By rocket I go!
The saga of human obsession with rockets began at least a thousand years ago and has been a triumphant story of our imagination. Space has always fascinated our minds but it is probably the conquest of space that piques our interest.
Since the dawn of the twentieth century pioneer rocketeers have conducted experiments that fostered amateur rocketry, the hobby that reached its zenith in the days prior to World War II. Pioneer, amateur rocketeers who relentlessly experimented with this technology, albeit on a small scale, were Friedrich Schmiedl, Gerhard Zucker – both Europeans -- and Stephan H Smith, a rocket aficionado of Indian origin, among others.
Stephen H Smith will forever be remembered not as a dentist, a Great War veteran, a custom official or any of the other accolades he had in his repertoire; but possibly for his modest hobby that was rocketry. He performed over 270 rocket experiments in a span of a decade, between 1934 till the end of the Second World War.
The story, however, does not end there. For Smith had another interest that makes him remarkable. It was his obsession with postage stamps and the prospect of using rockets to deliver letters and mail across vast distances that was the driving force behind his experiments.
He was born on 14 February 1891 at Strawberry Hill, in Shillong, Assam. As a child Smith would day dream about venturing into outer space, a dream that was only a 'dream' in the early days of the twentieth century.
Even as a boy, along with other schoolmates Smith attempted to transport live garden lizards in rockets over the swimming pool of St. Patrick's School, Asansol, which he attended. Later in life, Smith became the first rocket experimenter to successfully transport foodstuff, medicine, livestock; even a snake called Ms. Creepy.
In the 1930s rocketry showed its promise for long distance travel and in warfare but its full potential was not yet fully recognised. Some even dreamt that one day, letters would be transmitted across vast distances by means of rockets. Accomplishment of first flight brought in the age of aviation and even in the 1910s the scientific community found the idea of mail travelling in aeroplanes ludicrous. By the 1920s the concept of mail transport by plane became a reality; and some people, like Smith, believed that the same shall be true of rocket mails.
Smith made his careers as a customs official, a policeman and later on a dentist. He became the Secretary of the Indian Airmail Society, and combined his work with his interest in rocketry. His first launch was on 30 September 1934, experimenting with 270 more by 4 December 1944. 80 of these contained mail.
On September 30, 1934, he launched his first mail rocket, using a projectile made locally by the Orient Firework Company of Calcutta. The flight was a ship-to-shore launch; in regions where ships find it difficult to anchor, mail boats – as Smith postulated and attempted to prove –could utilise rockets to transmit mail cargo when a reasonable distance between the ship and shore was reached. His endeavours also included shore-to-ship experiments; some of which were clear successes.
The press loved him for his work. In him contemporary newspapers found a success story. Smith was well connected with the colonial officials and they openly encouraged his experiments. Smith would in recognition of the positive reviews he received carry miniature newspaper copies in his experimental rockets.
Stephen Smith also effected the world's first livestock transport when on 29 June 1935, a rocket carried a cock and hen together with 189 pieces of mail across the river Damodar. Both animals survived the flight and were donated to a private zoo in Calcutta.
The advent of World War II posed severe hindrance to Smith's rocketeering activities. He attracted discontent from authorities and Smith was forced to not publicise his experiments. Only a handful of rockets of this 'War' period carried mail, apart from a few souvenirs Smith kept for himself as reference. These eventually made it to the philatelic market and are now considered rarities. Stephen died on 15 February 1951, 11 days after his 60th birthday, and is now immortalised as the Father of Aerophilately in India. The Department of Posts in India issued a stamp honouring this Anglo-Indian pioneer of airborne mail.
What fascinates me about rocket mail is that I, like Smith, can combine my passion for philately with the passion for rockets, space travel and astrophysics. In fact, rocket mail are now considered a part of Astrophilately, which combines these two passions.