A Brief History of Rocketry – Early Rockets to Goddard

Rockets from Antiquity to the Medieval Era

Illustration of early gunpowder usage from the Bellifortis Manuscript, 1401-1450CE, Bibliothèque Municipale de Besançon.

In roughly 850 AD, gunpowder – one of the “four great inventions” – was invented by the Chinese. The earliest known chemical explosive, this mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate would become widespread in a variety of military and civilian uses. By 900 it had been adapted for military use and was first used in war in 904, during the Song Dynasty, as a propulsion system for arrows. The earliest Chinese rocket consisted of a heavy paper tube filled with gun powder. These were stabilized with a long wooden stick and fired toward the enemy. In 1232, during the battle of Kai-Fung-Fu, the Chinese repelled Mongol invaders by a barrage of “arrows of flying fire.” A very simple solid-fueled rocket, these tubes contained gunpowder and were sealed at one end. The other end was open, with the tube being attached to a long stick. When the powder was ignited, its rapid burning produced fire, smoke, and gas that escaped out the open end and produced thrust. The stick acted as a simple guidance system that kept the rocket headed in one general direction as it flew through the air. These early rockets could carry either flammable materials – as in incendiary device – or poison rocket heads. Arrays of box launchers could send up to 1000 rockets a distance of 1000 feet. Though probably not very accurate, this new terrifying weapon must have impressed the Mongols, as they soon adapted the technology for their own use, and probably exported that technology to the western borders of their empire – into Europe and over the Silk Road.

Illustration of a rocket artilleryman preparing to light an early Chinese rocket.
Chinese rockets were used to repel the Mongol Invasion, 1232CE.

These paths across Asia allowed the new technology of rocketry to enter Europe, the Middle East, and India. During the 7th Crusade, 1248 – 1254, French troops were moving along an eastern branch of the Nile River toward the port town of Damietta. Arab forces on the opposite side of the river fired “…a projectile…which, when it had fallen on the bank (of the river) came straight towards them, burning wildly: it is doubtlessly the egg that moves and burns…” and consisted of three rockets “…combined such that two of these rockets served as a guiding stick for the third” (Jean, Sire de Jointville, 1268). These rockets had been written about by al-Hasan al-Rammah Nedjm al-din al-Ahdab in his Treatise of Horsemanship and War Stratagems, and Ibn Khaldun, in his Book of Wonders.

A map showing the land (red) and sea (blue) routes of the Silk Road from China and Southeast Asia to the African Coast and Southern Europe.

Soon, Europeans were familiar with these new weapons and began describing and discussing their uses: the Italian Muratori, who first used the word “rochetta” in 1379; Konrad Kyser von Eichstadt described them in his War Fortifications in 1405; Joanes de Fontana in his 1420 sketchbook Book of War Instruments; and Jean Froissart who, in his Chronicles of the Hundred Years War, discusses their possible use.

Soon, Europeans were familiar with these new weapons and by 1337 the English rulers of the House of Plantagenet and the French House of Valois went to war over the right to rule the Kingdom of France – an issue which had caused tensions for generations. This war would last until 1453. In 1429, the French army would have its most important victory in Orleans – a city of immense strategic and symbolic power. During the siege, French troops launched numerous rockets at the English attackers. St. Joan of Arc would have seen them in action. Following their success at Orleans, the French used rockets three more times – in their sieges of Pont-Andemer in 1449, Bordeaux in 1452, and Gard in 1453.

Johannes de Fontana’s sketchbook Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber Cum Figuris, or “Book of War Instruments,” show projectiles launched using gunpowder weapons, circa 1420, Germany.

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