Goddard's WPI Breakthroughs

A diagram of Goddard’s first successful liquid-fueled rocket.

WPI's 1908 yearbook, which Robert Goddard edited, said this about the university's most famous graduate: "He fairly revels in the weirdest of physics and kindred stumbling blocks to the less fortunate of us." Indeed, in the writings he left behind from his WPI student years and from the notes he made in his diary about his activities and thoughts during that period, it is clear that Goddard was already making important technological contributions and was far along in his thinking about space exploration by the time he received his BS in general science on June 11, 1908.

In fact, over the course of his four years as an undergraduate, he filled many notebooks with ideas about space travel. He wondered, for example, about systems for supporting life outside the atmosphere, about methods for slowing a speeding spacecraft so it could land on another planet, and about techniques for putting people in suspended animation during long voyages.

In addition, his early thoughts on means of reaching space also took shape at WPI. Much of these early notions centered on some type of gun that would propel a vehicle skyward with its recoil. He considered multistage vehicles, with guns that would fire in sequence, dropping away afterward. He also thought about ways to boost the power of such a gun-like launcher, using concentrated solar energy, for example, or electrical discharges. It was not until 1909, just after his WPI graduation, that he had his first notion about liquid-fueled rockets.

Goddard kept many of his speculations and ambitions to himself, though there were hints about his thinking in the myriad questions he posed to his WPI professors. With his growing passion for physics, he addressed the majority of those queries to Professor Wilmer Duff, head of the Physics Department and a well-respected researcher in acoustics and electromagnetism. Duff was so impressed with Goddard's thirst for knowledge and his maturity that he took him on as lab assistant and helped him secure a job as a tutor to help pay for his schooling.

While the young scientist never fully revealed to his professors or fellow students his drive to one day conquer space, he did summarize them in an essay with the intriguing title, "Possibility of Investigating Interplanetary Space," that he wrote for one of his English classes. He later submitted the text to Scientific American, but the editors rejected it in October 1907. Goddard then submitted it to Popular Astronomy, which also rejected it, saying it was well written but impractical.

Four months earlier, Scientific American had given Goddard his first publication, titled "The Use of the Gyroscope in the Balancing and Steering of Aeroplanes." Published only four years after the Wright brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, the article, which was reprinted in the WPI Journal, is believed to be the first suggestion that the gyroscope could be used to stabilize aircraft. Goddard would go on to pioneer the use of gyroscopic stabilization in rockets.

In November 1909, Scientific American published an editorial, "The Limit of Rapid Transit," that was a condensation of an article by Goddard that began as a freshman English assignment. When Professor Zelotes Coombs asked his class to write a theme about "Traveling in 1950," Goddard's inventive genius came to the fore as he pondered how one might overcome two of the principle impediments to rapid travel—friction and air resistance. He envisioned a train that would travel through an evacuated tube, held aloft by magnetic levitation and propelled by alternating rings of oppositely charged electromagnets.

Goddard read his paper aloud in class in December 1904. His classmates found the idea intriguing, but quite farfetched. Two years later, Goddard wrote a short story, "The High-Speed Bet," both to refine his ideas and address the skepticism with which, he felt, new ideas were inevitably met. In the story, set in 1948, an engineer named Maurice Sibley bets a skeptical colleague that within a decade he will be able to travel from Boston to New York in just 10 minutes. Of course, by story's end, Sibley has built his "rapid-transit tube" and won the bet.

In 1914, inventor Emile Bachelet gained worldwide fame when he demonstrated a model of a magnetically levitated train. Goddard was determined to get credit for being the first to think of the idea (though, in fact, Bachelet may have been working on the idea of magnetic levitation since before the turn of the century), and convinced the WPI Journal to print his short story with an introductory note about its history. Years later, Goddard would apply for patents for a "vacuum tube transportation system" and "an apparatus for vacuum tube transportation." Both were awarded after his death.

The Archives in WPI's Gordon Library has in its Goddard collection numerous examples of his student work, including many physics lab reports. Also in the collection is Goddard's senior thesis, titled "A Study of the Conductivity of Selenium and Allied Anomalous Conductors." A version of the thesis, with some new data, was published in the WPI Journal that November, and the following year a paper based on the work, titled "On Some Peculiarities of Electrical Conductivity Exhibited by Powders and a Few Solid Substances," was published in Vol. 28 of Physical Review.

According to This High Man, Milton Lehmen's authorized biography of Goddard, Professor Duff saw the research as applicable to the development of radio and thought Goddard might have a promising career in radio engineering. The quality of the work and Goddard's keen grasp of physics led Duff to offer him an appointment as physics instructor for the following school year at a salary of $850. When, in 1909, the head of the physics program at Clark University urged Goddard to come and study for a PhD there, his loyalty to WPI and his friendship with Duff made the decision difficult. But WPI offered no advanced degrees in physics at the time, and so he moved on to pursue the next chapter in his quest to solve the challenge of reaching space.

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