“God Pity A One-Dream Man”


Other experiments followed. He tested the eyesight of a paralytic greatgrandmother, tried to melt aluminum for his balloon on the kitchen stove, made a bow and featherless arrows and practiced firing them vertically into the air, tried to make artificial diamonds and blew up his chemistry set, designed a frog hatchery complete with hatching houses and pumping plant. He also read: Youth’s Companion, St. Nicholas Magazine, Scientific American , Cassell’s Popular Educator (which gave him Newton’s laws), and memorably, in early 1898, when he was fifteen, a serial in the Boston Post , “Fighters from Mars, or the War of the Worlds, in and near Boston”—a recasting of H. G. Wells’s thriller on local ground, ground the Worcester boy had walked. It “gripped my imagination tremendously,” as did the serial that followed it in the Post, “Edison’s Conquest of Mars.”

Thus primed, an only child, frequently out of school, almost an invalid, Robert Goddard one day in his eighteenth year had a vision, and its impact was such that he would ever after note the day in his diary as “Anniversary Day”: “… On the afternoon of October 19, 1899, I climbed a tall cherry tree at the back of the barn … and, armed with a saw which I still have, and a hatchet, started to trim the dead limbs from the cherry tree. It was one of the quiet, colorful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have in October in New England, and as I looked toward the fields at 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. … I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended, for existence at last seemed very purposive.”

The device Goddard imagined for his flight to Mars was a sort of centrifugal engine, “a weight whirling around a horizontal shaft.” He described it to a friend who was a student at Harvard; his friend told him it wouldn’t work, but couldn’t explain why. Goddard proceeded to build wooden models—the perpetual motion machine. “These, naturally, gave negative results, and I began to think that there might be something after all to Newton’s laws.” He tested Newton’s third law for himself, “both with devices suspended by rubber bands and by devices on floats.” He verified it, “conclusively.” “This, however, did not put a stop to my interest, but it made me realize that if a way to navigate space were to be discovered—or invented—it would be the result of a knowledge of physics and mathematics.” He changed high schools so that he could go after physics. He inquired of a firm of patent attorneys, in 1901, if a “Projecting Apparatus” he had invented could be patented. The firm thought it could, but apparently Goddard wasn’t ready yet to pursue patents. He wrote “The Navigation of Space,” and, a little later, “The Habitability of Other Worlds.” He told his high school graduation class that “the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.” He had experimented by then with gyroscopes and thought of a machine-gun-like rocket propelled by cartridges fired successively in reverse. But the numbers were still wrong. He burned his notes and went off to Worcester Polytechnic Institute to study physics and math.

The dream would not down. “Anything is possible with the man who makes the best use of every minute of his time,” Goddard wrote in his diary in 1904. “If there is no law against it, why—then ‘twill happen some day,” he added early in 1905. He imagined a magnetically propelled express train sealed inside a vacuum tunnel that could make the Boston-New York run in ten minutes and wrote a short story about it as an English theme. Two patents for the train were issued to him posthumously, his first prior art. He still thought rockets were inherently inefficient and looked into atomic energy and propulsion by streams of ionized gas. “March 4, 1906. … Decided today that space navigation is a physical impossibility.” He had started keeping secret notebooks. They filled up with numbers as he mastered undergraduate science. He proposed “The Use of the Gyroscope in the Balancing and Steering of Airplanes,” apparently the first person anywhere to do so; Scientific American printed the proposal in a supplement on June 29, 1907, when he was twenty-five and still an undergraduate. He wrote again “On the Possibility of Navigating Interplanetary Space,” more learnedly this time, and concluded that space travel would depend on solving “the problem of atomic disintegration.” He graduated a bachelor of science from Tech, his thesis—it related to the basic physics of a device used in early radio—taking first prize. ” ‘The years forever fashion new dreams, when old ones go,’ ” he quoted in his diary at the end of 1908, adding, perhaps humorously, “God pity a one-dream man.”