Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 764:
VON BRAUN AND HISTORY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 764.

Today, Werner von Braun leaves the V-2 behind. 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.

Our space program owes so much to Werner von Braun. Yet we've always been a little suspicious of this once-builder of German rockets. Remember Dr. Strangelove!

In 1966, von Braun helped put things in perspective. He wrote a fine History of Rocketry. He told the 2500 year history of rockets and our attempts to reach space. The earliest rocket- like device on record was a steam-driven Egyptian model bird. It flew on the end of a string in the 4th century BC.

The West didn't pursue the idea, but the Chinese did. By 1300 they'd long since had a technology of military rocketry. Then Europe began thinking about tactical rockets. It took over 300 years but the West finally had war rockets in the late 1700s.

One experiment wasn't military at all. Nor was it a true rocket. Like the Egyptian bird, it was jet propelled. A Dutch scientist, 'sGravesande, used a steam jet to drive a model car.

The English got into rocketry in the 1790s. William Congreve built a series of explosive rockets. They weighed up to a hundred pounds and flew as far as three miles. The red glare of Congreve's rockets falling on Ft. McHenry has destroyed untrained tenors at ball games ever since.

Soon, new and better guns overshadowed rockets. By 1920, rocketry had faded from war. Then we took a new interest in long range rockets. That interest wasn't fueled by war, but by hope of reaching space. And it fed on the new success of human flight.

First the Russian, Tsiolkovsky, theorized. Then the American, Goddard, experimented. Finally, the German, Herman Oberth, wrote immensely popular books on rockets into space.

Armies read all that and brought it back to earth. All through the '30's, American, English, French, and German armies worked on a new breed of military rockets.

It was the young moon-struck von Braun who finally put long range war rockets in the air. 1500 V-2's reached England. They killed 2500 people. By then the Gestapo had once jailed von Braun for showing too much interest in the rocket's non-military uses.

And the most effective WW-II rocket? It wasn't the V-2 at all. It was the American Bazooka. It was our hand-held anti- tank rocket launcher.

In 1945, von Braun got away with truck-loads of documents and he surrendered to the Americans. He was still only 33.

First he helped us build even more terrible rockets -- ones we never used. But, in the end, he helped us reach the moon and reach space. He did, at last, lead us far beyond the horrors of war -- to planets yet untouched by V-2s and ICBMs.

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

(Theme music)


von Braun, W., and Ordway, F.I., III, History of Rocketry & Space Travel. (revised ed.) New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Co., 1969.

Werner Von Braun died in June 1977. He was still only 59 years old. He'd lived to see lunar landings, sky-lab, and much more. He ends his book by discussing a manned mission to Mars.

Some listeners might wonder why I mention the steam-powered bird and say nothing about Hero's turbine. Hero built his famous steam-driven rotating sphere near the birth of Christ -- in the last days of the end of the Hellenistic period. The steam-powered bird was some 400 years older. It was made just before the Hellenistic era, and is all the more remarkable for that. Hero's turbine was probably one the last Hellenistic experiments in reaction propulsion.


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

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