Goddard's Student Years

Robert Hutchings Goddard was born in Worcester, Mass., the son of a traveling salesman and machine shop superintendent who encouraged his son's curiosity and imagination. Growing up, the young Goddard read voraciously about science and was captivated by visions of the future he found in science fiction novels. He fell behind in school when he contracted tuberculosis, but he used his time away from the classroom to immerse himself in any topic captured his interest—electricity, chemistry, even magic.

Note:  Pictured above, Goddard and his fellow freshmen pay tribute to their class year. The insert shows Goddard (with cap).

His illness interrupted his high school education for two years. When he returned to school as a sophomore at Worcester's South High School, it was with a seriousness of purpose that led to his becoming class president and graduation speaker. He graduated with highest honors in 1904 and enrolled at WPI that fall. In an essay he wrote for an English assignment in November 1904 titled "Who I Am and Why I Came to the Institute," he explained that "For years the Institute has been pointed out to me as the goal toward which I must aim."

While WPI was then known primarily as an engineering school, Goddard was more interested in continuing his exploration of the sciences. "In each one," he wrote in the same essay, "there is a certain pleasure in searching to find more than what is evident on the surface of a matter." He would be one of just three students to graduate in 1908 with a bachelor of science degree in general science—a major that temporarily subsumed WPI's program in physics, which was his real interest.

Goddard was a hard-working and accomplished student. “The word ‘shark’ fails to convey any idea of his appetite for knowledge,” the 1908 Aftermath, the school’s yearbook, noted, “for he fairly revels in the weirdest of physics and kindred stumbling blocks to the less fortunate of us.” A limerick included in the yearbook put it this way:

Bob Goddard they say is a shark,
And that he always gets A for a mark;
All this we’ll allow,
But I’ll tell you right now,
That he’s always in for a lark.

In fact, Goddard was a gregarious and popular student who quickly proved to be a natural leader. As a freshman, he was elected vice president of the Class of 1908 (missing president by just five votes, he noted in his diary). He won elections as secretary and president as a sophomore. Known for his quick wit and wry sense of humor, he was also given the honor of offering the toast at his sophomore class banquet, and was a speaker at the junior (Halfway Through) and senior banquets. He pledged to Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, sang with the Glee Club, and even wrote a school song, Old Tech, with these lyrics:

In the symbol of our life,
the hammer in the iron hand,
in sacred comradeship,
with memories all intertwined,
in men throughout the land,
whose highest aim is usefulness,
the brotherhood supreme,
in these may Tech spirit ever live.

In his senior year, he took on the task of editing the Aftermath. Goddard’s entry in the book notes that he was “a member of committees galore, where his good judgment and untiring effort have been of greatest value.” Several pages of the yearbook are devoted to the results of a poll in which students were asked which members of the class fit certain descriptors. Goddard received 10 votes for “brightest” (more than any other student) and five votes each for “most versatile,” “most broad minded,” and “done most for WPI.”

After he graduated from WPI, Goddard returned to campus to conduct some of his earliest experiments with rocketry in the tiny Magnetic Laboratory building, seen here in a photo from the 1908 yearbook.

Another significant honor was accorded Goddard that year. He became the first WPI student inducted into Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. New inductees, even today, take delight in leafing through the book that all new members sign to find Goddard's signature.

On June 11, 1908, Goddard received his Bachelor of Science degree with highest honors. After graduation, he taught physics at the Institute briefly before going on to complete work toward a master's and PhD in physics at Clark University (WPI did not offer graduate degrees in the field at the time).

During this time, he was allowed to use WPI facilities for his some of his early work with powder rockets. School officials apparently were unconcerned about memories of Goddard's undergraduate experiments with skyrockets that filled the basement of Salisbury Laboratories with smoke and sent professors running for fire extinguishers.

He set up a lab in the tiny Magnetic Laboratory building (now known as Skull Tomb), which had been built without any iron to host experiments on electromagnetism. There he conducted work on a rocket that would have been propelled by a series of explosions from cartridges loaded one at a time into a breaches block—not unlike the firing mechanism of a machine gun. He later abandoned the idea as unworkable. Parts for Goddard's test devices were made in WPI's shops, and he frequently took time away from his work to seek help from WPI faculty members with problems he was facing.

Goddard remained connected to WPI throughout his all-too-brief life, attending reunions of his graduating class whenever he could. He died in 1945. The university honored Goddard by naming its chemistry and biochemistry building for him in 1965—the university's centennial year. In her will, Goddard's wife, Esther, left WPI funds that were used to endow the Goddard Fellowships, the university's premier fellowships for graduate students. WPI also named the network hub that connects the university and several other academic and cultural institutions to Internet2 the Goddard GigaPoP.

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