Early Rocket Science

Early History

The wood pigeon and aeolipile do not resemble anything that we would recognise as a rocket. In fact, the exact date when rockets first appeared is still unresolved. Records show that the Chinese developed gunpowder, a mixture of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal dust, at around 100 AD. Gunpowder was used to create colourful sparks, smoke and explosive devices out of hollow bamboo sticks, closed off at one end, for religious festivals. Perhaps some of these bamboo tubes started shooting off or skittering along the ground, but the Chinese started tinkering with the gunpowder-filled bamboo sticks and attached them to arrows. Initially the arrows were launched in the traditional way using bows, creating a form of early incendiary bomb, but later the Chinese realised that the bamboo sticks could launch themselves just by the thrust produced by the escaping hot gases.

Rockets at War

The first documented use of such a “true” rocket was during the battle of Kai-Keng between the Chinese and Mongols in 1232. During this battle the Chinese managed to hold the Mongols at bay using a primitive form a solid-fueled rocket. A hollow tube was capped at one end, filled with gunpowder and then attached to a long stick. The ignition of the gunpowder increased the pressure inside the hollow tube and forced some of the hot gas and smoke out through the open end. As governed by the law of conservation of momentum, this creates thrust to propel the rocket in the direction of the capped end of the tube, with the long stick acting as a primitive guidance system, very much reminiscent of the firework “rockets” we use today.


Wan Hu (the man in the moon?) and his rocket chair

Wan Hu

According to a Chinese legend, Wan Hu, a local official during the 16th century Ming dynasty, constructed a chair with 47 gunpowder bamboo rockets attached, and in some versions of the legend supposedly fitted kite wings as well. The rocket chair was launched by igniting all 47 bamboo rockets simultaneously, and apparently, after the commotion was over, Wan Hu was gone. Some say he made it into space, and is now the “Man in the Moon”. Most likely, Wan Hu suffered the first ever launch pad failure.


One theory is that rockets were brought to Europe via the 13th cetnury Mongol conquests. In England, Roger Bacon developed a more powerful gunpowder (75% saltpetre, 15% carbon and 10% sulfur) that increased the range of rockets, while Jean Froissart added a launch pad by launching rockets through tubes to improve aiming accuracy. By the Renaissance, the use of rockets for weaponry fell out of fashion and experimentation with fireworks increased instead. In the late 16th century, a German tinkerer, Johann Schmidlap, experimented with staged rockets, an idea that is the basis for all modern rockets. Schmidlap fitted a smaller second-stage rocket on top of a larger first-stage rocket, and once the first stage burned out, the second stage continued to propel the rocket to higher altitudes. At about the same time, Kazimierz Siemienowicz, a Polish-Lithuanian commander in the Polish Army published a manuscript that included a design for multi-stage rockets and delta-wing stabilisers that were intended to replace the long rods currently acting as stabilisers.

Read more:  The History of Rocket Science

Rocket Science 101: Operating Principles