How Queen’s won the space race

New research proves that fifth Queen’s principal was the first to envision interplanetary rocket travel

A portrait of Queen's fifth principal, William Leitch, hangs in Wallace Hall.
A portrait of Queen's fifth principal, Reverend William Leitch, hangs in Wallace Hall.

Space historian Robert Godwin has found that a former Queen’s principal may have been the first person to propose using rockets for space travel.

The historian and curator of the Canadian Air and Space Museum made the landmark rediscovery while reading a book regarding space flight published in 1953 on a trip back from Seattle, Washington, earlier this year.

Prior to his recent findings, which were published just weeks ago, the proposal had been lost in the debris of history.

Godwin’s discoveries are detailed in his newly published article, The First Scientific Concept of Rockets for Space Travel, in which he suggests that former Queen’s Principal William Leitch was the first scientist to have accurately proposed the use of rockets for interplanetary space travel in 1861.

Reverend William Leitch was appointed principal of Queen’s in 1859 and held the position until his death in 1864.

The find challenges the previously-held belief that the concept originated in the writings of scientists such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Robert Goddard in the early 20th century. Godwin’s article places Leitch’s theory at almost four decades prior to Tsiolkovsky’s work.

Godwin’s research was sparked by an unsourced quote in Space Flight­ — a book of collected works published in 1953 — that accurately predicted the use of rockets as the best mechanism for space travel.

Having studied space fight rocketry professionally for the past 20 years, Godwin said he recognized that the quote’s date was contemporaneous with Goddard and Tsiolkovksy. Curiosity inspired a quick Google search, through which he discovered that the quote belonged to an 1876 book entitled God’s Glory in the Heavens

Despite narrowing the gap, Godwin had yet to identify the author. After months of digging, he successfully traced the passage to an 1861 work by Queen’s fifth principal, William Leitch, entitled A Journey through Space.

Although some of Godwin’s peers at the Canadian Air and Space Museum have contested the scientific legitimacy of Leitch’s publications, Godwin said they are “serious works of science trying to understand the planets, stars, comets, the sun and so forth.”

 “[Leitch] actually describes that the best method for going [to space] would be some machine working on the principle of the rocket because of its inherent action and reaction,” he said.

Although Leitch was a well-respected educator in his time, his body of work has largely been lost to history and overshadowed by that of other scientists.

Godwin said Leitch died prematurely at the age of 49, just two years after the publication of A Journey through Space, which meant he was never able to expound on or promote his theories further.

Leitch’s publisher also went bankrupt shortly after his death, which Godwin says reduced the dissemination of his articles and essays.

For several decades following his death, much of his work was instead incorporated into other works that didn’t name Leitch as a source. For this reason, “nobody knew who he was,” Godwin said.

The historian said he hopes his “rediscovery” of Leitch’s theory will ignite newfound interest in his body of work as a whole.

“There are some extraordinary things in there," Godwin said.

"For astronautics people, his comments about the rocket being the best thing for space, his comments about travelling at the speed of light, his comments about asteroids being used to colonize space, those are all remarkable for their date.”

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