The lineage to the immensely larger rockets now used as space launch vehicles is unmistakable. But for centuries rockets were in the main rather small, and their use was confined principally to weaponry, the projection of lifelines in sea rescue, signaling, and fireworks displays. Not until the 20th century did a clear understanding of the principles of rockets emerge, and only then did the technology of large rockets begin to evolve. Thus, as far as spaceflight and space science are concerned, the story of rockets up to the beginning of the 20th century was largely prologue.
Early ExperimentsAll through the 13th to the 18th Century there were reports of many rocket experiments. For example, Joanes de Fontana of Italy designed a surface-running rocket-powered torpedo for setting enemy ships on fire. In 1650, a Polish artillery expert, Kazimierz Siemienowicz, published a series of drawings for a staged rocket. In 1696, Robert Anderson, an Englishman, published a two-part treatise on how to make rocket molds, prepare the propellants, and perform the calculations.
Sir William CongreveDuring the early introduction of rockets to Europe, they were used only as weapons. Enemy troops in India repulsed the British with rockets. Later in Britain, Sir William Congreve developed a rocket that could fire to about 9,000 feet. The British fired Congreve rockets against the United States in the War of 1812. Francis Scott Key coined the phrase the "rocket's red glare after the British fired Congreve rockets against the United States. William Congreve's incendiary rocket used black powder, an iron case, and a 16-foot guide stick. Congreve had used a 16-foot guidestick to help stabilize his rocket. William Hale, another British inventor, invented the stickless rocket in 1846. The U.S. army used the Hale rocket more than 100 years ago in the war with Mexico. Rockets were also used to a limited extent in the Civil War.
During the 19th century, rocket enthusiasts and inventors began to appear in almost every country. Some people thought these early rocket pioneers were geniuses, and others thought they were crazy. Claude Ruggieri, an Italian living in Paris, apparently rocketed small animals into space as early as 1806. The payloads were recovered by parachute. As far back as 1821, sailors hunted whales using rocket-propelled harpoons. These rocket harpoons were launched form a shoulder-held tube equipped with a circular blast shield.
Reaching for the StarsBy the end of the 19th century, soldiers, sailors, practical and not so practical inventors had developed a stake in rocketry. Skillful theorists, like Konstantian Tsiolkovsky in Russia, were examining the fundamental scientific theories behind rocketry. They were beginning to consider the possibility of space travel. Four persons were particularly significant in the transition from the small rockets of the 19th century to the colossi of the space age: Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in Russia, Robert Goddard in the United States, and Hermann Oberth and Wernher von Braun in Germany.