Principal of Queens in 1861 real father of space flight

Scottish immigrant to Canada predates accepted scientific theory of rocket travel by 30 years.

William Leitch, principal of Queen's University from 1859 to 1864.  Photo: Queen's University

William Leitch, principal of Queen’s University from 1859 to 1864.
Photo: Queen’s University

BURLINGTON, Ont. — Those interested in the details of space flight believe the idea envisioned by Jules Verne was finally scientifically conceptualized during the lead-up to the twentieth century. But a space expert and author has revealed that is not the case, and credit actually goes to a man who was at one time principal of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

“The First Scientific Concept of Rockets for Space Travel” by space historian Robert Godwin, an author and editor of dozens of books on space flight, asserts a Presbyterian minister named William Leitch, born in Scotland in 1814, was the first trained scientist to have correctly applied modern scientific principles to space flight. Leitch articulated the concept in an essay, which he wrote in the summer of 1861, called “A Journey Through Space” – 30 years earlier than the accepted time the idea was scientifically conceptualized.

Leitch’s work was published in a journal in Edinburgh a year before being included in his 1862 book “God’s Glory in the Heavens.”

Godwin notes previous histories of space flight maintain the first scientific concept for rocket-powered space travel was envisioned at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century by such men as Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and American Robert Goddard. Both claimed Jules Verne as their inspiration. But Godwin says Leitch made his suggestion to use rockets four years before even Jules Verne’s famous “space gun.”

His paper reveals Leitch studied at the University of Glasgow in the same classroom as William Thomson, the legendary Lord Kelvin, and even assisted Kelvin in an experiment on electricity.

In 1859 Leitch was appointed to the post of Principal of Queen’s University. He died in Canada in 1864 and is buried near the grave of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, who Godwin says he evidently knew.

“The fact we know that Leitch was a scientist is the key to this story,” says Godwin. “He understood Newton’s law of action and reaction, and predicted that a rocket would work more efficiently in the vacuum of space; a fact that still caused Goddard to be ridiculed six decades later.”

Dave Williams, retired Canadian astronaut and former director of the Space and Life Sciences Directorate at the Johnson Space Centre, called Godwin’s paper an impressive piece of research, noting the Leitch’s principles of spaceflight were “postulated and articulated so far before aerodynamic flight, let alone spaceflight.”

Godwin, a member of the International Astronautical Federation History Committee, is speaking at the North Bay Space Week conference on Oct. 8. in North Bay, Ont.

You can pick up a copy of Godwin’s paper at the Space Library, which is a subscription service starting at $5 per month.


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