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In Search of the First Rocket Man

If you’re interested enough in space to be reading this site, you’ve probably run into the name of Wan Hu. He’s the subject of a tale that may well be spurious, but it’s certainly lively. It seems that some time around the year 1500 AD, Wan Hu took his fascination with rocketry to the logical limit by building a chair equipped with 47 gunpowder rockets. Lit by 47 attendants, the combined rockets took Wan Hu somewhere, but just where is unknown, as he is said to have disappeared with a loud bang, leaving only a pall of smoke hanging over the scene.

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The first rocket man? Maybe. But experts on science in China find it more likely that the tale was invented somewhere in Europe, during a period (17th-19th century) when Chinese motifs were much in vogue. Frank Winter (National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC) did his own investigation and could find no mention of Wan Hu in Ming Dynasty biographical guides or histories. And apparently there are variants involving not Wan Hu but ‘Wang Tu,’ who is said to have lived 2000 years ago. This story popped up in a 1909 issue of Scientific American and involves the same rocket chair, but Wang Tu manages to survive.

Image: The fabulous Wan Hu. Who knows where he wound up? Credit: National Air & Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

I have all this from a wonderful 1992 paper that Winter wrote for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, sent to me by my friend Al Jackson. Al was wondering about a fellow named Frederick Rodman Law, who like Wan Fu was obsessed with rockets. I had never heard of Law either, but in Winter’s view, in Law we have the first proven occurrence of pre-Space Age manned rocket flight, an event that took place in 1913. Known as ‘the human bullet’ and other professional names, Law was a showman and Hollywood stunt man whose sister was flyer Ruth Law.

Law’s plan (according to the New York Times: To blast off from Jersey City, NJ and land in Elizabeth, about nineteen kilometers away (Winter thinks the rocket would actually have landed either back in Jersey City or in Newark if it had worked). Law’s rocket was 14 meters tall, ending in a conical steel cap with an opening for Law to crawl into. 408 kg of gunpowder provided the punch, evidently supplied by the International Fireworks Co. Law intended to ride the rocket up to about 1000 meters and then jump out so as to parachute to Earth.

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Winter draws on the New York Times account of what happened:

A crowd of about 150 people gathered that morning to see Law off. His rocket was set “on a mound of earth surrounded by marsh and rushes.” Continued the Times: “A motion picture operator became active when Law himself appeared, clad in khaki [if it still exists, this film has never been found]… When all the preliminary scenes had been duly recorded Law mounted a scaffold which had been built besides the rocket to enable him to reach his seat, which was about 18 feet (5.4m) above the ground. “You may light the fuse when ready, Sam (Samuel L. Serpico, Manager of the International Fireworks Co.), announced Law after he had taken the seat.

“The motion picture man rapidly placed a high-power lens on his machine to follow the shaft to Elizabeth… The spark climbed up several feet of fuse, sputtering menacingly… After a few seconds there was a terrific explosion with a shock that threw most of the crowd to the ground [as] the big projectile burst into a thousand pieces…

Image: Frederick Rodman Law atop his vehicle. Credit: National Air & Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

The amazing thing is that, unlike Wan Fu, Law did not join his ancestors at this point. He was thrown about nine meters from the rocket, and a physician in the crowd discovered that the only thing wrong with him was scorching to his hands and face, although his clothes were a mess. Law would go on to perform such feats as climbing the US Capitol dome (the police stopped the stunt), and dropping from an exploding balloon, exploding craft evidently being his trademark. When he did eventually die in 1919, it was quietly, of tuberculosis, in South Carolina.

Winter’s paper is worth checking out if you’re near a library with JBIS available. He goes into various tales worldwide, such as that of Lagari Hasan Çelebi, who was said to have flown a gunpowder rocket to altitude in the 17th Century and then coasted down after deploying ‘wings’ on the device to land. Like Wan Hu, the tale has never been corroborated. We also have stories like that of Claude-Fortuné Ruggieri, a doughty pyrotechnist who somewhere around 1830 constructed a rocket that was to launch a man from the Champ de Mars in Paris. This attempt was fairly well along, but when the volunteer pilot turned out to be a small boy, the police stepped in and banned the flight. Ruggieri’s tale, too, is hard to corroborate.

