Monday, September 12, 2016

William Leitch: Presbyterian Scientist & the Concept of Rocket Spaceflight 1854-64

          By Brian Orlotti

Cover graphic c/o Apogee Books.
Last year, Canadian author, space historian and Commercial Space blog contributor Robert Godwin released a paper claiming that Ontarian Presbyterian minister William Leitch (1814-1864) was the first trained scientist to apply scientific principles to advocate the rocket as a means of space travel, decades before Robert Goddard and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

Godwin has now expanded his paper and released it as a book under the title, "William Leitch: Presbyterian Scientist & the Concept of Rocket Spaceflight 1854-64."

As outlined in the October 4th, 2015 post, "Rocket Spaceflight Accurately Described by Scottish-Canadian Scientist in 1861," Leitch first published his suggestion that the rocket could be used for spaceflight in an Edinburgh journal in 1861 and also included it in his 1862 book, "God's Glory in the Heavens."

But the work fell into the dustbin of history when Leitch died young and the copyright fell into limbo after the bankruptcy of his publisher in 1878.

In the course of his research, Godwin discovered that Leitch’s book had remained in print for over forty years, though his name had been purged from it. In addition, the book’s title was changed at the last minute to remove all references to astronomy, condemning it to 150 years of obscurity in various libraries’ theology sections.

Leitch had studied at the University of Glasgow in the same classroom as William Thomson (aka Lord Kelvin) who did much to unify the emerging discipline of physics into its modern form and even once assisted Kelvin in an electricity experiment. In 1859, he was appointed principal of Queen's University in Kingston, ON. Leitch died in 1864 and is buried near Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, whom he apparently knew.

The Cataraqui Cemetery National Historic site of Canada, where William Leitch and Sir John A. MacDonald are both buried.  As outlined in volume 3 of the 2016 Queens Alumni Review, under the title, "A historic place of final rest," the Cataraqui Cemetery has "been the final resting place of many principals, faculty, and friends of the University for more than 135 years." Photo c/o

In an email, Godwin encapsulated his new book:
Leitch was a remarkably accomplished person. In the book I take the reader through his entire life, exploring his background as an unconventional example of his profession. He was a Presbyterian minister who loved science. He was a polymath with expertise in botany, geology, medicine, physics, ethics, classics, astronomy, ballistics, biology, divinity and more. He worked with some of the most brilliant minds of the 19th century like Sir David Brewster, Lord Kelvin and John Pringle Nichol. Scotland was ground-zero for the industrial revolution. James Watt who fixed Newcomen's steam engine worked on the telescopes that Leitch used.
There were a lot of surprises that came out of tracing his life. His extraordinarily unconventional political views. His encounters with some famous players in the American civil war. His family ties to some of the most famous people of his generation. His role in the search for alien life. His insights into things that Einstein would later establish as fact three generations later. His predictions about the nature of our solar system, things that wouldn't be confirmed for generations.
In a phone interview with the author, Godwin stated that he’d received little criticism or hostility for his findings, although he was challenged by the chairman of the American Astronautical Society’s (AAS) history committee to prove that Leitch had scientific training and wasn’t just "guessing." Godwin stated  that he welcomed the challenge and used his thoroughly-researched evidence to convince the Chairman.

An illustration from Leitch's 1862 book "God's Glory in the Heavens." Photo c/o The Guardian.

According to Godwin:
He (Leitch) put the pieces together; Newtonian physics (action, reaction) with military ballistics...He was NOT Cyrano De Bergerac. He didn’t have bottles of dew on his belt that carried him up towards the moon.
Godwin’s book weaves many threads together, forming a new patch in the tapestry of spaceflight history. Canadians and space aficionados everywhere would do well to take a look.

To learn more, check out "William Leitch: Presbyterian Scientist & the Concept of Rocket Spaceflight 1854-64," on the Apogee Books website.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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