Robert Goddard and the “colonial cringe”
by Taylor Dinerman
|If Goddard had been European, would his neighbors in Massachusetts and editorial writers at the New York Times have treated him with the same scorn, or would they and the rest of America have embraced his as a visionary, as they later did with Wernher von Braun?|
Inspired by the European novelists H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, Goddard from a young age set himself the task of devising way to travel into outer space. Like his near contemporaries Tsilokovsky and Oberth, he “got it”. Being a man of his times he was a highly educated inventor, not a team leader like von Braun. He measured his progress not just in terms of hardware and scientific publications, but also in patents. His obsession with intellectual property seems less anachronistic today than it did in the 1950s and 1960s.
The great turning point in his career came in January 1920, at the time of the publication by the Smithsonian Institute of his “Reaching High Altitudes” paper. The institute put out a press release describing “the possibility of sending to the surface of the dark part of the new Moon a sufficient amount of the most brilliant flash powder which being ignited on impact, would be plainly visible in a powerful telescope.” This press release, rather than Goddard’s paper, was what set off the short-lived popular frenzy over “Moon rockets.”
The combination of ignorance and hucksterism that surrounded the “Moon Rocket Professor” would have been enough to drive any normal person into seclusion—or worse. The New York Times, then as now the epitome of liberal establishment thinking, wrote in a now-infamous editorial that Goddard “does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react – to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”
Goddard persisted and went on to build the world’s first successful liquid-fueled rocket, but he was never given the kind of support that von Braun got in Germany and that Korolev got (on, shall we say, a highly erratic basis) in the Soviet Union. Goddard, along with a few others such as Robert Truax, Frank Molina, and Theodore von Karman, laid the basis for America’s homegrown rocket expertise.
Yet the reaction of the Times and the rest of the establishment to his work that is of interest. Goddard was an American, a professor at the less-than-prestigious Clark College, even though he had been associated with Princeton at one time. He lacked the social polish and the charm that might have gotten him a sympathetic hearing.
In those days America still suffered from what the Australians call the “colonial cringe”: an attitude of intellectual and social subservience to Europe. This still exists to some extent and is reflected in the use by so many advertisers of males speaking with British accents. It was the opposite of the “Not Invented Here” syndrome, and was, and is, just as damaging. One curious aspect of this is the way that space tourism was never taken seriously by the big media until Richard Branson and his Virgin Group got involved.
Goddard learned to shun publicity. In the 1930s he moved to Roswell, New Mexico and continued his rocket developments with a few small grants from the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics provided to him thanks to the efforts of Charles Lindbergh, another victim of the American celebrity culture.
|In general one ought to be just as suspicious of those who tend to reject local ideas and sneer at the “nativists” as of those who reject anything that comes from the world outside.|
Would the history of space travel be different if Robert Goddard had been as adept at promoting his ideas in the 1930s as von Braun was in the America of the 1950s? Certainly there was no television for him to go on, but there were mass-circulation magazines like Collier’s, which played so important a role in von Braun’s effort. Walt Disney or another Hollywood mogul might have seen the value of promoting such ideas. He might even have been able to warn Roosevelt about German rocket developments the same way that Einstein, Teller, and company warned President Franklin D. Roosevelt about a possible Nazi atomic weapons program.
A few early space advocates, associated with the American Rocket Society, and a few science fiction magazines were completely unsuccessful in getting the public’s or the government’s attention. It took the V-2 attacks on London and Antwerp, and later the Sputnik shock, to wake up Americans to the need for this technology. Again, the intrinsic value of what we call “rocket science” had to be validated by outsiders before Americans would take it seriously.
The most important lesson is that good ideas can come from anywhere, and that just because something is foreign or American should not make it automatically good or bad. The politics may sometimes get tricky—national pride is a slippery thing—but in general one ought to be just as suspicious of those who tend to reject local ideas and sneer at the “nativists” as of those who reject anything that comes from the world outside.