Rothesay spaceflight pioneer is finally recognised

William Leitch, born in Rothesay in 1814, explained how rockets could be a viable engine for powering space flight, and would work effectively in the vacuum of space.
William Leitch, born in Rothesay in 1814, explained how rockets could be a viable engine for powering space flight, and would work effectively in the vacuum of space.

New research published last week in Canada has finally acknowledged the extraordinary contribution made to the development of modern spaceflight and rocketry by a long-neglected Rothesay-born astronomer and Presbyterian minister.

The work of William Leitch correctly explained how rockets could be a viable engine for powering space flight, and would work effectively in the vacuum of space. His proposal pre-dates by about 40 years the discoveries of the recognised pioneers of spaceflight who worked in Russia, Germany and the USA.

Leitch was born on May 20, 1814, in Rothesay, and was educated at the local parish school and then at Greenock Grammar School, where he studied under the distinguished botanist and fossil collector, Dr. Thomas Brown.

He went on to graduate with honours in mathematics and science from Glasgow University, working in the observatory there at Dowanhill. He shared experiments with William Thomson, who would later become the world-famous scientist Lord Kelvin.

Leitch’s religious convictions also led him to preaching positions in the Church of Scotland at Dunoon, Arbroath and Cupar, and he later attained Doctor of Divinity. His combined interests in science and theology resulted in the publication of his book, God’s Glory in the Heavens, in 1862.

The book’s religious title meant it lay un-noticed on the theology shelves of libraries, whereas its dramatic content explains the wonders of scientific astronomy, the solar system and the possibilities of space travel by rockets.

Canadian space historian Robert Godwin, founder of online resource The Space Library.com, unearthed Leitch’s significance by examining his neglected book and his academic work in Ontario, where he went to take up a post at Queen’s University in Kingston.

“Leitch deserves a place of honour in the history of spaceflight,” says Godwin. “The fact that he was a scientist is the key to this story. He wasn’t just making a wild guess. Not only did he understand Newton’s laws of motion, he understood that a rocket would work more efficiently in the vacuum of space – a fact that still caused space scientists to be ridiculed 60 years later.”

A number of key dates clearly establish Leitch’s credentials as the founder of space travel’s scientific principles.

Until now, the claim for the first proper explanation of spaceflight has gone to Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovksy who published in 1903. In the USA, Robert Goddard patented rockets and wrote his own influential paper in 1919. Goddard was followed by the engineer Herman Oberth, whose 1929 book on rocket travel led to wartime work on the V2 missile for Nazi Germany.

Goddard and Oberth had both been stimulated by the books of H G Wells and Jules Verne, whose novel From The Earth to the Moon caused great excitement in 1865. But Leitch’s book of 1862 pre-dates them all, both the scientists and the authors of the first science fiction. It came out when Tsiolkovsky was aged only three.

Dr Leitch died on May 9, 1864, of heart disease just a few days short of his 50th birthday. After a delay of some months to raise £300 in Canada and Scotland for his memorial, he was interred in Cataraqui Cemetery in Kingston, Ontario. Coincidentally, the date of his interment was October 4, nowadays known to all space enthusiasts as Sputnik Day, which marked the launch of the first man-made satellite in 1957, exactly 93 years later.

Godwin’s conclusions have been endorsed by other space experts including the British Interplanetary Society, a former curator of rocketry at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, and a historian of the American Astronautical Society in Houston, Texas. There is now some hope that this prophetic genius from Bute will receive the acknowledgement of history that his accomplishments deserve.