Physics

Granular Sand by Julien Chopin, PhD Candidate in Physics

History of Physics at Clark

The Goddard Era (1913 - 1943)

One of Webster's students was Robert Hutchings Goddard who was awarded his Ph.D. in physics from Clark in 1911 and went on to pioneer in the development of rockets. Goddard tenaciously patented the basics of rockets that are today used for space travel and exploration.

Goddard was born in 1882 in Roxbury, Massachusetts. His father co-owned a company that manufactured machine knives and invented special knives and a flux for welding steel. The son showed an early interest in science and his father encouraged him by giving him a microscope, a telescope, and a subscription to Scientific American.

When Goddard was sixteen, the family moved to Worcester and shared a house with a friend who had a "neat little workshop and tool cabinet in the shed." Goddard was fascinated. He also began to dream about space. On October 19, 1899 he climbed a cherry tree in the backyard to trim some branches. In a 1927 biographical memoir he described what then happened to him: "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." In his diaries Goddard referred to October 19 as Anniversary Day. He kept photographs of the tree and the ladder he had used. Every October 19 when he was in the area he would visit the tree.

Goddard entered the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, graduating in 1907 with a major in physics. While there he wrote a paper, "The Use of the Gyroscope in the Balancing and Steering of Airplanes," which was published in Scientific American. For his senior thesis he wrote a paper entitled, "On some Peculiarities of Electrical Conductivity Exhibited by Powders and a Few Solid Substances." This paper was published two years later in the Physical Review, the respected journal of the young American Physical Society. At the same time Goddard maintained his interest in rockets; he kept notebooks in which copiously recorded thoughts on spaceflight. For two years Goddard stayed on the faculty of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute as instructor.

Then in 1909 Goddard entered Clark University to study physics at the graduate level as a student of Webster. Just one year later he received his Master of Arts degree. And in 1911 - only two years later - he was awarded his Ph.D. His 1912 doctoral dissertation was entitled, "On the Conduction of Electricity at Contacts of Dissimilar Solids", a topic concerning principles embodied in the transistor. Goddard noted in his diary that he chose the topic "not because I was particularly interested, but that I considered that my previous studies on the conductivity of powders at Worcester Tech would be of help - a belief which, after only two weeks work, I found not fully justified." Webster was quoted as saying that Goddard's oral dissertation defense was "a spectacular performance." Goddard published his dissertation in the Physical Review in 1913.

Goddard remained at Clark for a year as a research fellow following which he accepted a fellowship at Princeton University to study electricity, magnetism, and the emerging atomic theory. But every evening, and often into the early hours, he continued his work on rocket propulsion. Then while on a visit home in Worcester he developed a cold which his family treated with their old remedy, snuff and lard. It didn't work; he had tuberculosis. While he ultimately recovered, he remained in fragile health for the rest of his life. After only one year at Princeton, he never returned. Instead he accepted a teaching appointment at Clark. Remaining on Clark's faculty for the rest of his career, he acquired a reputation as a stimulating teacher. In 1923, after Webster's death, he was elevated to head the physics department as Director of the Physical Laboratories, a post he held until his resignation in 1943.

From 1909 through 1915 Goddard published five scientific papers, at least three of which were substantial contributions to science. Webster, having worked closely with his student, understood Goddard's proclivity for secrecy, and had strongly urged Goddard to publish his research. Regrettably for pure science, Goddard chose to ignore this important advice; he published nothing further.

While bedridden at home for several weeks Goddard had time to contemplate rockets. During his prolonged convalescence he filed two patent applications, one on multistage rockets and the other on getting rocket fuels into combustion chambers. Both patents were granted, the first in a lifetime total of 214.

In 1916 Goddard submitted to the Smithsonian Institution a request for a grant of $5,000 to support his rocket research. His manuscript detailed his theoretical and experimental research on rockets. He was awarded the grant and gave the Smithsonian permission to publish his manuscript. Entitled "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes", it appeared in print in 1919 and is the first publication ever on the theory of rocket flight and the experimental verification of that theory. While the Russian K. E. Tsiolkovsky in 1903 published a theoretical paper on gravity and the possibility of space flight, and in 1922 Professor Hermann published a theoretical paper in Germany on the possible use of a rocket for space flight, Goddard's publication is unique for its experimental demonstration of these possibilities. Goddard is distinguished from these other rocket researchers in having tested his theories over the next twenty-five years with painstaking, usually frustrating, experimentation.

A year later an extract of the Smithsonian publication was published in the international journal Nature. The extract attracted worldwide attention. Besieged from all over the world with requests for information, Goddard ignored them all. For his Clark laboratory he hired an armed night watchman and secured an unlisted telephone number. He made his assistants sign pledges of secrecy. Indeed, Goddard complained that Oberg had stolen his ideas. He remainded obstinate in his refusal to accept collaborators who would have been able and willing to share experience and resources.

On March 16, 1926 Goddard fired the world's first liquid-fueled rocket at the farm of a family friend. Twelve feet long and weighing only ten pounds fully loaded, it flew for two and a half seconds and rose to an altitude of 41 feet. Goddard was "jubilant."

Three years later Goddard fired off another rocket from a 60-foot launch tower. It reached 90 feet of altitude, crashed down to earth, exploded violently on impact, and set fire to the field. Soon the police, two ambulances, and two newspaper reporters appeared at the farm in response to reports of an airplane crash. Local officials and citizenry were terrified; Goddard was ordered to find a better location for his experiments.

In late 1929 Goddard received a telephone call from Charles Lindberg, the first person to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean. Lindberg explained that he was interested in the application of rockets to aircraft and Goddard invited him to visit. Goddard enthusiastically explained his ideas to the famous aviator. Replying to a question from Lindberg about what he needed to continue his work, Goddard explained that he had been struggling on minimal and uncertain funding from Clark, the Smithsonian, the Navy Bureau of Ordnance, and the Carnegie Foundation. Lindberg arranged with the Guggenheim Foundation for Aeronautical Research for a grant of $100,000 for four years. Goddard was granted leave from his teaching at Clark and in 1930 moved his laboratory to Roswell, New Mexico. He also received permission from the University to relocate the entire physics machine shop to Roswell. And for all of the twelve years Goddard was in New Mexico, Clark's President Atwood retained him as head of the physics department. Every decision in physics, every item to be purchased had to be approved through the exchange of mail.

In Roswell, Goddard produced larger and considerably more complex rockets, yet the highest altitude he was ever able to achieve was a little more than two miles. Engineering historians attribute Goddard's lack of success to poor engineering practice: he made too many changes before firing each rocket.

In all this time, despite repeated entreaties from Goddard, the U. S. military was unwilling to support any research on rockets. In the meantime, beginning in 1936, the Nazi military began to pour billions into rocket research. After World War II, when the U. S. military asked Wernher von Braun, the wartime director of German rocket development, about the source of German rocket ideas, he replied that the U.S. should study the work of Goddard. Von Braun wrote "until 1936, Goddard was ahead of us all."

The sad lesson is that Goddard's secretiveness, his refusal to collaborate, and his inferior engineering practice kept him from realizing his lifelong goal.