you just want a vertical or near-vertical flight, you do not need this section at all. That a liquid-fuel rocket can function without it and produce a fine vertical flight was once accidentally proved by an Aerobee rocket. The Aerobee has no "guidance," relying instead on what is called "arrow stability." But until this unforeseen event took place, everybody would have agreed that the rocket needed the push from the solid-fuel booster to acquire enough arrow stability.
Well, in this particular case, a valve misbehaved, the Aerobee began working, left its solid-fuel booster behind in the launching rack and climbed peacefully to nearly 20 miles.
Next section in the rocket is the tank for the oxidizer. Big rockets like Viking and V-2 use liquid oxygen, available since 1902. Smaller rockets like the Aerobee use nitric acid, available for centuries.
The next tank is the fuel tank. Again the big rockets use 75 per cent ethyl alcohol, which Italian monks started distilling about 1200. Or you may prefer hydrazine, which sounds enormously "modern" but was made for the first time in 1887. The tanks themselves are, of course, sheet metal and though nitric acid is hard on metals, it would have been no real problem in 1906 to devise a tank which could have held nitric acid for an hour or so.
BELOW the fuel tanks, you have the rocket motor. It has a shape which simply did not exist in 1906. But its shape is not so difficult that it could not have been made then. As for the material, you could use sheet steel or sheet copper or sheet aluminum, which became available in 1890. For the metal-forming techniques of 1906, sheet copper might have been the best bet, since there was not much practice yet in the handling and forming of aluminum.
If that rocket had worked on hydrazine and nitric acid, there would have been no problem with ignition, for this is a so-called hypergolic combination which bursts into flame spontaneously when the two liquids touch each other. For an alcohol-oxygen rocket, ignition is required—and the device used is a fireworks pinwheel inserted into the motor through the exhaust nozzle. A fireworks pinwheel could have been bought in Nuremberg in 1650.
As for getting the fuels from the tanks into the rocket motor, the modern practice is to have high-strength hydrogen peroxide decompose into steam, which drives a turbine, which in turn drives the centrifugal pumps. Centrifugal pumps began to be built commercially in about 1875. High-strength hydrogen peroxide did not become available until much later, but an engineer might have rigged up a different method of driving the fuel pumps. Or else he might just have pressurized both the fuel and the oxidizer tank with compressed nitrogen.
In short, all the materials, including the fuels, for a vertical rocket shot into the stratosphere were available in 1906. The few things which were not directly available were within easy reach of the engineering methods of the time.
But, as we well know, nobody even tried to build a liquid-fuel rocket in 1906. The fuels and materials were there. General engineering practice existed, too. So did the necessary mathematics to calculate whatever needed calculating. But it wasn't done. It couldn't be done because nobody had said that it could be done.
There was one ingredient missing and it happens to be the most important one. There was no theory
.— WILLY LEY
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