Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 515:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 515.

Today, science fiction forges a weapon of war. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

If you think war drives technology, maybe you should look at German rocketry. The German Army ordered a study of rockets in 1929. It began building rockets the next year. That sounds like great foresight. I suppose it was, but it had nothing to do with the Nazis. Hitler didn't take over until four years later.

By 1929 the American, Goddard, and the Russians had worked with rockets. The German military didn't tumble to any of that. Something else happened. We have to go back to 1923, when Hermann Oberth published a book on rocketry.

Oberth laid out the principles of modern space flight. He said rockets could escape Earth's atmosphere. They could even escape gravity. They could carry people and they could turn a profit. He wasn't talking about war.

The book was to have been his doctoral dissertation. But the faculty at Heidelberg rejected it. Rockets won't work in the vacuum of space, a professor claimed, because they have nothing to push against.

Then a science-fiction writer named Max Valier got his hands on Oberth's book. He became Oberth's champion. Writings on space flight began flowing from his pen. Valier arrested public attention.

For a while, Valier and Oberth collaborated. But Valier didn't really understand rocketry. He tried to improve on Oberth's hard facts. Oberth had to end their collaboration.

But no matter: the spark had landed in the tinder of the 1920s imagination. By 1928 Valier's enthusiasm had caught the heir of the Opel automobile fortunes. The fellow built a series of rocket-powered cars. Then he flew a rocket-powered glider. Meanwhile, Fritz Lang stopped work on the movie Metropolis to make a film about flying to the moon.

In the midst of all this, a German officer read Oberth's book. Only then did he start the machinery of military rocketry. By 1930 we find a photo of the military rocket group. Oberth stands in front of a small rocket. On the right we see an 18-year-old lad holding a fitting. His clear, alert face gazes, transfixed -- not at Oberth, but at the rocket. The young engineer is Wernher von Braun.

Fourteen years later, V-2 rockets began falling on English civilians. They weren't the fruit of military vision at all. They were born in Oberth's science and Valier's fiction. They were born in the face of young von Braun, dreaming about flying to the moon.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Neufeld, M.J., Weimar Culture and Futuristic Technology: The Rocketry and Spaceflight Fad in Germany, 1923-1933. Technology and Culture, Vol. 31, No. 4, Oct. 1990, pp. 725-752.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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