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Did this Canadian man predict space travel in 1861?

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The Reverend William Leitch.

There are futurists and then there are futurists.

More than four decades before the Wright Brothers got an airplane off the ground at Kitty Hawk, a Canadian man predicted rocket-based space space flight, says one historian.

In a new study published in the The First Scientific Concept of Rockets for Space Travel, space historian Robert Godwin says William Leitch, an official at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, was the first to propose rocket based space travel.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Leitch deserves a place of honour in the history of spaceflight,” says Godwin. “The fact that he was a scientist is the key to this story. He wasn’t just making a wild guess. Not only did he understand Newton’s law of action and reaction, he almost dismissively understood that a rocket would work more efficiently in the vacuum of space; a fact that still caused Goddard and others to be subjected to ridicule almost six decades later.”

While the official story til now was that rocket-powered space travel was first proposed by later in the 19th century by Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and by American Robert Goddard, who were inspired by science fiction writer HG Wells (The War of the Worlds) and Jules Verne ( Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), Godwin says Leitch came by his inspiration in a more science-based manner.

“Whereas Goddard and Tsiolkovsky got their first inspiration from the science fiction of Wells and Verne, Leitch seems to have been inspired by the advances in powerful telescopes, and the newly spin-stabilised military projectiles being manufactured in London, and Isaac Newton,” he says.

We can no longer take it for granted that the consistently cited trio of founders of space flight theory—Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, and Oberth—were the only individuals who seriously thought and wrote about the rocket as the most viable means of achieving space flight.

How are Godwin’s assertions being regarded by the rest of the scientific community? Pretty well, notes blogger Henry Stewart, writing for The Commercial Space Blog. Stewart notes that a lengthy review from Frank Winter, the former curator of rocketry of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, seems to back Godwin’s findings.

“We can no longer take it for granted that the consistently cited trio of founders of space flight theory—Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, and Oberth—were the only individuals who seriously thought and wrote about the rocket as the most viable means of achieving space flight,” says Winter. “William Leitch is less well known than the first three, but he should now be included in the overall picture, especially since he pre-dated them.”

Leitch, it seems, was something of a divisive character, who had a “short but turbulent career” as Queen’s fifth Principal from 1859 to 1864, according to the University’s website. He was Born in Bute, Scotland in 1814 and attended the University of Glasgow where he was licensed as a Presbyterian minister. He moved to Canada in 1859 when Queen’s was a “small, poor, and fractious college” and immediately began to quarrel with the faculty, one of whom he described publicly as “a bungling arch-blockhead”. But under Leitch, the province’s first observatory, the Kingston Observatory (now known as the Queen’s Observatory) got its foothold.

So why has Leitch never gotten the accolades he seems to deserve? Godwin credits a mix-up in how the book was indexed.

“His suggestion to use rockets in space remained in print for over forty years, but his name had been stripped away from the work. The problem was compounded by the title of his book being changed at the last minute to remove all references to astronomy, which led to it languishing for 150 years in the theology section of libraries. But it was still in print when Goddard and Tsiolkovsky made their mark on the field, says Godwin. “Leitch comprehended everything from the catastrophic implications of cometary impacts to the special relationship between light and time. He was a genius…”

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About The Author /

Cantech Letter founder and editor Nick Waddell has lived in five Canadian provinces and is proud of his country's often overlooked contributions to the world of science and technology. Waddell takes a regular shift on the Canadian media circuit, making appearances on CTV, CBC and BNN, and contributing to publications such as Canadian Business and Business Insider.
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  1. Thank you for your in depth article about Leitch. I should point out that scholars in recent years have come to realise that Leitch was not the divisive figure some have cast him to be. In fact he walked into a many-year-long battle being waged about school financing in Canada and took steps to try and solve the problem. The individual who called him a blockhead was a disgruntled teacher at Queens who owned his own newspaper and didn’t like the fact that Leitch had passed a resolution which essentially said, “if you work here and you badmouth the school you will be reprimanded.” This particular individual didn’t like having his tabloid headlines disrupted. There was more to it than that, but the people who knew Leitch well, said he was articulate, gentle, charming and ill-equipped to deal with the political shenanigans he walked into. He became friends with John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister who respected him. Leitch’s speech in defense of education (printed in my paper) was greeted with cheers and rousing acclaim from the Globe newspaper who were allied with the opposing political camp.
    Robert Godwin

  2. I apologise. I should have also said, it was not Leitch who called the other fellow a blockhead it was vice versa. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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