Perhaps the strangest of the many tales in Winter’s paper is his account of a ‘Signor Camarara,’ presented as an attraction at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY. Said to be a ‘human skyrocket,’ Camarara was said in a newspaper account to have previously flown a rocket near the turn of the century in Callao, Peru. The vehicle was said to have had four exhausts, all of which used a strange, secret fuel Camarara called ‘dynoascenemite.’ Blasting off, Camarara was lofted to almost 5000 meters before landing safely by parachute.

Winter, as you would imagine, will have none of this one, pointing out that even Robert H. Goddard had trouble reaching altitudes like this with much more efficient liquid-fueled rockets decades later. Like other rocket man tales Winter has collected, Camarara’s story was surely a hoax, speaking to the power rockets held over daredevils and cranks early in their development, as well as to the gullibility of those willing to believe such astounding stories.

But we have to give Frederick Rodman Law credit. He had plenty of witnesses, was well advertised, and had the guts to climb into a gunpowder-fueled rocket with the cameras rolling. Good for Frank Winter for telling his tale. Just ahead were the Opel-RAK rocket vehicles, including the Opel RAK.1, a rocket glider flown in 1929 in Germany, and the various rocket-powered aircraft developed by Allied and Axis powers during World War II, the most famous being the Me-163 and the suicidal Japanese Yokosuka MXY-7 Ohka. The story of the rocket was quickly going from tall tale and stunt to scientific fact.

The paper is Winter, “Who First Flew in a Rocket?” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society Vol. 45 (1992), pp. 275-280.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ljk January 27, 2016, 11:33

    This is going from memory, but there was a family rocket business in France circa 1790 that attracted attention by launching increasingly larger live payloads on brief journeys into the sky. They had gotten as far as sending a sheep skyward and recovering the animal by parachute. Apparently a young boy volunteered to be their next passenger, but the authorities said enough was enough.

    If anyone has any details on this, it would be appreciated.

    And although a rocket was not involved, an 11th Century CE Benedictine monk named Eilmer of Malmesbury did fly in a glider type contraption of his own making. He flew 200 meters before crashing and breaking both legs, but he did survive. Eilmer realized his glider needed a tail and was set to try again, but his abbot forbid further adventures into the wild blue yonder. Eilmer’s story also seems to have more credibility than Wan Hu. Sorry, Wan.

    http://www.eilmer.co.uk/

    http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/chat/3157103/posts

    • Paul Gilster January 27, 2016, 12:45

      Larry, this is Claude-Fortuné Ruggieri, mentioned in the article. The young boy was Wilfrid de Fonvielle, who went on to become a well-known balloonist. And yes, before this, he sent mice and a sheep for a ride at Marseilles.

      • ljk January 27, 2016, 15:09

        Ah thank you Paul, this is what I get for skim reading. :^) At least it shows my memory was not too far off.

  • Local Fluff January 27, 2016, 11:37

    I would add to that history:
    Conrad Haas

    Chief artillerist for a European king 1509–1576 in what is today Romania. Inventor of multistage rockets and possibly animal rocket flights, among other then more practical things.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conrad_Haas

  • Alex Tolley January 27, 2016, 12:39

    One has to admire the bravery of these people. Solid propellants/explosives were hard to make consistently. Gunpowder factories blew up, especially if ammonium nitrate was stored on the premises. Even total solid rockets are not failsafe. As a teenager, I used to make chlorate infused paper as a gunpowder substitute. It was very unreliable as to whether it would burn smoothly as a rocket propellant or just explode. The failure of the Shuttle Challenger’s solid booster is a reminder that even modern versions can fail, even though in that case, it was a structural rather than propellant failure.

  • ljk January 27, 2016, 15:13

    Rockets are controlled bombs any way you look at them. The fact that more have not blown up in catastrophic ways is a tribute to those who build and launch them into the void.

    If we can make the technology and physics of space elevators work, perhaps some day such methods as rocketry will seem like quaint barbarisms:

    http://www.leonarddavid.com/space-elevator-uplifting-reading-2/

    • Alex Tolley January 27, 2016, 15:32

      I think Clarke said that they deliberately did not name BIS as the British Rocket[ry] Society was because they thought rockets would be a transitional phase and expected far better ways of getting to, and traveling in, space.

      The danger with rockets is that the fuel and oxidizer is a potential bomb, exploding in spectacular fashion when Murphy’s Law strikes. The principle is fine if the energy could be delivered from an external source, like a laser or microwave beam to heat or otherwise energize a safe working fluid. If we could electrically accelerate a fluid with an exhaust velocity much higher than combusting H2 and O2, we might solve the cost of access to space with safe, reusable, vehicles.

      • Eniac January 30, 2016, 15:51

        If we can figure out a way to provide the electricity. The power/mass ratio of a rocket is hard to beat by any means, and electricity is not one of them.

  • Andrew Palfreyman January 27, 2016, 16:28

    StarTram and Skylon should profoundly undercut rockets on launch costs – even reusable rockets.

    • Ashley Baldwin January 27, 2016, 16:52

      Both sadly underfunded though the companies battle on. The air/rocket engine combination is totally ingenious and deserves to succeed. Skylon in particular of all the new “spaceplanes” is a true proper LEO horizontal lift off vehicle that can deliver a meaningful payload or sizeable crew ( up to 24 astronauts ?) .Given its low mass per size ratio it can start atmospheric deceleration higher up and consequently land at lower ( safer) temperatures. And above all else is genuinely reusable.

    • Eniac January 30, 2016, 16:34

      Single Stage To Orbit is not the way to reduce launch costs. Reusable multi-stage rockets are, and it is happening now.

  • tom January 27, 2016, 16:49

    The older I grow, the more I appreciate myths, legends and folklore.
    How marvelous is our age… our science, engineering and business productivity makes available commercial aviation.
    I’ve flown only as a passenger 10 times in my entire life, twice in a 4 seater cessna.
    If history tells us ‘men shall hear of Icarus…. and still walk on the Moon’!
    THEN the days and times ahead will be just as magnificent.

  • Tom Mazanec January 27, 2016, 16:59

    My favorite is the 19th Century Mr. Golightly.

  • J. Jason Wentworth January 28, 2016, 0:49

    The vertically-launched, liquid-propellant Bachem Natter (Viper) was a World War II German rocket interceptor that was essentially a “piloted, winged Aerobee rocket.” The pilot, his cabin, and the reusable rocket engine were designed to be recovered by parachute, while the rest of the aircraft (which was made of non-strategic wood, in the last desperate days of the Third Reich) was allowed to fall separately to its destruction. The Natter was boosted out of a tower launcher with the help of several solid boosters, and it carried an array of rockets in its nose, to be fired at allied bombers. If memory serves, only one piloted test launch occurred, but the cockpit windshield opened soon after liftoff, and the high-velocity slipstream stunned the pilot, who died in the subsequent crash. Also:

    There are possible ways to make rockets explosion-proof. For example:

    Hybrid rockets can’t detonate like liquid propellant rockets (although their cases can burst if a loose chunk of solid fuel blocks the nozzle for an instant) because the fuel is solid and the oxidizer is liquid, making intimate mixing of the two impossible. When AMROC’s SET-1 hybrid suborbital launch vehicle burned through its hold-downs and fell over on its re-purposed Thor launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base (frost on the LOX valve kept the motor from reaching full thrust), it just smoldered. The base commander expressed amazement, saying that it was the most benign launch failure he’d ever witnessed. Also:

    LOX/kerosene rockets might be able to used gelled kerosene fuel, which would be liquefied by an ultrasonic “carburetor” just before it entered the engine. (This safety feature has been tested for jet aircraft, but has never been adopted due to its cost.) Also, in the 1980s an old Boeing 720 [similar to the 707] was crashed deliberately under radio control, to test a fuel additive [I don’t recall if it gelled the jet fuel] that was designed to prevent explosion and fire, and the plane didn’t burn. In addition:

    Many SSTO (Single-Stage-To-Orbit) spaceship designs incorporate another safety feature. Instead of having a common bulkhead between the fuel and oxidizer (usually LOX/LH2 or LOX/kerosene), or having separate but adjacent tank closure domes (various expendable launch vehicles use both arrangements), these SSTO designs place the fuel and oxidizer tanks on either end of the crew compartment and/or the payload bay, to reduce the likelihood of undesired fuel/oxidizer mixing in the event of a tank leak or rupture.